The clouds grow dark as a figure in the sky approaches with impressive speed. The bright feathers of this enormous winged creature make for a stark contrast in the sky. It seems to be coasting on the winds above, but with every flap of its wings the rumbling of thunder can be heard.

The people below stare in awe at this mighty protector and enforcer. Behold – the mighty Thunderbird.

What is a Thunderbird

The Thunderbird is a mythological character that appears in many Native American legends. From the numerous stories of the Thunderbird, it is often assumed that Thunderbird is a protector – though at times this creature can be forced to punish those of low moral integrity.


There is much curiosity surrounding the existence of the Thunderbird myths. Many would claim that these myths are simply symbolism that is used to explain natural weather phenomenon. However, there are those that have higher hopes. A small section of pseudoscientists believes that the Thunderbird could have been a pterodactyl that managed to survive longer than thought possible or another form of megafauna. Some with this belief are of the opinion that the Thunderbird may be a cryptid instead of a mythological creature, though this is unlikely. We know from legend that the Thunderbird is an enormous creature and it would be unlikely for them to have survived this long away from the public eye.

The Thunderbird According to Lore

According to many legends, the Thunderbird is so large that one feather from their wingspan would have to be folded in half to properly fit into a quiver. Additionally, these creatures were so large and mighty that they could easily carry a whale in their talons. Because of this, many scholars find it unlikely that the Thunderbird could exist in modern day without being seen.

In spite of these things, the Thunderbird continues to be a point of fascination for all. The Thunderbird appears to be a creature of extreme intelligence and intrigue. There are many stories that tell of the Thunderbird in Native American legends, which make the creature appear to be one of the key deities in their beliefs. The Thunderbird is mysterious in that it is not merely a protector, but is also seen as enforcer of morality – one that should never be angered.

Many legends reference the anger of the Thunderbirds as something fearsome to behold and that should be avoided at all costs. The Thunderbird is known to have harsh punishments for people who have done wrong and is even said to have turned an entire village to stone for their wrongdoings.

The Thunderbird was known to give life by nurturing the lifeforms on Earth and giving them the necessary rains to survive. However, these creatures could also destroy the earth with winds, floods, droughts, and fires caused by lighting.

The Thunderbird is thought to be the physical embodiment of the elements as well as a noble spirit that would protect humans from evil spirits. There are some legends that claim the Thunderbird may have even been a distant ancestor to the human race.

Origins of the Thunderbird Legends

The Thunderbird myth is very widespread throughout American and Canada. There are also records of similar creatures in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Depending on whose version of the myth is being told, the Thunderbird can be a single entity or can constitute a whole race (or tribe) of peoples. Some cultures even believe this mighty creature may have married into human families and have offspring that can be traced back to this today.

Thunderbird shapeshifting to human form
Thunderbird shapeshifting to human form

Many legends suggest that Thunderbirds had the ability to shapeshift into human form. They supposedly did this by removing their feathers (which could be put on and taken off like a blanket) and tipping their beaks up over their heads similar to the way one might do with a mask. When this was done, a Thunderbird could walk among humans without drawing attention. All that needed to be done for them to transform again was to pull down their beaks and put on their feathers again.

Thunderbird in Various Cultures

Thunderbird of the Menominee Peoples

According to the Menominee tribe, the Thunderbirds live on an enormous mountain that floats in the sky. These majestic creatures are known to control the elements (rain, hail, etc.) and sometimes watch the happenings of human life. They are said to find great pleasure in fighting and the accomplishment of impressive feats. These Thunderbirds are known to be enemies of the Misikinubik (The Great Horned Snake) and are the reason mankind has not been devoured or overrun.

The Menominee Thunderbirds are also known to be messengers of the Great Sun and were highly respected by these peoples.

Thunderbird of the Ojibwe Peoples

The Ojibwe legends of the Thunderbird claim this creature was created by Nanabozho (one of the culture’s hero figures) in order to protect people from evil underwater spirits. They lived in the four directions and migrated to the land of the Ojibwe during the spring with other birds. During this time they fought the underwater spirits. They stayed until the fall when the most dangerous season for the underwater spirits had passed. In the fall, they migrated south with other birds.

The Ojibwe Thunderbird legends also suggest that these creatures were responsible for punishing humans who broke moral rules. As the anger of the Thunderbird is known to be extreme, this would have been great incentive to maintain good moral conduct.

Thunderbird of the Winnebago Peoples

The Thunderbird of the Winnebago people suggests that this creature also had the power to grant people great abilities. Their traditions dictate that any man who has a vision of the Thunderbird during a fast will one day become a mighty war chief.

Thunderbird of the Sioux Peoples

Sioux legends claim that the Thunderbird was a noble creature that protected humans from Unktehila during the ‘old times.’ The Unktehila were said to be extremely dangerous reptilian monsters – without the help of the Thunderbird it is uncertain if man would have been able to overcome these creatures alone.

Thunderbird of the Arapaho Peoples

Arapaho mythology sees the Thunderbird as a summer creature (as did many of the tribes of the Great Plains). According to their legends, the Thunderbird was an opposing force to the White Owl (the creature that represented winter).

Thunderbird of the Algonquian Peoples

The Algonquian Peoples had deep reverence for the Thunderbird in their culture. According to their legends, Thunderbirds were ancestors of the human race. Their stories often tell of the Thunderbird’s part in the creation of the universe.

According to their myths, Thunderbird ruled over the upperworld and the Great Horned Serpent ruled over the underworld. Thunderbird protects humans from the Great Horned Serpent and its followers by throwing lighting at underwater creatures.

Thunderbird of the Shawnee Peoples

Like many other tribes, the Shawnee people also believed the Thunderbird could change its appearance in order to interact with people. Their beliefs, however, detail that Thunderbirds appeared as boys and could be identified by their tendency to speak backwards.

Physical Appearance

The Thunderbird is considered to be a mighty creature of enormous size. They are often depicted as being a fantastic size that is difficult to comprehend – a single feather from the Thunderbird’s wingspan is said to be so large that it would need to be folded in half to properly fit into a quiver. It is often said that a Thunderbird is able to pick up a whale in its talons. The frequency with which whales are mentioned in these legends may suggest that whales were a favorite food source of hungry Thunderbirds.

A Thunderbird totem pole
A Thunderbird totem pole

Thunderbirds were also known to have bright and colorful feathers that were very pleasing to look at. Each flap of their wings allowed them to cover great distances and caused a mighty thundering sound – which likely inspired their name. These creatures were also known to have teeth and claws. Though this was often an imposing sight, it was also seen as comforting because the Thunderbird was known to be a great protector.

Varying legends tend to differ at this point when it comes to storytelling. There are some who say that the Thunderbird carried lakes of water upon its back. Those who tell this version of the story say that this is where the rains that nourish the lands come from.

There are also stories that suggest the Thunderbird had another face in the middle of its chest. There are several variations of this part of the myth – it is uncertain if the face is avian-like or if the face that was seen was a misidentification of two glowing snakes that the creature was said to carry with it. Most versions that claim the Thunderbird carried snakes with it also claim that these snakes were responsible for the lightning bolts that filled the sky upon the great bird’s arrival.

Other versions of the Thunderbird myth disagree. It is their opinion that the Thunderbird was able to create lighting by simply blinking its eyes.

Thunderbird Myths

Thunderbird Fights Mimlos-Whale

At one point in time, it was said there was a great flood that covered a significant portion of the Earth. During this flood, Thunderbird is said to have fought Mimlos-Whale. Their fight was long and brutal. The Thunderbird would grab Mimlos-Whale with his mighty talons and drag the creature to his mountain nest. Mimlos-Whale was tricky however, and would manage to escape the nest and find refuge in the water again. Every time Thunderbird captured Mimlos-Whale, there would be a great fight between the two beasts. The noise that resulted from their fight was so great it shook the mountains. Their battle was so brutal that they uprooted all the trees in any area they fought in.

The fight between Thunderbird and Mimlos-Whale continued for a great period of time until finally Thunderbird was tired and allowed Mimlos-Whale to escape into the depths of the ocean. It is said that this is why the killer whale can still be found in the ocean today (as Mimlos-Whale is thought to be represented by this whale).

Although the fight between the two creatures ended with no clear victor, the memory of their battle can still be seen on the face of the Earth. The places where they fought still remain bare of trees to this day and are thought to be the prairies that are found on the Olympic Peninsula.

Thunderbird Turns People to Stone

There is said to be a time when a hunter living in Beaver Prairie happened across one of Thunderbird’s kills while looking for food. While there, he saw a great whale that the Thunderbird had carried into the prairie. The whale was so heavy that the Thunderbird needed to rest before eating it’s prey and had fallen asleep. The hunter took a feather from Thunderbird’s wing and went back to his people.

When he returned to his village, he told his people of his encounter with Thunderbird and showed them the wing as evidence. The wing was as long as a canoe paddle and it did not take them long before they had come to believe the hunter. He then told the people that he had seen a whale in the prairie and that if they went quickly, they would be able to cut up the whale and eat it themselves.

A great number of beach and river tribes came in canoes and approached the dead carcass of the whale. In their greedy excitement, they cut up the whole whale. By the end of the evening, the entire whale had been cut into pieces and was being cooked by the people. They were satisfied with this feat, though their satisfaction would not last long.

Suddenly, the sky became dark and the clouds began to draw together. This was the sign that Thunderbird was returning and was angry with the people for stealing his food while he was sleeping. He caused a great storm to take place.

At first the storm was only rain. Soon however, the rain turned into hail that was larger than a man’s fist. The hail plummeted to the ground with brutal speed and killed everyone on the prairie below. After Thunderbird’s storm passed, he turned the people and all their stolen meat into stone. This caused a ridge of large rocks to be formed. This ridge reached from one edge of the prairie to the other end.

It is said that this ridge still exists. If one looks closely, they can see the head and ribs of the great whale that was stolen from Thunderbird.

Thunderbird Causes a Great Flood and Separates the Quileute Peoples

It is said that once, Thunderbird became so angry with the people that he caused a great flood to occur. The oceans rose so high that the Quileute were forced to get into their boats to take shelter. The oceans rose so high that even the tops of the mountains were covered with water. This went on for four days.

After four days the Quileute sailed with no sun or landmarks to guide them. When the waters receded (again for four days) it was discovered that many of the Quileute had been scattered. When they found land again, some of the Quileute found that they were in Hoh. Others discovered themselves in Chemakum. Both of these groups decided to stay there to live out their lives. Very few of the people forced to flee were able to find their way back to Quileute.

The Origin of Thunderbird According to the Passamaquoddy Peoples

It is said that the Thunderbird was discovered when two warriors of the Passamaquoddy people wanted to find the origin of thunder. They embarked on a journey that took them north until they reached a large mountain. These mountains were magical and were able to pull apart slowly and then smash together again quickly.

The warriors crossed the mountain pass one after another, each vowing to the other to continue if they were unable to succeed in their mission. The first warrior made it through the mountain pass, but the second warrior was crushed by the colliding rocks.

Once on the other side of the mountain pass, the first warrior found a large plain with a group of wigwams. Near the wigwams, there was a group of Indians who were playing a game. For a while they played, but after some time had passed they decided it was time for them to go. They went into the wigwams and put on wings, then flew back over the mountains to the south.

There were, however, a few of the elder men that still remained in the camp. When they saw the warrior, they questioned him to discover who he was and why he had wandered into their camp. He told them of his desire to discover the origin of thunder. The elders talked for a while until they were able to decide on a way to help him understand the origin of thunder.

After some time, they called the warrior over and put him inside a large mortar. They then pounded all of his bones until they were broken and created a new body for the warrior – complete with wings like the Thunderbird. Then, they gave the young warrior a bow and arrows and sent him on his way.

This is how the Passamaquoddy warrior became a Thunderbird. Legend claims that he still keeps guard over good Indians and is a mighty protector.

Thunderbird Saves People from Unktehi

According to legend, the Thunderbird Wakan Tanka was the grandson of the great sky spirit that had created the world and brought people into existence. All would have been peaceful if the water spirit Unktehi not gotten involved. Unktehi thought people were parasites and she and her followers (the Unktehila) tried to drown all humans. Terrified, the people retreated to the highest hill they could find and prayed for help. Wakan Tanka heard their pleas and came to fight Unktehi so she would leave the people in peace. Wakan Tanka caused lightning to split open the earth. This drained Unktehi and the Unktehila into the cracks, far away from mankind.

Origin of the Myth

Thunderbird Native American Symbol
Thunderbird Native American Symbol
Many who have studied the Thunderbird myth are convinced that it originated as a way for Native Americans to better explain the world around them. It is supposedly a creature who has control over both life and death. As such, the Thunderbird serves as a respected deity and demonstrates how the elements can give humans both life and be a cause of death or endangerment.

People who think the story of the Thunderbird is figurative often point to the story of the travelers who went in search of Thunderbird. In this story, there are two travelers looking to discover the origin of thunder. When they look to the part of the story that tells us one of the travelers is crushed between two rocks, some scholars are convinced that this is a metaphor used to discuss the semi-visible shape of the man in in the moon as a crushed Indian warrior.

If this warrior is a fixture in the moon, it could mean that the Thunderbird is a constellation. There is one pictograph in particular that intrigues researchers for its resemblance to a stellar feature that many believe could be a supernova.

Despite these speculations, the origin of the Thunderbird myth is admittedly unknown.

Pterodactyls and Megafauna

While many rely on a more theological explanation, there are some who believe the stories of Thunderbird are inspired by real creatures that were witnessed by the early Native Americans. The explanation for which creature this may be tends to vary, but tends to lead to the suggestion that the Thunderbird could be a cryptid as well as a legendary creature.

Those who point to the pterodactyls are insistent that the early Native Americans were known to inhabit the Americas at a point in time where they could have encountered one of these creatures if it had managed to survive past the estimated extinction of the dinosaurs. Because of the pterodactyl’s great wingspan, it is plausible that the sound made from this creature’s flapping of wings could have been the cause of the name ‘Thunderbird.’ The pterodactyl is also a solid candidate because it has teeth. While teeth do not always appear in the legend of the Thunderbird, there are many totem poles with carvings of the creature that suggest it does have teeth.

The major drawback to the pterodactyl being the source of the myths is that the wings of the Thunderbird and wings of the pterodactyl appear to be very different. The pterodactyl is thought to have wings that are similar to that of a bat. The Thunderbird, however, is thought to have wings that are feathered. There are some that still argue the pterodactyl could be a likely candidate because the wings could have been a similar color and the Native tribes may have simply observed these creatures from a distance without ever interacting with them up close. Details in the legend, however, contradict this. Legends of the Thunderbird often refer to the bright colors of the creature’s feathers. These two facts seem to eliminate the pterodactyl entirely.

There may, however, be an alternative explanation. Species of megafauna are known to have existed in the Americas during the time that the first peoples would have been settling on the continent and it is possible that a species of megafauna is responsible for the very detailed descriptions of the Thunderbird. This is one of the more commonly accepted theories as to the origin of the Thunderbird – especially those who are hoping to find a cryptid. Though it extremely uncommon that a cryptid of this size would be able to stay hidden from modern eyes this long, the possibility still proves to be intriguing to many pseudoscientists.

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