Laos Teratornis Stamp

Thunderbird Stamps

Stories about giant birds often associated with thunderstorms appear in many parts of the world throughout history. As early as the third millenium B.C. the ancient Sumerians revered the giant lion-headed eagle Imdugud whose roaring created thunder. The ancient Hindus venerated Garuda, a giant eagle-like bird who served as the mount of Vishnu. Four stories in Tales from the Arabian Nights relate encounters with the Roc (or Rukh), a giant bird said to be capable of carrying off an elephant. In two of the stories Sinbad the sailor tangles with the Roc, and he is carried off by one. The two other stories about the Roc feature Abd al-Rahman. Italian explorer Marco Polo mentions the Roc in his journals. Envoys from Madagascar presented Roc feathers to the Chinese ruler. Madagascar was indeed formerly the home of a giant bird, the elephant bird Aepyornis maximus, now extinct. However, unlike the Roc, the elephant bird could not fly.

To Native Americans, the Thunderbird was usually a friend to humans, a benevolent spirit being seen as the source of wisdom. The Chippewa stated that the eyes of the Thunderbird flashed with fire, his glance engendered lightning, and the flapping of his wings produced thunder. The Algonkian tribes (the Ojibwa among them) believed the Thunderbird to be a benign nature spirit. The Kwakiutl said the Thunderbird taught them how to build houses. The Assiniboin claimed the wise old Thunderbird never harmed or killed anyone. The Thunderbird features prominently in Native American art. In the 1970s Canada issued several postage stamps depicting traditional Native American images of the Thunderbird.

Coexisting with the stories of a benign spiritual Thunderbird are darker tales of corporeal giant birds of prey who sometimes hunted and killed human beings. The Native Americans distinguished these malign creatures both from ordinary eagles and from the the benign Thunderbird. A Comanche story combines elements of both types. A Comanche hunter once shot a giant bird he believed was a Thunderbird. Shortly thereafter lightning struck and killed the hunter.

White Bear, a Cree who was by marriage a member of a Blackfoot tribe, was abducted by a giant bird around 1850. After having successfully killed a deer, White Bear suddenly found himself and the deer he had killed snatched up by an omaxsapitau, a giant bird well-known to the Blackfoot resembling an eagle but far larger. White Bear was transported to the bird's nest where he found himself on the dinner menu for two juvenile omaxsapitau. White Bear escaped by hurling the juveniles out of the nest by the feet and holding on, using the frantically flapping young birds as a parachute. He released them as soon as he hit the ground, keeping just a couple of tail feathers as a souvenir.

White Bear was a real person, a well-known eagle hunger, who died in 1905. His grandson Harry Under Mouse told the story of White Bear's encounter with the omaxsapitau to Claude Schaeffer of Montana's Museum of the Plains Indians.

It is not just Native Americans who have seen giant birds in the skies of North America. Many reports emanate from Missouri and Illinois, particularly during the spring and summer months. These birds are nearly always described as dark, perhaps black, in color, with wingspans of five meters or more. Curiously, the Illini and Miami talked of a creature called the Piasa, "the bird who eats men." A famous Native American drawing of the Piasa bird may still be seen near Alton, Illinois.

In 1898 a farmer in Crawford County, Pennsyvania captured and caged a giant bird. According to those who saw it, the bird stood between one and two meters in height and possessed a wingspan of over five meters. The farmer assumed the bird was an Andean or Californian condor, but ite far greater size and its coloration did not match those birds. This may have been the only "big bird" specimen ever captured alive in the United States. Unfortunately the final disposition of the bird remains unknown.

In April 1948 Clyde Smith, his wife, and a friend, Les Bacon, spied a giant bird at Overland, Illinois. They had at first thought it to be a low-flying airplane until it flapped its wings. Several other people reported seeing a giant bird in the same area over the next couple of weeks.

On July 25, 1977 ten year old Marlon Lowe was carried off by a giant black or dark-colored bird in Lawndale, Logan County, Illinois. The bird carried Marlon thirty to forty yards before releasing him. The bird was accompanied by another of its kind, perhaps its mate.

Pilots in small planes occasionally encounter giant birds. For example, in 1961 a businessman flying a light plane along the Hudson River Valley reported being buzzed by a giant bird. Some suggest the bird might have taken the airplane for an enemy bird and buzzed it as a warning.

Cryptozoologists suggest the stories about the giant birds may originate in observations of surviving teratorns. Some teratorn species reached truly gigantic size, including Argentavis magnificens with an eight meter wingspread and Teratornis incredibilis with a six meter wingspread. The teratorns are usually assumed to have become extinct thousands of years ago. Even if some still existed they could not account for the stories of abductions such as that of White Bear or Marlon Lowe. This is because the teratorns, like their relatives the condors, had very weak feet, incapable of grasping large prey. Probably they did not build nests either. Only true raptors (acciptrids) like eagles build nests and possess strong feet equipped with powerful grasping claws.

Mongolia Griffin Vulture Stamp
Gyps fulvus
Mongolia #915
Issued 1972
Sahara Golden Eagle Stamp
Aquila chrysaetos
Sahara Occ. R.A.S.D.
Issued 1996

Some stories of abductions by giant birds may represent encounters with an unusually large Golden Eagle Aquila chrysaetos (left). This bird normally possesses a wing span of over two and half meters. Another possibility is that some sightings are of griffin vultures (Gyps fulvus (right)) which have escaped captivity. The griffin vulture's wingspan can reach over three meters and its body is dark brown in color. The ability of these or any other known raptors to lift and carry off even a small child -- let alone an adult -- remains a matter of controversy. The most interesting possibility is that there is an unknown native true giant raptor currently living in North America which is powerful enough to carry off adult humans like White Bear.

Incidentally. there is also a meteorological explanation for the origin of Thunderbird -- as opposed to "giant bird" -- stories. Jim O'Neil's thunderbird photos illustrate how lightning can assume the form a giant bird. Other celestial phenomena have also been linked to giant birds. Bob Kobres's article Comets and the Bronze Age Collapse posits that bird-like aspects of comets figured prominently in the cultural development of many peoples in early times. In two of the Roc stories in Tales from the Arabian Nights the Roc drops boulders on ships in retaliation for the killing of its chick. This may have originated in observations of meteorites falling from the sky.

See the Birds section of my cryptozoology links page for more sites offering information about Thunderbirds and giant birds.

Selected Thunderbird and Giant Bird Stamps
Canada Assiniboin Thunderbird Stamp

Scott # 564
Issued 1972

This stamp displays an Assiniboin thunderbird pattern.

Canada Algonkian Thunderbird Stamp

Scott # 568
Issued 1973

This stamp displays an Algonkian thunderbird pattern.

Canada Kwakiutl Thunderbird Stamp

Scott # 573
Issued 1974

This stamp displays a Kwakiutl thunderbird pattern.

Canada Ojibwa Thunderbird Stamp

Scott # 577
Issued 1975

This stamp displays an Ojibwa thunderbird pattern.

Hungary Roc Stamp

Scott # 1724
Issued 1965

This stamp shows the Roc carrying off Sinbad in the story from Tales from the Arabian Nights . One of a set of nine stamps depicting scenes from the Arabian Nights. You can also view the first day cover.

Laos Teratornis Stamp

Scott # 1160
Issued 1994

This stamp depicts the Teratornis.

Back to my cryptozoology and philately page.
Back to my cryptozoology page.
Back to my myth and legend page.
Back to my interests.
Back to my home page.
Search my pages.

Last modified by pib on July 6, 2003.