“This bird was larger than any they had ever seen. Its wings, from tip to tip, were twice as long as a war canoe. It had a huge, curving beak, and its eyes glowed like fire. The people saw that its great claws held a living, giant whale. In silence, they watched while Thunderbird – for so the bird was named by everyone – carefully lowered the whale to the ground before them.”
A legend from the Quillayute, Indian Legends of the Pacific Northwest, E. Clark, University of California Press, 1953.
A general description gathered from a variety of sightings record that this giant bird variant appears to be four to eight feet tall, with a wingspan ranging between fifteen to twenty feet, cloaked in a dark shade of feathers. It is also said to have exceptional carrying power, with sightings ranging from the bird carrying a whale, to carrying a deer, and sometimes attempting to carry people.
Through their detailed communal world of colourful cast members, the Native Americans would often share and make tributes to these creatures or figures, and the Thunderbird finds its way onto many of the Native American totem poles throughout the country, from the rainy Pacific Northwest to the subtropical south.
The extract at the beginning is a Quileute legend, although carvings kept in good condition with the Cahokia tribe seem to depict Thunderbirds as well. As far as current research goes, the Thunderbird has only had recorded sightings within the continental USA, pointing to its staying power in the collective minds of the residents.
A report that garnered significant attention recently (2018) was the spate of sightings in Juneau, Alaska, of a bird of peculiar size. The witness, T, recalls seeing the bird over her cinema, telling the local press that “the wingspan had to be at-least 20 feet, it was almost as wide as the road.” She posted on Facebook about the experience, and amidst accusations of mental illness, she added; “This isn’t a joke. This thing was HUGE, almost the size of a small airplane. Did anyone else see it?” From the reports, you should keep an eye to the sky if you’re ever in the Juneau region.
The major case that brought the Thunderbird into the modern collective consciousness occurred back in July 1977, involving the alleged abduction of ten-year-old Marlon Lowe by not one, but two, giant black birds in Lawndale, Illinois. His mother, Ruth, recalls seeing two black birds with a wingspan of eight feet lift her child off the ground. She attacked them, and they flew into the darkness, spooked at the fury of a defensive mother. The police did not follow the report, considering it to be an unbelievable claim. The attack ruined Marlon’s social standing; kids at school were calling him ‘bird boy’, and their front porch was constantly bombarded with dead pigeons from cruel teenage pranks. Currently, this sighting reaped no further information on the creatures that may have attacked young Marlon, who had to suffer severe social stigmatisation over the experience.
Giant versions of ‘regular’ animals are a common instance throughout America’s folklore, and those interested in the ‘just-out-of-reach’. Giant birds are no exception. However, the locality of this phenomenon could point to scientific links today. Archaeologists have uncovered fossils of giant birds, especially extremely large birds of prey that eerily resemble the descriptions given by Thunderbird witnesses. Teratornis bones, from the Pleistocene era, have been found throughout the American continent. It isn’t hard to imagine those Natives coming across the fossilised remains of such a bird, paired with possible sightings, and bringing the Thunderbird into the minds of their ancestors for centuries.
Still at Large?
The Thunderbird still brings the storms in our imagination and culture; the magic of controlling the tempestuous weather and the compelling pull of seeing the unknown continues to inspire people to this day. There are no current plans to scientifically recognise the Thunderbird as fauna. Still, you never know…
Good night, good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow, that I shall say good night till it be morrow. – Director