The thunderbird’s name is said to originate from the belief that the beating of its enormous wings causes thunder and stirs the wind. The Lakota name for the thunderbird is Wakį́nyąn, from wakhąn, meaning “sacred”, and kįyą, meaning “winged”. The Kwakwaka’wakw have many names for the thunderbird, and the Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka) called it Kw-Uhnx-Wa. The Ojibwa word for a thunderbird that is closely associated with thunder is animikii, while large thunderous birds are known as binesi.
The thunderbirds or Rocs, as they are sometimes referred to, are legendary creatures in certain North American native peoples history and culture. They are frequently depicted in their oral histories and songs and are considered a supernatural bird of power and strength. The Thunderbird symbol is one of the most dominant icons in indigenous American Indian culture.
Though the thunderbird’s origins are largely unknown, reports of these elusive creatures go back centuries, and some researchers believe that they may be descendants of the extinct Pterosaurs which first appeared in the late Triassic period some 228 to 66 million years ago until the end of the Cretaceous period.
In April 1890, two cowboys in Arizona allegedly shot and killed a giant bird-like creature with an enormous wingspan. It was described as having smooth skin, featherless wings similar to a bat and an alligator-like face. The description bore similarities to that of a prehistoric pterodactyl—an animal whose existence was known at the time. On dragging the creature back to town, they nailed the carcass across the entire length of a barn, where it was photographed with wings outstretched.
According to crypto zoologist Mark Hall, the Tombstone Epitaph printed a story about the capture of a large, unusual winged creature on April 26, 1890. Beyond this solitary story, however, no one has discovered any historic corroboration that this event ever occurred; it is usually considered an urban legend. Utterly fictional tall tales were not an uncommon feature in newspapers during this era. To date, no one has ever produced a copy of the alleged photograph.
Early 20th Century
On April 10, 1948, three individuals in Overland, Illinois spotted what they at first thought was a passing plane. However, when it began flapping its wings they realised that the ‘plane’ was nothing of the sort. Shortly after this encounter, a man and his son saw what they described as being an enormous bird creature over Alton, Illinois. They estimated the creature to be at an altitude of at least 500 ft. They described the shadow it cast on the ground as being the same size of a small passenger plane.
Late 20th Century
In the late twentieth century there was a spike in Thunderbird sightings. Among the most controversial of them was the Lawndale, July 25, 1977 encounter. It took place around 9 pm. As three boys were playing in a residential back yard, they were approached by two large birds who began chasing them. Two of the boys managed to evade them but the third, ten-year-old Marlon Lowe, was captured by one of them when it clamped its talons onto his shoulders and lifted him two feet into the air. The terrified youngster fought against his winged assailant, which finally released him.
In 2002, an Alaskan pilot flying from the village of Manakotak to the village of Togiak, with several passengers aboard, reported an encounter with a large, raptor-like bird with a wingspan almost equal to his airplane. In an article published in the Anchorage Daily News the pilot was quoted as saying that the bird looked like something out of Jurassic Park. The article further stated that other people who lived in the region had also witnessed a similar creature on several occasions around the same time.
The above pilot’s description of the ‘bird’ is notable in that he likens it to ‘something out of Jurassic Park’, suggesting the creature was not feathered. This would appear to rule out the possibility of it being a Condor, Eagle, or any other known large raptor bird. The Condor is the common name for two species of New World vultures, each in a monotypic genus. They are the largest flying land birds in the Western Hemisphere.
The Andean condor (Vulture gryphus) which inhabits the Andean mountains.
The California condor (Gypnogyps californianus) currently restricted to the western coastal mountains of the United States and Mexico and the northern desert mountains of Arizona.
Could there be large, surviving, species of avians – throwbacks to earlier epochs – who have the capabilities to carry off animals and children? Certainly, such a creature would have a wingspan way in excess of the largest birds know today in order to do so. Herein lies a paradox. If such a species does exist how have they managed, thus far, to avoid detection for so long?
What little photographic evidence there is of these Thunderbirds is dubious, as are videos purporting to show them in flight. The problem with many images is the lack of perspective. The size of the bird is impossible to calculate when seen against a featureless aerial background, as the above image demonstrates. To calculate it’s true size would require an image showing known objects within the same field of view as the bird, such as buildings or other objects with measurable dimensions (see image below).
For the sake of argument, let’s assume we know the man in the forefront of this image to be 6 ft tall, then this would make this bird’s wingspan to be approximately 25 ft. and it’s length from beak to tail approximately 10ft.
Many civilisations use culturally relevant stories to instil in their people the notion and importance of fellowship and respect for the power of nature. Moreover, the native American Thunderbird serves as an allegorical figure, illustrating deeper truths concerning the struggles of life and the changes within it. It reminds its people that change is inevitable. It is seen as an agent of change that helps determine behaviour within the dynamics of both family and community.
As stated earlier in this article, the origins of the Thunderbird are largely a mystery. Some researchers are of the opinion that the legend is based on the sightings of real birds, some even positing the argument that early sightings could have been of descendants of the pterodactyl dinosaur species. In so doing, the thunderbird has been transformed from being a mythical spiritual creature into a potential cryptid. Our Westernised ethnocentric biases have reduced it to little more than a zoological curiosity.
© David Calvert 2016
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