What is a Thunderbird?

G. Melanson

A Thunderbird is a large, winged creature that reportedly resembles a prehistoric pterosaur and has been spotted across North America. The Thunderbird is a part of Native American folklore and also a subject of study in Cryptozoology.

The Thunderbird is believed to be strong enough to lift a deer off the ground.
The Thunderbird is believed to be strong enough to lift a deer off the ground.

The Thunderbird’s name derives from its association with storms, as the creature is said to follow storm drafts, and even cause storms according to Native American myth. Cryptozoologist, John Keel, has mapped the locations of various Thunderbird sightings across the U.S. and noted that they correspond with storm patterns across the country.

The Thunderbird is part of Native American folklore, where it's believed that it can cause storms.
The Thunderbird is part of Native American folklore, where it's believed that it can cause storms.

One of the first reported sightings of a Thunderbird occurred in April 1890, when The Tombstone Epitaph reported that two cowboys in the southern U.S. had killed a large bird-like creature with smooth skin and wings. For years, rumors circulated that an accompanying photograph of the capture existed and was passed around before eventually getting lost sometime during the 1960s. To date, the alleged photo has not surfaced.

In 1977, a man named John Huffer took several photos of two large birds taking flight from a tree. Although the sighting was mentioned by the Discovery Channel on their show, Into the Unknown, the birds pictured in the photos were dismissed as vultures rather than Thunderbirds. Thunderbird sightings have continued into the new millennium, including a 2002 sighting in Alaska where witnesses claimed to have seen a large, flying creature with a wingspan of roughly 14 feet (4.2 m). In 2004, a student in Southern California also reported seeing an unusually large creature flying over a suburban area which matched the Thunderbird’s description.

The Thunderbird has been compared to the wandering albatross, which has a comparable wingspan of 12 feet (3.7 m), as well as other large birds such as the Andean condor and the California condor. Unlike these animals, however, which can prey on small animals in mid-flight, the Thunderbird has been reported to actually lift deer and even people off the ground.

Some have theorized that the Thunderbird is a species of pterosaur, such as a pterodactyl, which has survived the prehistoric age, while others suggest it could be a type of condor or oversized vulture. In response to skeptics who claim that a bird with a 15-foot (4.6 m) wingspan would be unable to fly, researchers point out that the largest flying creature in history, the Quetzalcoatlus northropi, had a wingspan of 25-60 feet (7.6 - 18.3 m).

As the Thunderbird has not been proven to exist, it remains a species of speculation only, joining such other flying cryptids as The Mothman and The Jersey Devil.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments


@Logicfest -- it's actually a bit of a charming cultural trait to name things after legendary creatures. The Thunderbird is one of those critters, but who could forget Phoenix, Arix., getting its name from a bird that rises from destruction and chaos? Americans seem to love associated things with the mythical and divine. It serves to remind us where we've come from and ties the present to the past.


These might not have been proven to exist, but the arguably mythical Thunderbird has had a massive impact on popular culture in the United States. After all, a car that has passed into legend was named after the creature as was a cheap brand of wine.

Well, the car is more impressive but you get the idea.

Post your comments
Forgot password?