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What is a Thunderbird?

By G. Melanson
Updated Mar 05, 2024
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A Thunderbird is a large, winged creature that reportedly resembles a prehistoric pterosaur and has been spotted across North America. The Thunderbird is a part of Native American folklore and also a subject of study in Cryptozoology.

The Thunderbird’s name derives from its association with storms, as the creature is said to follow storm drafts, and even cause storms according to Native American myth. Cryptozoologist, John Keel, has mapped the locations of various Thunderbird sightings across the U.S. and noted that they correspond with storm patterns across the country.

One of the first reported sightings of a Thunderbird occurred in April 1890, when The Tombstone Epitaph reported that two cowboys in the southern U.S. had killed a large bird-like creature with smooth skin and wings. For years, rumors circulated that an accompanying photograph of the capture existed and was passed around before eventually getting lost sometime during the 1960s. To date, the alleged photo has not surfaced.

In 1977, a man named John Huffer took several photos of two large birds taking flight from a tree. Although the sighting was mentioned by the Discovery Channel on their show, Into the Unknown, the birds pictured in the photos were dismissed as vultures rather than Thunderbirds. Thunderbird sightings have continued into the new millennium, including a 2002 sighting in Alaska where witnesses claimed to have seen a large, flying creature with a wingspan of roughly 14 feet (4.2 m). In 2004, a student in Southern California also reported seeing an unusually large creature flying over a suburban area which matched the Thunderbird’s description.

The Thunderbird has been compared to the wandering albatross, which has a comparable wingspan of 12 feet (3.7 m), as well as other large birds such as the Andean condor and the California condor. Unlike these animals, however, which can prey on small animals in mid-flight, the Thunderbird has been reported to actually lift deer and even people off the ground.

Some have theorized that the Thunderbird is a species of pterosaur, such as a pterodactyl, which has survived the prehistoric age, while others suggest it could be a type of condor or oversized vulture. In response to skeptics who claim that a bird with a 15-foot (4.6 m) wingspan would be unable to fly, researchers point out that the largest flying creature in history, the Quetzalcoatlus northropi, had a wingspan of 25-60 feet (7.6 - 18.3 m).

As the Thunderbird has not been proven to exist, it remains a species of speculation only, joining such other flying cryptids as The Mothman and The Jersey Devil.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a Thunderbird in Native American mythology?

The Thunderbird is a legendary creature in Native American mythology that is believed to control the weather, particularly thunderstorms. It is often depicted as a massive bird, whose wings flap to create thunder and eyes flash lightning. The Thunderbird is revered and respected, symbolizing power, strength, and protection across various tribes.

Are there any real animals that could have inspired the Thunderbird myth?

It's speculated that large, prehistoric birds such as the Teratornithidae, which had wingspans up to 20 feet, may have inspired Thunderbird legends. Additionally, sightings of large birds like the California condor or mistaken identity of other wildlife could have contributed to the myth's formation in Native American cultures.

Has the Thunderbird been reported in modern times?

There have been sporadic reports of Thunderbird sightings in modern times, often described as enormous birds with wingspans exceeding those of any known bird species. However, these accounts are typically anecdotal and lack scientific evidence, leaving them to the realm of cryptozoology and unverified legend.

What role does the Thunderbird play in Native American culture?

In Native American culture, the Thunderbird holds a significant role as a supernatural being. It is often seen as a protector that wards off evil spirits and a symbol of strength and leadership. The Thunderbird also represents the power of nature and is a common motif in art, stories, and tribal ceremonies.

Can the Thunderbird be found in the mythology of other cultures?

While the Thunderbird is specific to North American Indigenous cultures, many other cultures around the world have myths of giant birds or bird-like creatures that wield power over the natural elements. For example, the Garuda from Hindu and Buddhist mythology and the Roc from Middle Eastern tales share similarities with the Thunderbird concept.

Is the Thunderbird recognized in any official capacity, such as on totems or in national symbols?

The Thunderbird is a prominent figure in totem poles and other traditional art forms of the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest. It is not an official national symbol but is an important cultural emblem for many Native American tribes. Its image is used to convey strength, courage, and a connection to the spiritual world.

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Discussion Comments

By Vincenzo — On May 02, 2014

@Logicfest -- it's actually a bit of a charming cultural trait to name things after legendary creatures. The Thunderbird is one of those critters, but who could forget Phoenix, Arix., getting its name from a bird that rises from destruction and chaos? Americans seem to love associated things with the mythical and divine. It serves to remind us where we've come from and ties the present to the past.

By Logicfest — On May 01, 2014

These might not have been proven to exist, but the arguably mythical Thunderbird has had a massive impact on popular culture in the United States. After all, a car that has passed into legend was named after the creature as was a cheap brand of wine.

Well, the car is more impressive but you get the idea.

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