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Did Giant Birds Roam the American Plains?

1800s | July 19, 2018

A Thunderbird, mythical creator of Plain storms, swoops out of the sky, hurling lightning flashes at darting swallows on this graphic Pawnee ceremonial drum, USA. Plains Indian, Pawnee. (Photo by Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

Several Native American tribes of the Great Plains, Southwest, Pacific Northwest, and Great Lakes regions all have myths and legends about the Thunderbirds, a type of giant bird that rode the winds ahead of big thunderstorms. Thunderbird motifs are common among these tribes, as are stories of Thunderbird encounters. But all myths have a kernel of truth to them and the Thunderbird legends are no different. How true are the Thunderbird legends? Did giant birds coexist with Native Americans thousands of years ago? And could Thunderbirds still exist today? At least one close encounter, dating back to the 1970s, seems to indicate that Thunderbirds are real. 

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Thunderbirds Herald Storms

According to Native American legends, an appearance by the Thunderbirds is accompanied by thunder and lightning. Thunderbirds are typically seen right before a severe thunderstorm, most often in the spring and summer months. Thunderbirds are described as being incredibly large with tremendous wingspans. They blot out the sun when they fly overhead. The Native American tribes associate Thunderbirds with both life and death. When they arrive in the spring, they bring with them new life and the rains needed for new plants. But they also bring storms and destruction, so they are also linked to death and destruction. 

This image shows a replica of a teratorn

Could Thunderbirds Be a Relic of the Past?

Today, zoologists categorize Thunderbirds in the realm of mythical creatures, but there is plenty of fossil evidence to prove that massive birds did, at one time, fill the skies of Earth. In fact, teratorns, a family of extinct vulture-like birds of prey, were common in both North and South America. These birds had wingspans of between 12 and 18 feet, though some experts wonder if they were too large for flight. It is likely that teratorns coexisted with early humans. Perhaps the stories of the giant birds were passed down through oral traditions and made their way into the collective culture of many Native American tribes. 

Although this image is widely considered to be a fake, it does recall a real incident in Tombstone, Arizona.

Did Ranchers Shoot Down a Thunderbird in 1890 Arizona?

The Tombstone Epitaph newspaper ran an article on April 26, 1890, about two local ranchers who killed an enormous and mysterious ‘winged monster’. The news account describes the animal as looking like a large alligator. It claims that bird’s body is 92 feet long and its head is 8 feet long. The creature had thick, yet almost translucent wings with an estimated wingspan of 160 feet. The beak was lined with sharp teeth. 

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Civil War Thunderbird Photo...Real of Fake?

This image, reportedly taken in 1864 in Vicksburg, surfaced in the 1950s. It seems to show a group of Civil War soldiers with the carcass of a prehistoric-looking bird, resembling a Pteranodon. While compelling, the image is widely believed to be a hoax. Still, the creature shown in this photo bears a striking resemblance to the bird allegedly shot down in 1890 in Arizona. 

Thunderbirds Were Sighted in the 20th Century

There were several Thunderbird sightings reported in the 1940s. In Illinois, three men claimed to have an encounter with a Thunderbird on April 10, 1948. They saw what they assumed was a plane in the sky and noticed that it cast a large shadow on the ground. They soon realized that it was no plane; it was, in fact, a giant bird that was flapping its wings. The men claim that the bird had a torpedo-shaped body and wings measuring at least 25 feet across. Just a few weeks later, and just a few towns over, a man and his son also reported seeing a huge, menacing-looking bird flying overhead. 

Ten year old Marlon Lowe, shown with his mother, was lifted off the ground by a Thunderbird!

Thunderbird Tries to Abduct a Boy!

One of the most recent and highly-debated Thunderbird encounter occurred on July 25, 1977, in Lawndale, Illinois. On this evening, three boys were playing in a backyard when a pair of incredibly large birds swooped down on them. Two of the boys ran away unharmed, but they watched in horror as one of the birds picked up their friend, ten year old Marlon Lowe, in its claws and lifted the boy off the ground. The boy screamed and struggled, alerting his mother who was in the house at the time. She ran outside, yelling at the bird. After carrying the boy some distance away, it finally dropped him about two feet onto the ground. Lowe had deep scratches in his shoulder where the bird’s talon dug into him.

The boy’s mother reported the incident to the police, but her story was met with ridicule and disbelief. Although many experts review the case believe that Marlon Lowe was attacked by a turkey vulture, others note the similarity in appearance between what the boys and the mother saw and an Andes condor, the much larger relative of the California condor. 

Thunderbird Straight Out of Jurassic Park Reported in Alaska

Witnesses to a Thunderbird sighting in 2002 in Alaska claimed the bird they saw looked like “something out of Jurassic Park.” According to these witnesses, the huge bird had a reptilian appearance and a 14-foot wingspan. It was larger and distinctive enough that it is unlikely that the witnesses mistook it for a seagull or eagle. The Anchorage Daily News even ran stories on the sightings. 

As sightings of giant birds pop up from time to time, it is hard not to draw connections between them and the Native American legends of Thunderbirds. The myths may turn out to be true. 

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.