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Native American Bird Lore – The Thunderbird

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Sightings of a gigantic bird, referred to by the Native American peoples as the Thunderbird, have been part of the history of the Southwest for thousands of years. A mystical creature sent by their gods to protect them from evil, the Thunderbird was believed to ride on the wings of a storm.  With fire-burning eyes, a cry like the crack of lightening, and talons large and strong enough to carry a killer whale, the creature’s powerful wings would beat with the sound of rolling thunder.

Ute Indian legend has it that great Thunderbirds dominated the skies and lived atop the Grand Mesa. One day, the Thunderbirds stole some children from the Ute village. The village warriors climbed to the top of the mesa to rescue the children. Upon discovering that the children had all been eaten, the warriors threw the Thunderbird eggs into the valley below. The Thunderbirds later returned and discovered that a great serpent in the river had devoured their beloved eggs. The Thunderbirds descended on the snake, snatched it up in their claws, and flung it high over the mesa.  A violent storm ensued, during which the Thunderbirds tore the serpent to pieces. The Thunderbirds wept for their lost young and even today, when the wind blows from a certain direction, people say they can hear the squall of the Thunderbirds in their grief.

Scientists feel fairly certain that what the ancient Native Americans actually saw was a Giant Condor, which lived over 10,000 years ago. It’s possible that stories of the Giant Condor were passed down from generation to generation and firmly fixed in the legends of the Southwest, as memorialized in Petroglyphs (rock art) created by Native American artists. In some tribes, Thunderbirds are considered extremely sacred forces of nature, while in others they are treated like powerful but otherwise ordinary members of the animal kingdom.

Either way, when you hear the roll of thunder and watch lightning flash through the sky, it’s easy to imagine that somewhere up in the clouds may be the giant bird of legend.