Cryptid Corner: Thunderbirds

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Thunderbirds are go!

Thunderbird is a term used in cryptozoology to describe large, bird-like creatures, generally identified with the Thunderbird of Native American tradition. Similar cryptids reported in the Old World are often called Rocs. Thunderbirds are regarded by a small number of researchers as having lizard features like the extinct pterosaurs such as Pteranodon. Reports of Thunderbird sightings go back centuries, and the fossil record does show that giant birds with wingspans between 12 and 18 ft were likely contemporary with early man. Today the creature is generally regarded as a myth.

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There is a story that in April 1890, two cowboys in Arizona killed a giant birdlike creature with an enormous wingspan. It was said to have had smooth skin, featherless wings like a bat and a face that resembled an alligator. This description has some similarity to that of a prehistoric pterodactyl, an animal whose existence was known at the time. They are supposed to have dragged the carcass back to town, where it was pinned with wings outstretched across the entire length of a barn. A picture of this event may have been published in the local newspaper, the Tombstone Epitaph.

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On April 10, 1948, three individuals in Overland, Illinois spotted what they originally thought to be a passing plane, but after seeing a large set of flapping wings, they realized this plane was something very different. A few weeks later, in Alton, Illinois, a man and his son saw what they described as an enormous bird creature with a body shaped like a naval torpedo. The creature was flying at at least 500 feet and cast a shadow the same size as a small passenger airplane.

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Similar sightings around the same time in St. Louis, Missouri prompted residents to write concerned letters to then St. Louis mayor Aloys P. Kaufmann demanding that the city do something about these reportedly huge birds. The mayor instructed an administrative assistant to set a trap to catch one of the creatures, but when blue heron tracks were discovered on an island in the Meramec River, the mystery was considered solved.

There was a spike in Thunderbird sightings in the late twentieth century. On occasion, such reports were accompanied by large footprints or other purported evidence.

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Among the most controversial reports is a July 25, 1977 account from Lawndale, Illinois. About 9 P.M. a group of three boys were at play in a residential back yard. Two large birds approached, and chased the boys. Two escaped unharmed, but the third boy, ten-year-old Marlon Lowe, wasn’t so lucky. One of the birds reportedly clamped his shoulder with its claws, then lifted Lowe about two feet off the ground, carrying him some distance. Lowe fought against the bird, which released him.

Viewed by some as a tall tale, the descriptions given by the witnesses of these birds match that of an Andean condor, a large black bird, with a white ringed neck and a wingspan up to 10 feet. However, an Andean condor’s talons are not strong enough to lift heavy objects.

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In 2002, a sighting of a large birdlike creature, with a wingspan of around 14 feet, was reported in Alaska. The Anchorage Daily News reported witnesses describing the creature like something out of the movie Jurassic Park. Scientists suggested the giant bird may have simply been a Steller’s sea eagle, which have a wingspan of 6–8 feet. There had also been previous reports of similar creatures in the same area around that time.

As recently as 2007, sightings have been claimed in the area around San Antonio, Texas.

So giant birds? Prehistoric flying dinosaurs? You decide. All I know is that I don’t want to be under one when it poops! Please email me any experiences you have with strange creatures at (joshuaweber13@icloud.com) and remember to keep an eye out for those crazy cryptids.

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