The Thunderbird is considered to be a cryptid bird with “wings so large that each flap produces a sound like thunder”, but generally any bird that is exceptionally large or strange can be mislabeled as a Thunderbird. At times they are described as Rocs, the massive mythical eagles with wingspans spanning a hundred feet or more. At others it seems that the Thunderbird is actually a pterodactyl, a featherless creature with the head of a crocodile. These varied images and interpretations are likely due to the melding of cultures that occurred when settlers were working their way into Canada and the Mid-Western United States.
The legends seem to stem from the area around the Great Lakes, the most obvious origin being the tales of the local natives. The tribes living in the area had long held the Thunderbird to be a great spirit of nature, believing the rainfall to be water flowing from the tips of its feathers and thunder to be the sound of its wings flapping. It was also believed, in some tales, to shoot lightning out of its eyes. One of the most notable stories had two natives climbing a tall mountain and spotting the Thunderbird perched on its peak. It is quite possible that it is these legends in combination with the European Roc that preserved the Thunderbird tales for so long.
In the late 1800’s it is believed that a group of about six hunters took down a Thunderbird near Tombstone, Arizona. There’s been a picture floating around for decades, but it is highly suspected to be a fake. The image depicts the proud-looking hunters standing before a massive creature, which they have strung up against the wall of a barn. The creature’s wings are sharply-tapered and featherless, clearly resembling a pterodactyl of some kind. The story surrounding the image, however, is largely unknown, and it would have happened so long ago that nobody alive could recall just what happened.
There are two similar pictures where a group of Civil War soldiers are standing around a dead, featherless creature on the ground, notably smaller than the one in the Tombstone hunters’ picture, and another of a well-dressed man standing next to what appears to be a massive condor. The bird’s wings are easily twice as long as the man, at least, and the bird’s body and neck are of incredible length.
Again, most unusually large birds have been referred to as Thunderbirds. Many Thunderbird sightings have been attributed to simple blue-heron or other stork-like birds, which can have wingspans of up to six or seven feet.
There have been sightings all over from way back when to now. In 1995 one man was driving to work near Weston, Massachusetts when a massive bird swooped down overhead as he traversed the highway. He stated that its wings stretched from one side of the road to another, easily over twenty feet, with a body resembling that of an extremely large eagle. It passed overhead without paying him any mind and disappeared into the distance. The man contacted the police, but nothing could be found or done about the bird.
Another man spotted something that sounds like a Roc-pterodactyl hybrid around his family’s isolated home in Pennsylvania. He first spotted the creature outside of his window in the 1980’s, catching only a glimpse. He described it as being dark brown, with feathered wings, but not fully feathered, like a huge feathered bat with a shaggy neck and head. The thing also had huge yellow talons curled under its body. When he told his family, they laughed him off, only to change their minds shortly after when the creature slammed straight into the side of their car as they wound down their rural driveway. The second sighting allowed them to gauge the size of it better. The mother stated that it looked like a “ragged rat with wings” and easily had a fifteen foot wingspan.
One well-documented case was when a mysterious creature flew over Overland, Illinois. The three witnesses stated that they believed the thing to be at first a low-flying plane, but were quite astonished when the wings began to flap. Whatever they saw had a wingspan of at least twenty feet. Though they could not see color and no recordings were taken of the creature, it being in the 1940’s and all, the witnesses were still seen as reputable and it was reported on the local news.
The United States and Canada are not the only places where large bird sightings are common, however. The tropical regions of Africa and New Guinea specifically are home to some interesting legends. The Kongamato of Africa is supposedly akin to a pterosaur, as the natives identified images of the dinosaur as the Kongamato when they saw them. They are said to be highly dangerous and, although they largely feed on fish, some of the bigger ones can carry off young children or lightweight adults.
More interesting, though, is the Ropen, the cryptid bird of New Guinea. This one is particularly strange because the birds are said to glow, flying low over the water to lure up fish before snapping them up with long beaks and talons. It is believed that they are simply rare birds who have developed bioluminescent feathers of some kind, but doesn’t that sound somewhat familiar? Giant birds that produce light?
It sounds strikingly similar to how the Thunderbird in Native American legends would shoot lightning from its eyes. But, looking deeper, it sounds very much the same as the Van Meter Visitor, a pterodactyl or dragon-like creature that produced a blinding light from its forehead. At first this sounds like something extraterrestrial, paranormal, or too fantastical to be real, but when you think about it, what was considered bright in the early 1900’s, when the creature appeared, is not necessarily what would be considered bright today, with artificial lighting that could literally be seen from space. Back then the meager glow of something like a firefly could be considered blinding. So what about bioluminescent birds?
Iowa is quite a distance from New Guinea, but birds have been known to make longer journeys during migrations and such. There is also the fact that most “Thunderbird” sightings are not reported to be at night, but during the day when the only really notable features are going to be featherless wings or unusual size. If the Thunderbirds were emitting a strange glow, it would likely go unnoticed in the full light of the sun.
The Thunderbird is still a wide and vague term to apply to a cryptid, rather like bigfoot, but it is certainly interesting to note just how many unidentified birds roam the states. There could be connections between all of them; they could all be completely different species, though through some mysterious means they continue to evade documentation and credible photographs.