Over this past Father’s Day weekend I had an opportunity to attend the 19th Annual Haunted America’s Conference in Alton, Illinois. I had never been to one of these events and I really had no idea what to expect. I spent a few weeks prior to the conference thinking this was going to be a bunch of weirdos staring into crystal balls or spending their time talking about astrology, magic potions, and ghost stories you probably would read about in paranormal romance books. The only speaker I was familiar with was Troy Taylor, who I know has written several books about the many hauntings in the Alton area. Since I know and respect Troy’s credibility in the paranormal and he was to be the lead presenter and organizer of this event, I went ahead and pushed forward to attend this gathering at the Atrium Hotel. Little did I know that all of my preconceived notions were dead wrong. This conference was one of the neatest and most informative I have ever experienced outside of my own paranormal investigations. And I think it even surpasses most of those because this 2-day conference revealed a glimpse of the paranormal world that spanned centuries and definitely launched new passions within me.
One of the speakers was a cryptozoologist named Ken Gerhard. Ken is a very interesting man who sports a black leather hat which looks a little like the one Billy the Exterminator wears on the A&E Channel. He has been researching the stories and personal accounts of cryptids from all over the world. His craft is one that is not fully recognized by the scientific community at large, but it is an emerging science that someday will receive the accolades it deserves. Throughout Ken’s presentation we were introduced to many different types of cryptids, some seemed rather ordinary while others looked like they were taken from the pages of a science fiction magazine. One local cryptid in particular drew my attention and fascination – the Piasa Thunderbird.
The story of the mysterious Thunderbird has its roots in Native American legend. Many times we learn about ghost stories or headless horsemen through legends or myths which were created from an unknown and obscure past. The funny thing about myths is that they are far more than just creations of fiction. They are derived from real experiences. The Piasa Thunderbird (pronounced Pie-a-saw), a legendary cryptid, also has its foundations in mythology and, in turn, has great potential for a true existence.
The bird was first recognized in detail by an Illinois Indian named Ouatoga, who lived thousands of years ago. It became known at that time that giant birds were carrying off large woodland animals, such as full-grown deer, and then eating them as food. As the legends goes, these monsters of nature began developing a taste for the Indian people, wiping out entire villages. The Indian people were able, to some degree, to predict the coming of the Thunderbirds because they were known to soar the drafts created by intense thunderstorms. Thus the derivation of how these birds got their name. Chief Ouatoga, “whose fame extended even beyond the Great Lakes, separated himself from his tribe, fasted in solitude for the space of a full moon, and prayed to the Great Spirit to protect his people from the Piasa.” (Alton Web) For the Indian chief, this was a spiritual warfare.
The legend continues whereby he recruits 20 warriors and arms them with poison-tipped arrows. Ouatoga offers himself as bait for the birds and stands out in the open. Just as one of the Thunderbirds is about to swoop him up, the arrows fly, hitting their mark. The bird dies and it was from this day forward that Ouatoga’s feat was recorded as a great victory for the Indian people. In honor, they carved a petroglyph of the bird into the bluff face of a rock, which now resides along the McAdams Highway in Alton, Illinois. Over the years the current painting was restored and sits in its glory as a reminder of this incredibly large and dangerous cryptid.
This story is based in myth, however, the myth has been transformed into a definite reality through multiple claims by people in North America that the Piasa Thunderbird is indeed a very real creature. One of the first documented sightings was in April 1890 near the town of Tombstone, Arizona. It has been claimed, by the local Tombstone newspaper Epitaph, that two cowboys saw this bird flying in the desert and chased it on horseback. Once they got as close to it as the horses would allow, they jumped off and ran after the bird, as it was repeatedly landing. They got within rifle range and shot the bird dead. It is claimed that:
“[t]he enormous wingspan of the creature was said to have been 160 feet and the body was more than 92 feet long. It was smooth and featherless, more like a bat than a bird, and they cut off a piece of the wing and brought it with them into Tombstone, Arizona.” (The Unexplained Mysteries)
My first reaction to this claim, and perhaps it is yours as well, is that there is no way a dragon of this size could have existed, let alone been shot down by rifles in the mid-1800’s. This either had to be a myth or the ramblings of two cowboys drunk off of their flasks while sitting around the campfire. The size of this prehistoric bird is a little too much to swallow, but claims of the Thunderbird’s existence continued to live on. In 1930, this Tombstone story was verified and researched further by a man named Horace Bell. He claims that a photo was found of “6 men standing, with their arms outstretched, fingertip to fingertip”, lined up in front of the bird (The Unexplained Mysteries). The actual wingspan dimensions were reduced down to 36 feet, still a monstrous cryptid.
In 1963, in a September issue of Fate Magazine, it was further claimed that the Tombstone story is true and that “the photo was published and had appeared in newspapers all over America.” Extensive research was done to try and verify the existence of this photo, however, it was never found. It would seem that even after three separate claims over the time span of nearly 75 years, the mysterious Piasa Thunderbird still remains as a legend. It wasn’t until 1977 that the validity of the mythological Thunderbird was finally verified. Or was it?
The time period between July and August 1977 saw a very sharp increase in sightings of giant birds in the state of Illinois. This Midwestern state actually has the most reported cases in history, which is unusual since the landscape and environment here is not really conducive to this type of bird. They require high cliffs and the weather would need to be more consistent with the conditions you would find in California, the home of the American Condor. Nonetheless, the most convincing case of the Piasa Thunderbird happened in what has been called the “Lawndale Incident”.
“three boys were playing hide-and-seek in the yard of a home in Lawndale, in Logan County, Illinois. [They] saw [two] birds swoop down toward [one of their friends who] leaped into a small swimming pool in the yard…. The birds then headed for Marlon [Lowe and] picked him up by the straps of his sleeveless shirt and lifted him about 2 feet off the ground…. Marlon, [who weighed 65 pounds], screamed for his mother and punched at the bird. The bird dropped him to the ground after flying 35 or 40 feet from the backyard to the frontyard.” (Mark A. Hall, Thunderbirds)
After this happened, Marlon’s mother Ruth called the state wildlife organization to report this attack on her son, as she was gravely concerned this could happen to another family. After telling the wildlife department about her story, they wrote the birds off as turkey vultures. No such bird could exist in nature, they told her. The news of this incident, however, spread rapidly over the radio and made the front page of the newspaper in St. Louis and Detroit. Soon there were over 30 reported sightings of strange giant birds which were discovered over the entire state of Illinois. It was almost as if mass hysteria spread throughout the towns and cities of the area. Or were there really Thunderbirds with wingspans of 12 or more feet swooping over the heads of Illinois residents? The 7 witnesses in the Lawndale Incident swear these cryptids do exist and there were at least a dozen other people willing to stand in line and back up these fantastic claims. The authorities continued to say they were turkey vultures, but is the Piasa Thunderbird still just a myth?
More sightings were reported in October 2002 in the towns of Togiak and Manokotak in the state of Alaska, one in particular from an airplane. The interesting fact about the sightings in Alaska is that they were termed as “super-eagles”. In the Illinois sightings, people were not overly familiar with the birds in their state, so they could easily misjudge wingspan or bird type. In Alaska, however, nearly everyone is familiar with eagles and other native birds of the area. They knew what they were seeing was definitely out of the ordinary and could potentially have been “the legendary Thunderbird, a giant bird known throughout history to the Eskimos and American Indians in North America.” (Mark A. Hall – Thunderbirds)
So, based on the preceding claims that date back over a century, let us assume the Piasa Thunderbird is a living, breathing cryptid. How can this be cryptozoologically possible? There are several explanations to this question. The first is that the Thunderbird is simply a more ancient version of the condor. In every reported case, it has been verified that the birds in question have a white ring around the neck which looks strikingly similar to the American condor. The argument against this theory is that the 4,000 left in existence live only in California and have never been known to leave the state.
Another possibility comes from a prehistoric perspective which states that the Piasa Thunderbird is a descendent of the pterodactyl, more specifically what were called teratorns. The largest teratorn to date is the Argentavis magnificens, and it was native of Argentina about 6 million years ago. It had a wingspan of about 23-30 feet with strong, stout legs (good for picking up prey) and a hooked beak. All of the Thunderbirds that have been seen in North America have this hooked beak as well. Another common trait, which is where the Thunderbird gets its name, is that it is speculated Argentavis would have been seen following raging thunderstorms around because it was easier to ride the thermal currents than to flap their wings. As mentioned earlier, the Native Americans were privy to this trait because they knew when a thunderstorm was on the horizon, the Piasa Birds weren’t too far behind.
A third possibility, and one which may be more feasible in the chronology of dinosaurs, is what is known as Merriam’s Teratorn. It is a predecessor of the modern day condor and has a wingspan of 11-12 feet. It was a more active predator than the condors we are familiar with today. Skeletons of this teratorn have been found primarily in the La Brea tar pits. It is believed that this bird was capable of preying on human infants and possibly adults during its existence over 10,000 years ago. These traits have given Merriam’s Teratorn the honorary distinction of being the real legendary Piasa Thunderbird.
So, after all of this information has been considered, do we know for certain that the Piasa Thunderbird is a real creature – alive in various parts of North America? As with nearly every cryptid, we do not have a skeleton, feather, baby Thunderbird or even a definitive photo to offer as absolute proof. The reported claims, in my opinion, allow for the possibility of their existence and, if one of these dinosaurs were to fly over my head – I would not be surprised. No…who the hell am I kidding? A cryptid of that immense size would terrify me more than a demonic entity causing every hair on my body to stand on end!!
Hall, Mark A. “Thunderbirds: America’s Living Legends of Giant Birds”. 2004.