Thunderbird (cryptozoology)

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Thunderbird (artistic rendition).jpg
Artistic rendition of a large bird like a thunderbird
Grouping Cryptid
Sub grouping Flying animal
First reportedApril 1890
Country United States

Thunderbird is a term used in cryptozoology, a pseudoscience, to describe large, bird-like creatures, generally identified with the Thunderbird of Native American tradition. While the fossil record does show that giant birds (teratorns) with wingspans between 4 and 5 m (13 and 16 ft) were likely contemporary with early man, the creature is generally regarded as a myth.


This article deals with modern sightings (the last 200 years) of such a creature, reported as real, as opposed to mythological accounts. However, believers in the phenomenon often use the Native American legends to support their claims.

The historians Adrienne Mayor and Tom Holland have suggested that stories of the Thunderbird were based on discoveries of pterosaur fossils by Native Americans. [1] [2]

Early reports

On April 26, 1890 the Tombstone Epitaph carried a story about two ranchers having killed a "winged monster" resembling a huge alligator ninety-two feet in length, with an eight foot long head, jaws "thickly set with strong, sharp teeth", a smooth hairless body with a maximum diameter of fifty inches, an immense pair of wings composed of a "thick and nearly transparent membrane" (with an estimated wingspan of 160 feet), two feet just ahead of the wings, and an elongated tail. [3]

According to Mark Hall, the Epitaph did indeed print a story about the capture of a large, unusual winged creature on April 26, 1890. [4] Beyond this single story, however, no one has made historic corroboration that this event ever occurred; it is usually considered an urban legend. Completely fictional tall tales were not an uncommon feature in newspapers during this era. [5]

No one has ever produced a copy of the "Thunderbird" photograph, though numerous people, Ivan T. Sanderson being one of the better known, have made claims to its existence. Sanderson claimed to have once owned a copy of the photo, which vanished after he loaned it to an acquaintance in the 1960s. The television program Freaky Links staged a similar photo, giving new life to the "Thunderbird Photograph" legend. [6]

Jerome Clark speculates that the description of the basic image in question (men standing alongside a winged creature nailed to a barn) is evocative enough to implant a sort of false memory, leading some people to vaguely "remember" seeing the photo at some distant, imprecise time. [7]


Some cryptozoologists have theorized the ancient Thunderbird myth to be based on sightings of a real animal with a mistaken assessment of its apparent size. Cryptozoologists also posit that the Thunderbird was associated with storms because they followed the drafts to stay in flight, not unlike the way a modern eagle rides mountain up currents. John A. Keel claimed to have mapped several Thunderbird sightings and found that they corresponded chronologically and geographically with storms moving across the United States.[ citation needed ]

Angelo P. Capparella, [7] an ornithologist at Illinois State University, argues that the existence of such undiscovered large birds is highly unlikely, especially in North America. There is not enough food, Capparella says, in many areas where abnormally large birds are reported. Perhaps more important, according to Capparella, is the lack of sightings by "the legions of competent birdwatchers scanning the skies of the U.S. and Canada" who sometimes make "surprising observations" with cameras at the ready (see for example 20th-century sightings of the Eskimo curlew). Were there breeding populations of large, unknown birds, Capparella contends they could not remain unknown very long.

In Mysterious New Mexico , author Ben Radford published the results of his investigation of modern sightings of thunderbirds, ascribing many to sightings of birds such as condors. [8]

See also

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  1. Fossil Legends of the First Americans
  2. BBC Four - Dinosaurs, Myths and Monsters
  3. Staff writer (April 26, 1890). "Found on the Desert". Tombstone Epitaph . 11 (151). Tombstone, Arizona: Meek & Madero. p. 3 via
  4. Hall, Mark A.; Rollins, Mark Lee (1 November 2008). Thunderbirds: America's Living Legends of Giant Birds. Cosimo, Inc. pp. 132–139. ISBN   978-1-60520-349-2.
  5. Hanlon, Tina L. (2007-05-07). "Tall Tales and Jack Tales: Literature and Writing Activities". Study Guides. Ferrum College . Retrieved 2007-11-27.
  6. "Museum Announcement and Research Requests". The Cryptozoologist. Retrieved 2010-01-20.
  7. 1 2 Clark, Jerome (1993). Unexplained! 347 Strange Sightings, Incredible Occurrences, and Puzzling Physical Phenomena. Visible Ink Press.
  8. Radford, Ben (2014). "Chapter 7 Thunderbirds: Mysterious Giants in the Sky". Mysterious New Mexico. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press. pp. 131–152. ISBN   978-0-8263-5450-1.