The Thunderbird figures prominently in the traditions of many Native American tribes. For some, it is the flapping of the Thunderbird's wings that one hears during rainstorms rumbling in the skies and it is the Thunderbird's eyes and beak that flash the lightning. To the Lakota of the prairie, the Thunderbird is an embodiment of the Great Mystery, the Supreme Being, which created all things on Earth. For the tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy of the northeast, Hino, the Thunderbird, guardian of the skies and the spirit of thunder, could assume the form of a human when it suited its purpose. The cosmology of many of the western tribes establish a Thunderbird in each of the four corners of the world as guardians and protectors, fighting always to keep away evil spirits.
Many scholars over the centuries have attributed the Native American myths of the Thunderbird to their reverence for the eagle, the largest of indigenous birds in North America. Interestingly, however, many people have claimed to have seen for themselves a great bird, far larger than the eagle, flying overhead. In fact, even in the nineteenth century, some witnesses were claiming to have seen flying monsters that resembled pterodactyls, the winged reptiles that should have been extinct 60 million years ago.
On April 9, 1948, a farm family outside of Caledonia, Illinois, saw a monster bird that they all said was bigger than an airplane. In different parts of the state on the same day, a Freeport truck driver said that he, too, had seen the creature. A former army colonel admitted that he had seen a bird of tremendous size while he stood talking with the head of Western Military Academy and a farmer near Alton. On April 10, several witnesses saw the gigantic bird. One man said that he had at first believed it to be a type of plane that he had never before seen. On April 24, back at Alton, a man described it as an enormous, incredible thing, flying at about 500 feet and casting a shadow the same size as that of a Piper Cub at the same height. Two policemen said that the monster bird was as big as a small airplane.
Giant Thunderbird-type creatures have continued to be sighted in various parts of the United States, from the northeast to the northwest and many points in between. On September 25, 2001, a witness sighted a giant bird flying over South Greensburg, Pennsylvania. Researchers soon found other witnesses who claimed to have had sightings of Thunderbirds in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. On November 5, a resident of Bristol, Connecticut, who was out walking his dog at dawn, said that he had sighted a giant birdlike creature the size of an ultralight plane flying over a community center.
In addition to the ancient Native American legends of the Thunderbird, there are certain old pioneer records that support the existence of giant birdlike creatures in the skies of North America. From the mouth of the Illinois River at Grafton to Alton (Illinois), a distance of 20 miles, the Mississippi River runs from west to east, and its north bank (the Illinois side) is a high bluff. When the first white men explored the area, they found that some unknown muralist from some forgotten tribal culture had engraved and painted hideous depictions of two gigantic, winged monsters. The petroglyphs were each about 30 feet in length and 12 feet in height.
Father Jacques Marquette (1637–1675), the celebrated Jesuit priest-explorer, mentioned the strange petroglyphs in his journals of the Mississippi, published in Paris in 1681. In a small volume published in 1698, Father Louis Hennepin (1626–after 1701), another early explorer of the wilds of the west, had also described the two enormously large petroglyphs. In his 48-page booklet The Piasa or the Devil Among the Indians (Morris, Ill., 1887), P. A. Armstrong described the creatures as having "the wings of a bat, but of the shape of an eagle's…They also had four legs, each supplied with eagle-shaped talons. The combination and blending together of the master species of the earth, sea, and air…so as to present the leading and most terrific characteristics of the various species thus graphically arranged, is an absolute wonder and seems to show a vastly superior knowledge of animal, fowl, reptile, and fish nature than has been accorded to the Indian."
Whatever the petroglyphs truly represented, all the native tribes of what then constituted the Northwest Territory had a terrible tradition associated with the creatures they called the Piasa (or Piusa). Sometime in the 1840s, Professor John Russell of Jersey County, Illinois, explored the caves that the Piasa were said to have inhabited and reported that the roof of the cavern was nearly 20 feet high and vaulted. The shape of the cave was irregular, but so far as Professor Russell and his guide could judge, the bottom averaged 20 by 30 feet. According to Russell: "The floor of the cave throughout its whole extent was one mass of human bones. Skulls and other bones were mingled together in the utmost confusion…we dug to the depth of three or four feet in every quarter of the cavern and still found only bones. The remains of thousands must have been deposited there."
Some of the traditions of the native people state that the Piasa was fond of bathing in the Mississippi and was a rapid swimmer. When it was splashing about in the Father of Waters, it raised such a commotion as to force great waves over the banks. Other ancient traditions state that when the Piasa was angry it thrashed the ground with its tail until the whole earth shook and trembled. The Piasa was generally feared because of its propensity for snatching tribes-people and making off with them. John Russell published an account of the Piasa's insatiable appetite for human flesh in the 1848 July issue of The Evangelical Magazine and Gospel Advocate: "[the Piasa] was artful as he was powerful, and would dart suddenly and unexpectedly upon an Indian, bear him off into one of the caves of the bluff and devour him. Hundreds of warriors attempted for years to destroy him, but without success. Whole villages were nearly depopulated, and consternation spread through all the tribes of the Illini."
In the legends of the Miami tribe, the Miamis were fighting their traditional enemies, the Mestchegamies, at the upper end of the lower canyon near the cave of the Piasa. As the fighting was reaching its climax, the war whoops apparently disturbed the Piasa, and two fierce, winged creatures emerged from their caves, "uttering bellowings and shrieks, while the flapping of their wings upon the air roared out like so many thunderclaps." The awful winged beasts swooped low over the heads of the combatants, and each snatched a Miami chieftain in its massive talons. The Miamis became instantly demoralized, believing that the Great Spirit had sent the Piasa to aid and assist their enemies.
The Miamis were so crippled as a nation that the survivors fled toward the Wabash River and did not feel safe until they had crossed its waters. Here they remained for generations before returning to Illinois territory. If these stories are true, then the seeming assistance by the Piasa to the Mestchegamies in their desperate battle with the Miamis near Alton, Illinois, proved to be a terrible curse instead of a sudden blessing. Soon after the Piasa had flown off with the screaming and struggling Miami chieftains in their talons, the monsters apparently developed a taste for human flesh. Consequently, the Mestchegami came to pay for their victory over the Miamis through an unending sacrifice of their people to feed the ever-hungry Piasa, which now seemed insatiable in their forays for human flesh.
According to Armstrong's little book and his recounting of the Miami tradition, the Piasa existed "several thousand winters before the palefaces came." Armstrong goes on to suggest the Piasa could have been surviving pterodactyl from the age of the great reptiles. "The fossil remains of some 25 species of this monster have been found [c. 1887], and it is sometimes called the pterosaur or flying lizard," he writes. "But the most singular monster of the age yet discovered [and its shape and component parts analyzed] is the ramphorhyneus, which seems to be a connective link between birds, beasts, and reptiles. Its body and neck resemble that of the Piasa, while its tail is identical with it, except it is pictured as dragging behind instead of being carried around the body or over its back and head. The shape of the head is drawn to resemble that of a duck, with the long bill of a snipe or bittern, but it is full of sharp, round teeth, like those of the crocodile. It had four legs, with eagle's talons, and a pair of bat-like wings…its entire length from head to tip of tail was probably 30 feet or more. In many respects the Piasa is a faithful copy of the ramphorhyneus. The form, shape, and description of the Piasa, according to the Indian tradition, were painted from actual sight of the living subject…Thus may the traditions of these Indians be true…"
Numerous sightings of birds the size of small airplanes were reported in southwest Pennsylvania in the summer and early fall of 2001. On June 13, a resident in Greensville, who said that he was familiar with the wildlife in the area, at first mistook the huge bird for an ultralight aircraft. He estimated the wingspan to be about 15 feet and the body to be nearly five feet in length. In July, a witness in Erie County claimed to have seen a large, black-colored bird with a wingspan of about 17 feet. On September 25, a witness who said that he had a strong interest in ornithology, encountered a massive bird with a head about three feet long and a wingspan of 10 to 15 feet.
In October 2002, Alaskan villagers in Togiak and Manokotak reported seeing a huge bird larger than anything they had seen before. Pilot John Bouker, owner of Bristol Bay Air Service, said that while flying to Manokotak he and his passengers sighted a large "raptorlike" bird with a wingspan that matched the length of his Cessna 207, about 14 feet. When Moses Coupchiak, a heavy equipment operator from Togiak, spotted the monster bird flying toward him, he said that he thought it was a small airplane until it banked to the left and flew away.
Biologists in the region said that they believed the witnesses sighted a bird known as the Steller's sea eagle, a species native to northeast Asia, that occasionally shows up on the Aleutian islands and on Kodiak, Alaska. The Steller's sea eagle can have a wingspan of eight feet and is about three times as large as a bald eagle.