Thunderbirds Are Go!

Our series of Adventure Activity Days for children continued here at SOS earlier this month and although entitled, “Thunderbirds ‘R’ Go!”, there wasn’t a Gerry Anderson-style marionette to be found anywhere!

The reason is that the birds in question related to a much older legend, that of the Thunderbird, the spiritual icon of many native cultures in the Americas long before Christopher Columbus arrived in 1492.  However, it was Columbus who first referred to the peoples he found there as Indians, believing (incorrectly) that he had arrived in Asia, which the Spanish referred to as the ‘Indies’.

However, the Native American Indians were not a single race of people as many of the first Europeans thought.  The incumbents were made up of many different tribes, each rich with its own individual cultural heritage, customs and traditions.  But one particular myth appears to have bound all of these tribes together - the legend of the Thunderbird.


So why do we make a legend the subject for one of our popular activity days?  The simple answer is that the “Thunderbird” was supposed to be a giant raptor, potentially the largest bird of prey that ever lived. It was reputed to have a wingspan equal to the length of two war canoes which, at sixty-three feet in length, gave a potential wingspan of 126 feet! The Thunderbird got its name because many of the Native American Indian tribes believed this bird caused fierce storms as it flew through the air, and that the noise we call ‘thunder’ was caused by the beating of those enormous wings!

Amongst other Thunderbird legends we uncovered are that they were invisible; were created by the Great Spirit to carry messages from one spirit to another; and had a hand in the creation of all the birds we have today. As author Richard L. Dieterle recounts:

“As the Thunderbirds traversed the heavens, they would occasionally lose a feather.  From such feathers, the visible birds sprang into existence.  From the large quill feathers of the Thunderbirds came the race of EAGLES; from other  large feathers came the race of HAWKS and their kind; from small feathers came such birds as PARTRIDGES; from the down feathers came the small birds like ROBINS and PIGEONS; and from the mere fuzz of down feathers emerged the very smallest birds, such as the SPARROWS and the HUMMINGBIRDS!  All birds therefore, are descended from the Thunderbirds.”

For this reason, Thunderbirds, Eagles and Feathers have become an integral part of Native American Indian Art, Culture & Custom.  

We continued our day by having a look at some Thunderbird imagery to get a better idea of what we were talking about.  A lot of associated pictures illustrate a large raptor with a ‘comb’ on its head. We found the only living raptor from the America’s that matches this description is the male Andean Condor, which has a fleshy or cartilaginous comb on its head and a wingspan of usually between nine and twelve feet.


Then we considered other aspects of the legend - or is it? Even as recently as 2002, people in Alaska reported sightings of an enormous raptor with a large wingspan.  Sceptics stated that a bird of this size they saw could not have flown, but this is not completely outside the realms of possibility - we discovered that the prehistoric vulture-like Teratornis Incredibilis had a wingspan of around 16-24 feet and is widely believed to have been capable of flight. 

And while we were on the subject, our ‘tribe’ verified that investigators think that Thunderbirds were associated with storms because they followed the drafts to stay in flight, not unlike a modern eagle the rides the air currents found in the mountains.  Noted crypto-zoologist John Keel claims to have mapped several Thunderbird sightings and found that they correspond chronologically and geographically with storms moving across the United States.  So perhaps there could be some truth in the legend after all!


Back down to earth, we decided to round off the activity day by creating some Indian feather-work of our own, inspired by all the wonderful things we had studied.  We decided to try a spot of FEATHER WRAPPING and making DREAM-CATCHERS.

Feather wrapping and cutting was originally a method of communicating wi
th onlookers; worn in the hair or as jewellery, the decoration would indicate a person’s tribe, clan or status. Native American tribes variously used to hang dream-catchers over the heads of sleeping children to filter dreams: the good dreams passed through the centre of the net into the mind of the sleeping person, whilst bad dreams got trapped in the web and perished in the light of the dawn.

So, all-in-all, a fascinating day with lots to discover and plenty to do. If you would like to take part in our next THUNDERBIRD ADVENTURE DAY watch this website for details of our schedule for 2008.