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Tall Tales or Crypto Creature?

There are many tales of the Thunderbird that are more recent than the Native American legends. The animal is almost always listed in the catalogs of cryptozoologists' mysterious creatures, and although the Thunderbird has been sighted on numerous occasions, a credible photograph or video of one has never been produced, and one has never been killed or captured... except perhaps once.

A tale comes out of the Arizona Territory desert about two cowboys who encountered the giant flying creature in 1890. As cowboys are wont to do, they took careful aim with their rifles at the amazing creature and blasted it from the sky. According to an article in the April 26, 1890 edition of the Tombstone Epigraph, the cowboys and their horses dragged the lifeless monster into town where its wingspan was measured at an incredible 190 feet and its body measured at 92 feet long. It was described as having no feathers, but a smooth skin and wings "composed of a thick and nearly transparent membrane." Clearly, their description more readily resembles a pteranodon, pterosaur or pterodactyl than a large bird.

Most paranormal researchers consider this story to be a good example of Old West creative writing on the part of the newspaper. But there may be a hint of truth in it. In 1970, a man named Harry McClure claimed that he knew one of the cowboys when he was a small boy. The real story, as the cowboy told the youth, was that the creature they shot at had a wingspan of 20 to 30 feet. They did not kill the Thunderbird, however, and returned to town only with their fantastic story.

One more intriguing element to this anecdote is that a photo was supposedly taken of the great creature, held up with its wings spread by several townspeople. Remarkably, many people recall seeing this photograph printed in Fate, National Geographic or Grit magazine, or in some book about the Old West, but as yet this photo has not been produced.

In his book Unexplained!, Jerome Clark lists many more sightings, including:

  • In the early 1940s, writer Robert R. Lyman spotted a Thunderbird sitting on a road near Coudersport, Pennsylvania. It soon took to the sky, spreading its 20-foot wingspan.
  • In 1969, the wife of a Clinton County, Pa. sheriff saw an enormous bird over Little Pine Creek. She said its wingspan appeared to be about as long as the creek was wide - about 75 feet!
  • In 1970, several people saw the gigantic bird "soaring toward Jersey Shore [Pa.]. It was dark colored, and its wingspread was almost like [that of] an airplane."
  • In 1948, several witnesses along the Illinois-Missouri border sighted a condor-like bird about the size of a Piper Club airplane.

Abductors of Children

The most terrifying stories about giant birds is that they occasionally attempt to carry away small animals and even children. This item appeared in the July 28, 1977 edition of the Boston Evening Globe:

10 year-old Marlan Lowe and his mother Mrs. Ruth Lowe claim that one of two large black birds with eight-foot wingspans tried to carry Marlan off in its claws Monday evening in Lawndale, Illinois. Although several birds experts say that no bird native to Illinois could lift 70 pound Marlan. Mrs. Lowe say that Marlan was carried 20 feet before the bird dropped him when he struck the bird with his hand. (UPI)

Despite what the "birds experts" say, why would a mother make up such an incredible story that would certainly expose them to ridicule?

In September of the same year, in Burlington, Kentucky, a small dog was the victim of a similar abduction attempt. This item appeared in the September 2, 1977 edition of the Cincinnati Enquirer from a report by the Associated Press:

A five-pound puppy remains in critical condition today while wildlife experts try to decide whether it was attacked by an American Bald Eagle. Mrs. Greg Schmitt, Rabbit Hash, Ky., said the beagle was snatched from her farm and dropped in a pond 600 yards away. Mrs. Schmitt said she did not see the incident but that a 7-year-old neighbor boy did. He said it was a "big bird" which took the puppy skyward. The veterinarian, Dr. R. W. Bachmeyer, of Walton, Ky., said wounds on the puppy might have been caused by talons.

In this case, it seems to have been assumed that the predator was a bald eagle, but could it have been a Thunderbird?

Other abduction stories include that of a 42-pound five-year-old girl named Svanhild Hansen who in June, 1932 was carried away by a "huge eagle" from her parents' farm in Leka, Norway. The giant bird carried her for more than a mile, the report stated, after which it dropped her unharmed on a high mountain ledge.

In 1838, another five-year-old girl was snatched from the slope of the Swiss Alps, where she was playing, by an eagle that carried the child to its nest. Unfortunately, the girl did not survive the ordeal, and her badly mutilated body was discovered some two months later by a shepherd. The eagle's nest, subsequently found, was said to contain several eaglets surrounding "heaps of goat and sheep bones."

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