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Definition: Thunderbird from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Legendary bird of the North American Indians, the creator of storms. It is said to produce thunder by flapping its wings and lightning by opening and closing its eyes.

As carved on totem poles, the Thunderbird is modelled on the pileated woodpecker Dryocopus pileatus.


Summary Article: thunderbird
from Chambers Dictionary of the Unexplained

The name given to a famous mythical bird and also to allegedly real-life counterparts spied in the skies over North America.

According to the mythology of many Native American tribes, the thunderbird was a huge bird of prey that soared through the skies on enormous wings, bringing thunder and rainstorms to the lands below. It was once assumed that this creature was completely imaginary, but cryptozoologists are no longer quite so sure.

Numerous people all over North America (but particularly in southern USA) claim to have observed extraordinarily large, vulture-like birds with wingspans of 3.0–3.6 metres (around 10–12 feet). For example, on 10 April 1948, Clyde Smith, his wife and a third person, Les Bacon, were at Overland, Illinois, when they saw a dark-grey object flying overhead that was so huge they assumed it to be a pursuit plane – until it flapped its wings. Of course, it is not always easy to judge accurately the size of an airborne object. However, the thunderbird allegedly spied around 1940 by naturalist Robert Lyman in the Black Forest region of Pennsylvania was much easier to size – he claimed that it was resting on the ground, with its wings spanning the entire width of a road. Brown in colour, and resembling a very large vulture, he described it as at least 1 metre (around 3 feet) tall, and said that it flew away as he approached it. However, he was able to measure the width of the road that its wings had spanned, and found that it measured just over 6.1 metres (20 feet) – more than twice the wingspan of the Andean condor, which possesses the greatest wingspan of any known modern-day bird of prey.

The similarity between such reports and the supposedly fictitious thunderbird is certainly intriguing, but even more interesting is that until only a few thousand years ago birds almost precisely fitting these descriptions and exhibiting truly enormous wingspans did exist in southern USA. Gigantic relatives of the American vultures and condors, they are known as teratorns (‘monster birds’) on account of their formidable appearance. Not surprisingly, the coincidence of teratorn-like birds currently being reported from the very same areas that were once inhabited by teratorns have led some cryptozoologists to suggest that perhaps the mysterious modern-day ‘big birds’ (as they are popularly termed in newspaper stories) are living teratorns.

In the late 1800s, an Arizona newspaper called the Tombstone Epitaph is said to have published a report and photograph of an alleged dead ‘big bird’ with its wings stretched out to reveal a wingspan of 10.8 metres (around 35.5 feet). If this photograph could be verified as genuine and studied, it might disclose whether the bird was really a teratorn, but it has apparently been lost, and the accompanying newspaper report cannot be traced either. Although numerous people claim to have seen this photograph over the years (either reproduced in magazines or even on television) there are many who believe that the story of the article is in itself a hoax.

© Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd 2007

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