Believers in the Thunderbird tell of a fantastic, reptilian creature which, years ago, glided across the skies of the American southwest with glory and power. It was an animal the Indians sometimes feared, sometimes respected, and sometimes destroyed. Whatever it was, it was real.
Skeptics of the Thunderbird tell of the over imagination of native Americans. Or, if it was an animal, it was a large condor, vulture, or other known species of bird. Whatever it was, it was insignificant.
In the next few moments, let us take you on a journey into the heart of the Native Americans. Learn of their stories and legends, and then logically deduce for yourself whether all, when put together, are lucky coincidences, or the legitimate writings of people who were actual living witnesses of a thought-to-be extinct flying reptile.
While exploring the Sonora Desert on February 12th, 1699, Captain Juan Mateo Manje, accompanied by Jesuits Eusebio Francisco Kino and Adam Gil, was told by the Pima Indians that a giant monster lived in a cave nearby in days past. The creature was a horror to the people, for it would fly around and catch as many Indians as it could eat.
One day, they continued to tell him, after the creature had eaten its fill, some of the men followed it back to its cave. While sound asleep, they closed the entrance to the cave with wood collected specifically for this occasion. They set it on fire, and as the creature couldn't escape, it growled fiercely, dying from asphyxiation by the flames and smoke.
Another Pima recalled a story of killing a similar animal in the pueblo of Oposura by using the same tactic. We are told the actual bones were found during the pacification of Mexico by General Don Hernando Cortes and were sent to Spain.
Stories of such incidents are prevalent among many other Indian tribes of the American Southwest, suggesting that they had a long history of encounters with creatures reminiscent of pterosaurs, especially the gigantic pteranodon. The standard long-age scenario of evolution, of course, does not easily fall in line with the belief of living dinosaurs in recent history (or for those who wish to be technical, "flying reptiles"). After all, they died some 65 million years before monkey had yet turned to man.
What about the Yaqui Indians?
They also spoke of a giant bird that lived on the hill of Otan Kawi. Every morning it flew out to capture human prey, and then return. A young boy who had lost his entire family to the monster finally killed it with a bow and arrows.
What about the Sioux Indians?
They told of a story about an experience some of their warriors had with a Thunderbird that fits near perfectly with the description of the pteranodon.
"One day, long long ago, before the white man came to America, a party of Sioux Indian warriors were out hunting. They had left their village far behind. Before they realized it, the group of braves found themselves alone in the bare and rocky badlands of the West.
"Suddenly the sky darkened . . . There was a clap of thunder that shook the earth. Looking up in terror, the Indians thought they saw the shape of a giant bird falling to earth . . .
"The band of hunters traveled over the badlands for days until they came at last to the spot where they thought the giant bird had fallen. Nothing was left of the terrible creature but its bones . . .
"The Indians shuddered as they looked at the monster's skeleton. The bird had fallen so hard, they thought, that its bones were partly sunk in the rock. But the braves could see that its wingspread was as big as four tall men standing on top of one another. The strange creature had fierce claws on its wings, as well as on its feet, and the beak was long and sharp. There was a long, bony crest on its head. The Indians knew that they had never seen a bird like it before."
What about the Illini Indians?
The Indians of Illionois, called the Illini, were once terrorized by a large bird they called the "Piasa", which means "bird that devours man". So large was the Piasa that it could allegedly carry off a full-grown deer. Every Indian tribe in the area greatly feared the Piasa and sought to destroy it.
One day the Illini were said to have tricked the creature by hiding 20 armed warriors in a certain spot, while the Chief himself chose to stand in the open as a victim for the Piasa. As the bird neared to attack him, the men in hiding leapt out and speared it to death.
What was the Piasa? Many speculate it to be the imagination of superstitious natives, while others believe it to have been a large condor, while still others believe it to have been an actual flying reptile. In 1848, John Russell, a writer from Illinois who was interested in the Piasa, explored the caves where the creature was said to live. After his exploration, one cave, particularly difficult to access, gave evidence for the Illini's story. Russell stated:
"The shape of the cave was irregular, but so far as I could judge the bottom would average twenty by thirty feet. The floor of the cave throughout its whole extent was one mass of human bones."
In Alton, Illinois, a painting existed high upon a cliff. Though destroyed in the 1850s when the face of the cliff collapsed into the river, a number of explorers during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw the painting and described what it looked like in great detail in their journals. The description? A bird-like animal with many reptilian characteristics.
According to some, the first account of the Piasa paintings came late in the 17th century when Father Marquette recorded in his journal strange observations he made during an exploratory trip by canoe down the Mississippi. That he was a reliable observer is not open to question. His writings have remained to the present time as important and credible references to scholars studying customs and culture of the Indians when white men first arrived. His account states:
"While skirting some rocks which by their height and length inspired awe, we saw upon one of them two painted monsters which at first made us afraid, and upon which the boldest savages dare not long rest their eyes. They are as large as a calf, have horns on their heads like those of a deer, a horrible look, red eyes, a beard like a tiger's, a face somewhat like a man's, a body covered with scales, and a tail so long that it winds all around the body, passing above the head and going back between the legs, ending in a fish's tail. Green, red and black are the three colors composing the picture. Moreover, these two monsters are so well painted that we cannot believe that any savage is their author, for good painters in France would find it difficult to do so well. And besides, they are so high up on the rock that it is difficult to reach that place conveniently to paint them."
What about the Hoh and Quileute Indians?
They tell of a Thunderbird so large that its wingspan was twice the size of their war canoes. It possessed great claws, a long beak, and the ability to pluck some types of whales out of the sea. They attributed the lack of trees in Beaver Prairie to a terrific battle between a whale and thunderbird:
"One time Thunderbird got a big whale in his talons and carried him to Beaver Prairie and ate him there. The whale fought very hard before he was killed. Thunderbird and whale fought so very hard that they pulled up the trees by their roots. And no trees have ever grown in that place to this day."
What about the Indians of Mexico and South America?
A Mexican archaeologist named Jose Diaz-Bolio came upon an ancient Mayan relief sculpture in Veracruz, Mexico, depicting an animal very similar to the pteranodon. In Science Digest (November, 1968), an article was published on this "evolutionary oddity", called "Serpent-bird of the Mayans". According to Bolio, the bird:
" . . . is not merely the product of Mayan flights of fancy, but a realistic representation of an animal that lived during the period of the ancients Mayans - 1,000 to 5,000 years ago."
Missionaries have also come out of South America with stories from Indians of "birds" that closley resemble pterosaurs. In Venezuela, the Yek's have a story centuries old of a giant man-eating bat. The creature lived at the headwaters of the river in a cave on a large mountain, and would periodically attack canoes and carry off people. Eventually, men were chosen to go to its lair and kill it, which they did. Also, because it was said to defecate in the river (Erebato), the Indians would not drink from it.
Another tribe, the Corentyn, also tell of an enormous gliding serpent.
The Thunderbird: What Was It?
Some argue that the Thunderbird was an actual bird. When conducting a thorough investigation, this conclusion should not be met. Rather, when all is said and heard, the animals could very well have been a Quetzalcoatlus.
This huge pterosaur was the largest flying creature to have lived. Its wingspan was equivalent to modern jet fighter planes, and it weighed up to 220 lbs (100 kg). Fossils suggest that it lacked proper anchor points for the powerful flapping down strokes of which most birds are capable. So, as the theory goes, the animal was a glider.
Could it have carried off humans as the legends tell? Yes, it physically could have, but it is more likely that the accounts are the result of legendary accretion, inspired by its terrifying size. As with all legends, events are exaggerated over time.
No, we shouldn't believe every account or every detail relating to the Thunderbird. What we should believe, however, and must believe is that an animal did exist in recent past that very well could have been a "living fossil." Evolutionary thinking tells us otherwise, but it is this bias that we must rid ourselves of. Can all these sightings be easily written off as coincidental? Absolutely not. To think so borders absurdity. Even if one does not believe the Thunderbird to have been a species of pterosaur, one should consider whether the animal was another unknown species that tragically went extinct.
We may never know. As with most cryptozoological studies, we are simply left to wonder.