Legendary giant Bird of North America. See also Thunderbird (Pennsylvania).

Etymology: From the thunderous flapping of its wings or possibly from its northern migration to the Pacific Northwest in the spring or rainy season.

Variant names: Achiyalabopa (Pueblo), Alkun-tam (Bella Coola/Salishan), Animikii (Ojibwa/ Algonquian), Ba'a (Comanche/Uto-Aztecan), Big Bird, Binesi or Pinesi (Ojibwa/Algonquian), Chequah (Potawatomi/Algonquian), Cullona (Malecite/Algonquian), Culloo (Micmac/Algon-quian), Dukwally or Theukloots (Makah/ Wakashan), Hahness (Chehalis/Salishan), Hu-huk (Pawnee/Caddoan), Kunna-kat-eth (Tlin-git/Na-Dene), Kwunusela (Kwakiutl/Wakashan), Mechquan (Ossippee), Met'co (Montagnais/ Algonquian), Nunyenunc (Shoshoni/Uto-Aztecan), Nu-tugh-o-wik (Inuktitut/Eskimo-Aleut), Omaxsapitau (Blackfoot/Algonquian), Pach-an-a-ho (Yakima/Penutian), PIASA, Pilhan-naw (Ossippee), Sanuwa or Tlanuwa (Cherokee/ Iroquoian), Tse'na'hale (Navajo/Na-Dene), Yel-lo-kin (Miwok/Penutian).

Physical description: White ruff. Bald head. Wingspan, 9-70 feet, with most reports agreeing on 10-18 feet.

Behavior: Said to cause thunder by flapping its wings. Feeds on live mammals and carrion. On the West Coast, said to attack and carry off whales. Nests on high cliffs. Generally benevolent toward humans but sometimes carries them off to its nest in its talons.

Distribution: Throughout North America but with specific legends at Mount Edgecumbe, Alaska; Tombstone, Arizona; Alpena, Michigan;


Inuit spear rest from Cape Prince of Wales, Alaska, showing THUNDERBIRDS catching whales. From Edward William Nelson, "The Eskimo about Bering Strait," Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, vol. 18, pt. 1 (1896—1897). (From the original in the Northwestern University Library)

Inuit spear rest from Cape Prince of Wales, Alaska, showing THUNDERBIRDS catching whales. From Edward William Nelson, "The Eskimo about Bering Strait," Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, vol. 18, pt. 1 (1896—1897). (From the original in the Northwestern University Library)

Whiteside Mountain, North Carolina; Blount County, Tennessee; Thunder Mountain, Wisconsin; and southern Alberta, Canada. To a lesser extent, the West Indies and South America.

Significant sightings: Thunderbirds are often depicted in rock art with outstretched wings, feathers prominent, and zigzag lines representing lightning.

An atypical Thunderbird pictograph is found in Black Dragon Canyon, 15 miles west of Green River, Utah. Painted by an artist of the Fremont culture (a.D. 900-1100) using a dark-red pigment, the bird is 7 feet long from wingtip to wingtip and has a crest, batlike wings, and a tail.

Claude Schaeffer recorded several accounts of Blackfoot Indians seeing Thunderbirds in Alberta and Montana in the nineteenth century. In 1879, the daughter of Red Paint, Mary Jane, and her white husband saw four huge birds at Chief Mountain, Glacier National Park, Montana. In 1897, Big Crow and his wife saw a large bird with a feathered ruff and bald head on the southern section of the Blackfoot Reservation. The most recent sighting was in 1908.

Many cryptozoologists have memories of seeing a photograph of a Thunderbird being held up against a barn by some 1880s-era cowboys. It was said to have appeared in an Old West or men's magazine of the 1960s, but to date, no one has turned it up. Karl Shuker thinks that in some cases, people may be misremembering an old photo of a Marabou stork (Leptoptilos cru-meniferus) held with its wings outstretched by three Africans. Mark Chorvinsky has found that a dubious account of a huge, winged monster shot by two ranchers in the Huachuca Mountains of Arizona did appear in the Tombstone (Ariz.) Epitaph for April 26, 1890, but with no accompanying photo. He also thinks the original source for the Thunderbird photo story was Hiram Cranmer of Hammersley Fork, Pennsylvania, who also claimed to have seen a Pennsylvania THUNDERBIRD (see entry below) in 1922. Possible explanations:

(1) The California condor (Gymnogyps californianus) is the largest U.S. vulture, reaching a length of 4 feet, a wingspan of 9 feet 4 inches, and a weight of 20-25 pounds. It is black, with white wing linings, and has a naked, red-orange head that changes color with its mood. In 1987, the few remaining wild birds were caught for a captive breeding program; reintroduction began in 1992 in remote sites of Los Padres National Forest, California. Fossil remains of this bird have been found in New York and Florida, as well as Arizona and New Mexico in the Pleistocene. There is evidence that these condors returned to the Southwest as early as the 1700s in response to the introduction of large herds of cattle, horses, and sheep that replaced the extinct Pleistocene megafauna as a source of carrion.

(2) A surviving teratorn, a member of a family of predatory fossil vultures that resembled reptiles in some ways. Their jaws were designed to swallow living prey, but their talons were not capable of seizing things. They probably used their sharp, hooked beaks to catch animals. The largest known flying bird, Argentavis magnificens, weighed 158 pounds, stood 5-6 feet tall, and had a wingspan of 23-25 feet. It lived in Argentina in the Late Miocene, 8-5 million years ago. In North America,


Teratornis merriami weighed about 36 pounds and had an 11 foot 6 inch—12 foot 6 inch wingspan; T. incredibilis of Nevada and California lived in the Pleistocene and had a wingspan of 17—19 feet. (3) See Big Bird for other possibilities. Sources: Myron Eells, "The Thunderbird," American Anthropologist 2 (1889): 329—336; Alexander F. Chamberlain, "The Thunder-Bird amongst the Algonkins," American Anthropologist 3 (1890): 51-54; Stansbury Hagar, "Micmac Customs and Traditions," American Anthropologist 8 (1895): 31-42; Edward Jack, "Maliseet Legends," Journal of American Folklore 8 (1895): 200-201; Edward William Nelson, "The Eskimo about Bering Strait," Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology 18, pt. 1 (1896-1897): 486-487; James Mooney, "Myths of the Cherokee," Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology 19 (1900): 315-316, 466; Alanson Skinner, "The Algonkin and the Thunderbird," American Museum Journal 14 (1914): 71-72; Albert Bushnell Hart, "American Historical Liars," Harper's Monthly Magazine 131 (1915): 730-731; Frank G. Speck, "Montagnais and Naskapi Tales from the Labrador Peninsula," Journal of American Folklore 38 (1925): 1-32; Herbert Ravenel Sass, Hear Me, My Chiefs! (New York: William Morrow, 1940), pp. 97-101; John Clarence Webster, An Historical Guide to New Brunswick (Fredericton, N.B., Canada: New Brunswick Government Bureau of Information and Tourist Travel, 1940); Stanley Vestal, Short Grass Country (New York: Duell, Sloan, Pearce, 1941), p. 142; Alfred Metraux, "South American Thunderbirds," Journal of American Folklore 57 (1944): 132-135; Dorothy Moulding Brown, Wisconsin Indian Place-Name Legends (Madison, Wis.: Dorothy Moulding Brown, 1948), pp. 20-21, 26-27; Claude E. Schaeffer, "Was the California Condor Known to the Blackfoot Indians?" Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences 41 (June 1951): 181-191; Jack Pearl, "Monster Bird That Carries Off Human Beings," Saga, May 1963, pp. 29-31, 83-85; Campbell Grant, Rock Art of the American Indian (New York: Crowell, 1967), pp. 58-59,

124, 131, 149; Joseph H. Wherry, Indian Masks and Myths of the West (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1969), pp. 59-65; Harry F. McClure, "Tombstone's Flying Monster," Old West, Summer 1970, p. 2; "Thunderbirds Again—and Again," Pursuit, no. 18 (April 1972): 40-41; Mark A. Hall, Thunderbirds! The Living Legend ofGiant Birds (Minneapolis, Minn.: Mark A. Hall, 1988); Arlene Fradkin, Cherokee Folk Zoology: The Animal World of a Native American People, 1700-1838 (New York: Garland, 1990); Abner Blackburn, Frontiersman: Abner Blackburn's Narrative (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1992); Alex Patterson, A Field Guide to Rock Art Symbols of the Greater Southwest (Boulder, Colo.: Johnson Books, 1992), p. 199; "The Search for the Thunderbird Photo," Strange Magazine, no. 12 (Fall-Winter 1993): 38-39, and updates: no. 15 (Spring 1995): 44-45; no. 16 (Fall 1995): 40-41; no. 18 (Summer 1996): 34-35; no. 19 (Spring 1998): 26-28; no. 20 (December 1998): 44-45; Mark A. Hall, "Thunderbirds Are Go," Fortean Times, no. 105 (December 1997): 34-38; Mark Chorvinsky, "Cowboys and Dragons: Unravelling the Mystery of the Thunderbird Photograph," Strange Magazine, no. 21 (Fall 2000), and no. 22 (Spring 2002), both on line at http://www.; Loren Coleman, Mothman and Other Curious Encounters (New York: Paraview, 2002), pp. 65-80.

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