The Mysterious Thunderbird?

On April 26 1890, reader of Arizona’s Tombstone Epitaph found themselves staring at an astonishing headline: “Found in the Desert: A Strange Winged Monster Discovered and Killed on the Huachua Desert.” According to the article, two men on horseback shot a gigantic flying beast down using Winchester rifles. Over 120 years later, cryptozoologists continue to research this story, hoping to find evidence of this strange creature. What is the Thunderbird?

The Legend of the Thunderbird?

The Thunderbird legend has its roots in Native American mythology, particularly in the cultures that resided in the American Southwest and Great Plains. It was supposedly a giant bird that shot lightning out of its eyes. Its wings were so large that when flapped, they created thunder. Interestingly enough, fossils show that the Thunderbird may have a factual basis. The now-extinct Teratornis merriami, which boasted a wingspan of 11-12 feet, lived in North America as recent as 10,000 years ago.

The 1890 Thunderbird Story

However, the creature killed back in 1890 was certainly not a teratorn. According to the article, the beast measured 92 feet long, resembled “a huge alligator,” and had wings which were “devoid of feathers or hair.” This description appears to suggest that the Thunderbird was something along the lines of a pterodactyl.

Of course, the reliability of this story must be called into question. Journalists of that time period were prone to making up outrageous stories in order to sell newspapers. And it’s important to note that no physical evidence for this story or any other Thunderbird-related story has ever been produced. Well, except for the photograph. Maybe.

The Thunderbird Photograph?

Oh the photograph doesn’t exist, mind you. Or at least it hasn’t been located by researchers yet. But plenty of people claim to have seen it. The supposed photo shows an immense bird nailed to the wall (or perhaps the roof) of a barn. Several men wearing western-style clothes stand in front of the bird. Their arms are stretched outward and each man’s fingertips touch those of the men next to him, creating a chain by which the bird can be measured.

Sean McLachlan over at Civil War Horror remembers seeing the photo. Or at least he thinks he does. But he attributes this to the interesting phenomena of “false memory.”

“My experience is just like other people’s, in that I have a very clear memory of the event and I no longer have the photo. Some people claim to have seen it in the possession of someone else. Others had a copy and lost it. In my case, I saw it in a magazine I didn’t buy. I have unwittingly become part of an urban legend.

Weird, huh? What’s going on here? Paranormal investigator Jerome Clark theorizes that the idea of the image is evocative enough to implant a false memory. Perhaps I read about the photo and created the memory? I wonder if ten years from now my writer friend will be writing another book on monsters and will be pulling her hair out trying to find that image of the Thunderbird she remembers seeing.” ~ Sean McLachlan, The Thunderbird Photo and False Memory Syndrome

Sean might be right. After all, if such a photo truly existed, cryptozoologists would’ve tracked it down by now right? Well, it certainly seems like that would be the case. Then again, the original Tombstone Epitaph article was long believed to be an urban legend as well until Mark Chorvinsky at Strange Magazine tracked it down with help from the University of Arizona.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

So, is the Thunderbird real and does it still soar through the skies? It’s extremely unlikely. If such a massive creature still lived in North America, it’s hard to believe that the legions of bird watchers would’ve failed to seen it. The 1890 story is slightly more believable, but not by much. The incredible claim that a pterodactyl-like creature survived for that long requires incredible evidence. And unfortunately, such evidence doesn’t exist (or at the very least hasn’t been found yet). The only way to possibly prove it would be if someone trekked out to the Huachua Desert and managed to locate the skeleton.

In the meantime, here’s the text from the original article in the Tombstone Epitaph. Does it describe a real creature? Or was it just a wild story concocted by a reporter with a highly active imagination? I’ll let you decide…

Tombstone Epitaph – April 26, 1890


A winged monster, resembling a huge alligator with an extremely elongated tail and an immense pair of wings, was found on the desert between the Whetsone and Huachuca mountains last Sunday by two ranchers who were returning home from the Huachucas. The creature was evidently greatly exhausted by a long flight and when discovered was able to fly but a short distance at a time. After the first shock of wild amazement had passed, the two men, who were on horseback and armed with Winchester rifles, regained sufficient courage to pursue the monster and after an exciting chase of several miles succeeded in getting near enough to open fire with their rifles and wounding it.

The creature then turned on the men, but owing to its exhausted condition they were able to keep out of its way and after a few well directed shots the monster partly rolled over and remained motionless. The men cautiously approached, their horses snorting with terror, and found that the creature was dead. They then proceeded to make an examination and found that it measured about ninety-two feet in length and the greatest diameter was about fifty inches. The monster had only two feet, these being situated a short distance in front of where the wings were joined to the body.

The head, as near as they could judge, was about eight feet long, the jaws being thickly set with strong, sharp teeth. Its eyes were as large as a dinner plate and protruded about half way from the head. They had some difficulty in measuring the wings as they were partly folded under the body, but finally got one straightened out sufficiently to get a measurement of seventy-eight feet, making the total length from tip to tip about 160 feet. The wings were composed of a thick and nearly transparent membrane and were devoid of feathers or hair, as was the entire body. The skin of the body was comparatively smooth and easily penetrated by a bullet.

The men cut off a small portion of the tip of one wing and took it home with them. Late last night one of them arrived in this city for supplies and to make the necessary preparations to skin the creature, when the hide will be sent east for examination by the eminent scientists of the day. The finder returned early this morning accompanied by several prominent men who will endeavor to bring the strange creature to this city before it is mutilated.

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