Posted by: codsow | November 18, 2010


Imagine a large bird, for example, an Andean Condor. It has the largest wingspan out of any living bird on the planet, around 10.5ft at its max. That’s pretty large. Now think bigger. That is where the thunderbird comes in. It was a creature that struck fear in many Native American tribes all over the world. Tribes believed that when this bird flapped its wings, it created thunder. Lightning would flash from it’s eyes. They also have the knack of carrying away livestock, and sometimes even humans.

The above picture is from a rock painting near Alton, Illinois. This is a newer version of the painting, based off of much older sketches, but a cliff painting was originally here in this same location from the local Native American tribe. This was a depiction of the Piasa, the “Bird that devours man.” Local legend says that this large animal lived in the caves of the area, and terrorized the local villages. This just sounds like Native American legend, but in 1977, it started to become more real.

North of Alton Il, by car around 2 hours, is the small town of Lawndale Il. One summer day in 1977 a boy was playing in his back yard when his mother noticed two large birds in the sky. One of the birds swooped down, grabbed her son, and started to fly off with him. In her frightened moment, she started to scream, which startled the bird, and it dropped her son. Many people witnessed the event, and many sightings happened in the area during the 1970s.

Sightings like this are not that uncommon throughout history. From Illinois to Alaska, down to Texas, and many other places in the world. Some people were not as lucky as the boy from Lawndale. In Canada, in 1886, the Manitoba Daily Press reported a large bird had devoured the brain of a two year old, by using it’s beak to open the child’s skull. In 1924, in South Africa, a child’s remains were found with puncture wounds from what they estimated to be a 14cm long talon. The common theme for thunderbirds is to prey upon smaller children, and eat their internal organs. Looks like the child from Illinois lucked out. In 1890, the Tombstone Epigraph reported two cowboys shot and killed a thunderbird. This is the only recent account in history of man killing a thunderbird. The wingspan of the animal was claimed to be 160ft. The animal was pinned to a local barn for a photo op, which of course, no photos seem to remain.

These creatures are not just from North America, but are found in folklore from all over the world. Some of the more popular names: The Demaj of Persia, Imgig of Mesopotamia, Anka of Arabia, Rukh of Madagascar, Vekher of Russia, Simurgh and Garunda of Asia, and the Norse called it the Hraesvalg. Marco Polo had an account of Thunderbirds, the native people of Madagascar told him great stories of the Rukh, which had the ability to carry off elephants with it’s wingspan of 50ft.

So whether this is a misplaced Andean Condor, a living fossil like a Terratorn or Pterodactyl, people are seeing something all over the world that resembles a large, winged creature. Since birds are the most accessible, and easiest observed animal in the world, I would imagine that one of these will be one of the first “new” discoveries in the natural world. Especially a bird with the wingspan anywhere from 50-160ft!

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