Thunderbird Spotting

Posted by: Loren Coleman on April 13th, 2006

In response to my recent Cryptomundo posting about unusual birds showing up in North Dakota, cryptozoologist Matt Bille, author of Rumors of Existence

Matt Bille

…and his forthcoming Spring 2006 sequel, Shadows of Existence, comments (remarks reproduced with permission) thusly:

When the topic of birds comes up, I always puzzle over the contrast between the amazing ability of birders to spot – and report – small accidentals and their apparent inability to spot Thunderbirds the size of Piper Cubs. With all respect to those who have done work in this field (Coleman, Hall, etc.) I remain convinced this is strong evidence no such birds exist.

Matt must have known that I would bring forth this quote: “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” – Physicist John Archibald Wheeler via Carl Sagan’s book, A Demon Haunted World.

Needless to say, the simple answer to Matt’s remark is that birders are not looking for big birds because they don’t think they exist, there are few of the birds to see, and yet, of course, people are seeing the large birds, nevertheless.

Since Matt Bille is also addressing his critique to Mark A. Hall, I’ll let Hall speak for himself.

Hall Thunderbirds

In Hall’s 2004 book, Thunderbirds: America’s Living Legends of Giant Birds, he writes:

Some critics of the survival of giant birds will argue that places like West Virginia have been thoroughly examined for birdlife and that no giant birds have been found. But that simply assumes the conclusion within their argument. The issue here is whether or not that assumption is in error. “Where are the reports of giant birds?” they will ask. That is what we are seeing here. Modern reports of giant birds continue. Why aren’t there more of them? Three reasons: the birds are not numerous; the birds are secretive and utilize the cover of darkness and their natural camouflage well…; and people are discouraged from making sightings known.

The ridicule factor has a major impact, and Hall goes on to give some commentary from one veteran birdwatcher who had this to say, in January 2003, about reporting unusual birds in Virginia:

As a long-time birdwatcher, I have learned that even when it comes to little things, like, say, a blue-gray gnatcatcher spending the winter in Virginia, most bird authorities won’t listen to you unless you file a detailed report, preferably with a good photo. I went on a Christmas bird count last year that yielded a black-and-white warbler and a gnatcatcher in Virginia during the month of December. The warbler was not taken seriously, even though it and another neotropical species had been found wintering in the same place the year before. God help someone who sees a boreal owl in Virginia.

In light of all this: I know folks who see rare owls, sandhill cranes, and the like in my neck of the woods, and don’t report them at all for fear of being laughed at by other birders. I’d imagine anyone who saw a Bachman’s warbler or ivory-billed woodpecker today would do the same. Even if the bird landed on your head, unless you had a good photo, not a soul would believe you. Even a respected expert in the field of ornithology would shudder at the idea of telling someone they saw one of these rare birds, especially if it were never seen again. Any evidence would be subject to ridicule. The bird in the photo is stuffed, the feather is from a pileated woodpecker or stuffed specimen, the call you heard was a starling or mockingbird’s mimic, yada yada yada…..It’s the same ridicule that keeps the thylacine in the shadows and lake monsters from being taken seriously by most scientists.

Why don’t birders see giant birds? Maybe they do, but they also are forestalled in reporting them through their formal channels. That’s more routine that apparently Bille wants to consider. Ridicule can be a strong deterrent to talking about something when people make you feel mentally unbalanced for saying you saw such things.

As Hall continues:

Thunderbirds are not understood and are not recognized for what they are in the bird-watching world. So when giant birds appeared over Illinois in 1977 no one in Illinois tried to track them at the time. No effort was set into motion to follow their progress through the state.

For now, as long as Thunderbirds remain part of cryptozoology’s “damned data,” they will stay in the cellar of the common birdwatcher’s priorities, and most birders will concentrate on their life lists and the accidentals they wish to record.

Loren Coleman About Loren Coleman
Loren Coleman is one of the world’s leading cryptozoologists, some say “the” leading living cryptozoologist. Certainly, he is acknowledged as the current living American researcher and writer who has most popularized cryptozoology in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Starting his fieldwork and investigations in 1960, after traveling and trekking extensively in pursuit of cryptozoological mysteries, Coleman began writing to share his experiences in 1969. An honorary member of Ivan T. Sanderson’s Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained in the 1970s, Coleman has been bestowed with similar honorary memberships of the North Idaho College Cryptozoology Club in 1983, and in subsequent years, that of the British Columbia Scientific Cryptozoology Club, CryptoSafari International, and other international organizations. He was also a Life Member and Benefactor of the International Society of Cryptozoology (now-defunct). Loren Coleman’s daily blog, as a member of the Cryptomundo Team, served as an ongoing avenue of communication for the ever-growing body of cryptozoo news from 2005 through 2013. He returned as an infrequent contributor beginning Halloween week of 2015. Coleman is the founder in 2003, and current director of the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine.

20 Responses to “Thunderbird Spotting”

  1. fuzzy responds:

    Thunderbirds in Illinois in 1977, eh?

    Around that time, a close family member fishing at dawn in a Rhode Island lake well-known for mystical activities, saw two enormous black birds swooping low over the adjacent parkland.

    “They looked like gigantic crows, with bodies as big as a VW and real long wings”, he reported. He could hear the wind over their wings and the rush of air as they flapped their way between lakeside trees, then out over the water and into the morning mist.

    They paid no attention to him, but he kept looking over his shoulder for the rest of the morning.

  2. Chymo responds:

    The issue of the Thunderbird is an extremely perplexing one.

  3. TrDriver responds:

    It was the late 1950s. A long time ago, I was a teenager, it could have been 1958. We lived in Maumee, Ohio. It was more rural country than suburban back then. There was one big, maybe twenty acre or more hayfield we used to use as a shortcut. One evening a couple of my friends and I were walking home and a black cat happened to cross our path. I was explaining to my friends how it was all superstition about that being bad luck. I almost had them convinced until we started across that hayfield. We got out in the middle of the field. It was right around dusk. The sun had gone down but it wasn’t completely dark yet. Here comes this huge bird-like thing flying in the air and coming towards us. We did what anyone would do. We had a race to get across that open field and near some trees and houses. Even as a teenage I was good size, 150+ pounds. I am sure we thought that bird or whatever it was, was big enough to carry one of us away.

  4. hockomock responds:

    Observed one at dusk in 1954 in the Hockomock Swamp in eastern Massachusetts. I have never seen another.

  5. thegodofthesun responds:

    Has anyone considered a regular large bred crow with a severe case of gigantism / elephantitis? Im sure its a naturally(manmade?) possible deformity, but like winning the lotto, the rarest event one could suffer.

    Im not one for genetic engineering, but if I was in the field, nothing would stop me from manufacturing lobsters with elephantitis. So maybe these “thunderbirds” are a scientists attempt at making larger birds for a future chicken modification.

  6. kimmylou responds:

    It was around the year 1969 when I was playing in my yard, along side of our house in nothern central California when a very large winged bird of some sort flew directly over me. It came from over the roof top and glided over me casting it’s large shadow before my eyes. I was very afraid and ran into the house. I know what I saw and will never forget it. Just recently I’ve heard about sightings of the Thunderbird. Could it have been? I share this experience with many others it seems. I just want to say….It was a truly profound experience.

  7. Harvester responds:

    Interesting, however I watched a show about this and a couple things remained with me. First off a boy who was picked up off the ground from a bird grabbing him and he punches the bird to be released. It carried him I believe about 20 yards. Now the more interesting part, a short while away a retired Army news reporter was in his canoe in the river. And then he saw what he had not seen before, and because he ALWAYS has his movie camera with him he filmed it. They even showed the film on the show and these were some very big birds and not too far away from the other incident (I believe if I remember right). So, they were not the size of a small plane, however they were some big birds and he did capture them on video..and I am big raptor fan and I couldn’t identify them either.

    So, there may be some truth to this story, however they are probably dead now and extinct. The video was from the 70’s.

  8. keeroc responds:


    “True elephantiasis is the result of a parasitic infection caused by three specific kinds of round worms. The long, threadlike worms block the body’s lymphatic system–a network of channels, lymph nodes, and organs that helps maintain proper fluid levels in the body by draining lymph from tissues into the bloodstream.

    This blockage causes fluids to collect in the tissues, which can lead to great swelling, called “lymphedema.” Limbs can swell so enormously that they resemble an elephant’s foreleg in size, texture, and color. This is the severely disfiguring and disabling condition of elephantiasis.”

    someone should check a few basics before posting preposterous suggestions about elephantitis ? – whatever that is .

    – The reports out of Alaska of a giant raptor a few years back were most interesting.

  9. Jeremy_Wells responds:

    On the acceptance of reports I have this to add. Several years ago, while I was still in college, my boss and turkey hunting partner told me about spotting a cougar in Greenup County, Kentucky. He had spotted it through the scope of his rifle, while deer hunting. This was a man in his late 40s, with years of experience in the woods. I trusted his judgement when he told me it wasn’t a dog or large housecat.
    I had heard stories of “black panthers” (including one that supposedly peered in a window at my father as a child) and even how a 200 pound hog belonging to a cousin’s friend had been found mauled to death a few short miles from wehre my hunting partner spotted his big cat. Despite all of this I was skeptical.
    Then reports from neighboring Lewis County began filtering in, including a news story about a cougar spotted dragging the carcass of a fawn across someone’s lawn (this one was the traditional tawny type, like the one reported by my hunting partner, and not the melanistic variety reported by family).
    I remember seeing the article pinned to a bulletin board in a small bait shop, but never found any follow up.
    The story quoted a local game warden as saying that, if the creature spotted was indeed a cougar, it was probably an escaped or abandoned exotic pet. This despite a tradition of large felids and detailed descriptions from peoples who, literally, grew up playing in the same woods where they still live.
    So much for official channels of investigation.

  10. carolstream responds:

    August, 1988. Riverwoods, IL-about 25 miles north of Chicago. I was talking on the phone, looking out over the pond, when a HUGE bird landed in the pond. It was the ugliest thing I’d ever seen and the most magnificent thing I’d ever seen all at once. I still look in every bird book I come across but have yet to see anything like it. Cranes and storks come close, but it was definitely not either of those.

    It stood in the pond, looking around with scary bulging eyes. It looked haggard and tired, as though it had been traveling a long time. It also looked like it could kill me. After about a minute, it flew away.

    I did not hear thunder from its wings; it’s wings moved slow and heavy when it took off, and barely made a sound.

    I got a pretty good look at it as it was about 100 feet away, with nothing to block my view. I’m not sure how deep the pond is where the bird was standing, but even if the pond was low that day, it would have been at least four feet. I could easily see the bird’s knees. They were very thick and knobly. Long grey leg, thicker than say a stork. It must’ve been over 10 feet tall, probably more like 12 feet. It’s neck was long and grey and its body had brownish grey feathers. It was ugly, it had no color, almost like it was a sketch and not real. It looked pre-historic, but not like a raptor.

    If Harvester would be so kind as to post the name of the show he saw with footage of the bird, I would greatly appreciate it.

  11. Harvester responds:

    There is a detailed account of what the show had talked about. There is also a still from the movie that Chief AJ took. I am sorry but I could only find this, Discover Channel “Into the Unknown” 1997.

  12. Matt Bille responds:

    Why don’t birders see giant birds? Maybe “Maybe they do, but they also are forestalled in reporting them through their formal channels.”

    I’m sorry, but that and the comment by one unnamed birdwatcher sighted by Mr. Hall don’t convince me. “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absense,” but Loren, you seem to be implying that absence of evidence is evidence of presence – in other words, “maybe they do” is supposed to mean we should imply that they do.

    As to the ridicule factor, the works I’ve read since the ivory-bill rediscovery claim include accounts of people who did report ivory-bills even though they expected, and usually received, ridicule.

    A point of difference between the ivory bill and the Tbird is that the former pecks out relatively inconspicuous nests. If the Tbird nests in treetops or on outcrops, the nests must be larger than those of eagles. That no one has ever found one such nest makes me lean to the view that, at some point, absence of evidence is indeed evidence of absence.

    I don’t doubt the witness’ sincerity, but it’s easy (as I can attest) to overestimate an ainmal’s size, especially in the in-flight reports. The fact that hundreds of thousands of birders armed with spotting scopes, cameras, and videos haven’t turned up any Tbirds implies to me there are no Tbirds to turn up.


    Matt Bille

  13. carolstream responds:

    Harvester, thanks for the link. The bird I saw was definitely not like Chief AJ’s bird. Mine had a long crooked neck and long legs. Then again, I didn’t really see it in flight, it was standing in a pond.

    Matt Bille, I just want to say that all accounts I’ve read about giant birds have come from people who aren’t birders. Like me. Not out for notoriety in the bird world, just saw something extraordinary and want to share the experience. Sorry I didn’t have a camera, but I was pretty awestruck and wasn’t about to move. It would’ve been gone by the time I found a camera, anyway.

    I wonder if some witnesses actually underestimate the size of the bird. 12 feet sounds crazy, so let’s just say 4.

    But the one I saw was MUCH MUCH bigger than me, and I’m 5’5″.

    If birders wanted to look for it, maybe they need to go where it would likely be — in Illinois near water and away from people. Probably not where most birders would go looking for birds.

    I saw this bird almost 20 years ago, and the picture of it will never leave my head. It was huge and ugly, and it was awesome.

  14. wbaker71 responds:

    During the mid 1970’s, I lived in Brookfield Illinois, just west of Chicago. Our house was right next to one of the many forest preserves in the Chicago area. Within this preserve was a small creek, Salt Creek, which flowed into the Desplaines River. One day while sitting in the kitchen and looking out the window into the forest, I saw a large dark bird over the tall oaks (over 100 feet tall) being chased by smaller birds. I’d seen this before, small sparrows and other birds chasing large crows. But this time, as I looked closer, the bird being chased was much larger than anything I had ever seen before, the small birds were crows. The large bird moved its wings very slowly, much slower than the crows, and didn’t appear to make any abrupt changes in flight. I watched for maybe 15 – 30 seconds before the large bird disappeared into the deep forest. From the distance, the large bird appeared to be a dark color, dark brown or black.

    Later that same summer while walking along the creek, about 10 feet from the edge of the water. The creek at this time was 25-30 across. Something caught my attention from behind. As I quickly turned, and watched as a very large bird came flying by, several feet above the water level. But this bird was huge, its wing span covering most of the width of the creek. The tips appeared to have fingertips, like an eagle, its color was a dark brown black, and there was no difference in the color of the head. The bird just as quickly flew away.

    I had the chance to discuss both sightings with one of the senior bird keepers at Brookfield Zoo. His initial response was that the bird was a golden eagle, but when I insisted that the wing span was to big, he said that no birds that large other than condors existed, but not in Illinois.

    Could this be a Thunderbird? I’ve reviewed several websites and their sightings reports. There was a number of sightings during 1977 in central and northern Illinois, which could have been the year I saw the bird.

    Is there any place where I can find out more information on this size bird that inhabits Illinois?

  15. MontanaJon responds:

    My father told me of one of his many prospecting trips to Alaska where he saw what he thought was some sort of a small cessna plane flying overhead until he realized it was some sort of a bird. This has left me curious in this subject ever since.

  16. Morwen25 responds:

    Is it possible that the “Thunderbirds” are Andean Condors that have wandered extremely far outside of their normal range? The Andean Condor is dark in coloration, and I know that the males have a white ring around their neck as was described in one of the posts. The Andean Condor has a body length of 43-51 inches and an 11 ft wing span. The Andean Condor will kill living prey. If a few of these birds strayed up into North America they would be very noticable for the short time they were in the area, but they would likely roam from region to region quickly, since they would have no idea of where to find suitable habitat. They are usually found over open grasslands and Alpine areas in high mountain regions of Western South America. They do not prefer forested areas so if they blundered into such a region they would likely stay on the move. They nest in rocky caves and craggy areas-if they could not find such and area and had to nest on flat ground they would be in danger from predators. If “Thunderbirds” are Andean Condors, it is reasonable to assume some of the birds are lost to predation when they stray into suboptimal habitat. Also, they may be susceptible to diseases which are common to our local bird population. These two factors may account for the short lived nature of the sitings. Beyond this, it may be that some of these birds actually find their way back home.

  17. Seraphine responds:

    I believe I saw a giant bird once.

    I understand distance and perception have a large role to play in this sort of siting, but here it is:
    I was driving down 11A in Gilford, NH (near Gunstock Mountain) I caught a shadow from the corner of my eye. It was a clearly bird, and seemed rather large, so I assumed it was flying at a relatively close distance, almost parallel to me.

    But then I saw it pass out of view, BEHIND one of the mountains in the distance, and realized it had to have been much farther away than I thought, and thus much, much larger than a normal bird.

  18. shypony responds:

    I believe they may live in the Sierra Madre Oriental in Mexico. They are remnants and they migrate. They are probably not California or Andean Condors. Two (possibly more) witnesses in Arizona, along with some other “tales” not investigated yet. One witness stated a huge bird flew above him over a large cottonwood grove along the San Pedro River in southern AZ in mid 1980’s; it made no sound and glided like a glider; it took several seconds to cross an opening in the canopy; he called to his friend but the scrub and trees were too dense; the friend did not witness it; the witness states he saw what appeared to be the underbelly of a gigantic bird; it was covered in iridescent bright green feathers, like a hummingbird!

  19. kittenz responds:


    Very large flying birds ride the winds. Possibly condors, very large tropical eagles, geese, cranes, storks, pelicans, or even albatrosses may occasionally get blown many miles from their usual habitats by strong upper-level winds or freak storms. Maybe these account for some of the thunderbird sightings.

    I’m sure that human astonishmnet, and the shock of suddenly being confronted with the sight of a very large, unfamiliar bird, causes some people to overestimate the size of the bird they have seen, especially if they see it only fleetingly. Unless there is an object of known size relatively nearby for comparison, it is sometimes hard for even experienced people to judge a bird’s size against the sky.

    I think that the existence of thunderbirds as a distinct, scientifically undescribed species is extremely unlikely.

  20. Marko responds:

    I never had much thought about the existence of thunderbirds. Being a biology major and a taxidermist who’s mounted everything from bald eagles to blue herons(with proper permits) and a n outdoorsman who’s seen every large bird from up close to distant, I have seen one I can’t explain. Being in wisconsin and hearing reports from Ill. , also doing permitted work for native americans such as eagles from the fed. depository, I have heard stories. But this was one I still have no explanation for. About ten or so years ago I was grilling steaks in my backyard and to my east I saw a huge bird about a mile away. The sun was to the west so the color of the plumage was dark brown or black. I’ve had turkey vultures, eagles sandhills and the other large birds in our state faraway and right over my house. I was alarmed as it flew very slowly south. It had an extremely slow wing beat and did a large circle that seemed to take forever to complete before it traveled on, keeping it’s wings out spread. I was tempted to jump in the truck and try to follow it to get a better look but the steaks were expensive and almost done. I remember trying to squint my eyes to look for legs extending from the rear like a crane but being as far off as it was all I could see was it’s massive wingspan, slow wing beats, and huge raptor like circle it made. To this day I simply have to file it as unknown. If was a vulture, it would have had to only be a few blocks away. I’ve been close enough to them to hit them with a rock. I’ve seen hundreds of eagles from Canada to n.Wis to the Mississippi river in the late winter from sitting above me to a mile away. Got me stiumped.

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