This month’s cryptid is going a bit off of our established path – rather than a creepy monster-thing a few people witnessed, this creature is prominently featured across Native American mythology – from Alaska, to Pennsylvania, to Texas, to Washington. So – what is the elusive Thunderbird? Did it once exist, and does it still? Let’s explore.
In general, Thunderbirds are considered to be birds that have an enormous wingspan, between 15 and 30 feet across. Some sightings claim it has feathers, others claim it has leathery wings more akin to a pterodactyl. The color varies across mythology and sightings, but it is often reported as being dark brown or black. Artistic representations of the bird will render it in more color, though, based on the artist’s culture.
In Algonquian artistic representations, the Thunderbird is often depicted as looking off to the side with its wings held out to its sides. The way its body is drawn is to show that it is facing forwards. In these depictions of the Thunderbird, its body is X-shaped. This iconic depiction is perhaps most well-known from an Ojibwe Midewiwin disc from somewhere around 1250 to 1400 CE. Midewiwin was a secretive Indigenous religion that focused on spiritual medicine, hinting that perhaps the Thunderbird was a worshipped figure.
As stated in the introduction to this post, the Thunderbird is very different from other cryptids we have covered here before. It has a rich cultural and mythological history across Indigenous tribes of North America. In most lore, Thunderbirds are either a form of creation myth or a protective spirit. Let’s take a look at specific Indigenous groups and their beliefs regarding the Thunderbird.
In Algonquian Mythology, the Thunderbird caused thunder by flapping its wings and lightning by flashing its eyes. The Thunderbird is also said to control the land of the living, in contrast to the horned serpent which controls the underworld. To protect the land of the living, it shot lightning bolts at creatures that tried to cross the boundary between the two worlds.
In Ojibwe traditions, the Thunderbird was created by the trickster spirit Nanabozho to protect against underwater spirits. The Thunderbirds lived in the cardinal directions, though it is unclear if there were only four corresponding birds. In Ojibwe Mythology, Thunderbirds also follow migration patterns, they migrated south in the fall and returned in the spring. According to lore, they stayed throughout the summer, as the underwater spirits are most active in the summer. The Menominee people believe that Thunderbirds are the enemy of the great horned serpent and are messengers of the sun god. They are also said to have control of the weather, especially precipitation.
Siouan tribes also had beliefs surrounding the Thunderbird. They believed the Thunderbird was a creature sent to protect humans from evil entities known as Unktehila, which are reptilian in nature. The Ho-Chunk people also held a very specific belief that if a man were to see a vision of a Thunderbird whole conducting a spiritual fast, it was an omen that they would one day become a war chief.
One last story I would like to touch on is a very specific creation myth – the story of how Devil’s Lake in Wisconsin was formed. According to local legend, the lake was formed when a battle took place between water serpents and Thunderbirds. Thunderbirds shot lightning at the serpents, who threw boulders back at them. The battle tore up the land, uprooting trees and shredding rocks into sheer cliffs – explaining the rough landscape surrounding Devil’s Lake. Of course, the Thunderbirds defeated the serpents and returned to their nests, making the Lake safe once more.
There have been hundreds, if not thousands, of sightings of Thunderbirds across North America. Most scenarios have the same details – a few people are out and see a bird with an enormous wingspan overhead. Some may hear the crack of thunder or see lightning along with the bird itself. But let’s take a look at some instances in which those that allegedly encountered the Thunderbird provided more detail.
Perhaps the most infamous encounter came in 1890. The town of Tombstone, AZ likely sounds familiar for another reason – the shootout at the OK Corral took place there in 1881. The town was infamous for its gunslingers and saloons. Those gunslingers are what bring us the most well known and hotly debated piece of evidence when it comes to Thunderbirds: the Tombstone Thunderbird.
On April 26, 1890, six men in tombstone allegedly shot down what people believe to be a Thunderbird, though it looks less like a bird and more like a pterodactyl. It actually looks a lot like the Van Meter Visitor, which we covered a few months ago. The wingspan of this beast was around 18 feet, which the men are demonstrating in the photo. It is hotly debated whether the photo is real or not. It does seem that people claiming to have seen the photo in the Tombstone newspaper were misremembering at the very least, because the newspaper was unable to print photos in 1890. Allegedly, years later, a man came forward claiming to be one of the men who shot at the beast — though he claimed the photo was fabricated and they did not actually succeed in bringing it down. Is he to be believed? Who knows.
The next sighting we will discuss took place in Lawndale, IL. According to reports, the Lowe family was outside on the night of July 25. 1977. They had just eaten a light dinner and were enjoying the summer evening – the parents were cleaning up the remnants of the meal, and the kids were playing in the yard. Until 8:10 PM. Ruth, the Lowe family mother, had brought some items into the kitchen for just a moment when she heard her ten year old son Marlon let out a terrible scream. When she ran outside to investigate, Ruth saw a confusing sight. Two large birds were flying next to each other. The pair were following Marlon as he raced around the yard, trying to get away. Ruth reported that they pecked at him and even used their talons to pick him up by his shirt at one point. But Ruth was not having any of this. She began beating the bird that had her son until it finally dropped him – after it had carried him 35 feet across the yard. The family tried to report the incident to the police, but no one would take them seriously. We do know that Indigenous Tribes across the country did hold beliefs of giant birds and Thunderbirds in particular, so perhaps they still do a flyover of Illinois every so often.
There are dozens, if not hundreds, of other sightings of the Thunderbird across the United States of America and even in some parts of Canada. Most encounters do not have much information to them so we won’t get too in the weeds, but let’s go over the general commonalities across sightings. First, the Thunderbirds are nearly always in flight when they are spotted. Second, the witness is typically on some mode of transport – car, bike, canoe – and on the move when they notice the Thunderbird. Third, the witness nearly always describes the bird as having a huge wingspan and dark feathers or skin. If you’re interested in personal accounts or reports of sightings, they are readily available on forums and there are even maps with other reported sightings.