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The Thunderbird

Virtually every Native American culture has stories of a giant, magical bird, which most call the Thunderbird. The name comes from the sound the birds’ wings make when in full flight, like thunderclaps. The Thunderbird’s wings, it was said, were larger than two canoes, and the feathers the size of canoe paddles. Their eyes glowed red, and lighting shot out of their claws. At least two Thunderbirds flew in Washington: one in the Cascade Mountains, and the other in the Olympic Mountains of the Puget Sound.

The first bird lived part of the time inside Mount St Helens. It created earthquakes and volcanic eruptions when it rolled over in its sleep. The rest of the time, it lived at the bottom of Spirit Lake, at the foot of the mountain. The Native people saw the water bubble and froth when the Thunderbird was angry. According to one legend, this bird attacked many other creatures until the Raven killed it, after which the Thunderbird’s body fell into the Columbia River, where it formed several islands. Other people believe it is still alive, and is responsible for the recent eruptions at the mountain.

The local people were afraid of Spirit Lake because of the Thunderbird and the other spirit beings that inhabited the area, and kept a healthy distance away. When Mount St. Helens erupted in the 1840s, artist Paul Kane traveled to the mountain to sketch and paint it. Upon his return a few days later, the locals ran away from him. Their belief in the powers of the spirits there was so strong, they thought Kane was a ghost.

The second thunderbird was friendlier to humanity. Many generations ago, the Quillayute people of the Olympic Peninsula were starving, in part because a giant killer whale was eating all the fish. Their chieftain appealed the Great Spirit for help, and it summoned the Thunderbird. The Thunderbird appeared to the people with the body of the whale in its claws, which it gave to them to eat, then flew to Mount Olympus, where it made its home. And though it was helpful to humans, the bird valued its privacy. Hunters climbing the mountain were scared away by the ice and rock falls the bird created when it smelled them.

In addition to explaining natural phenomena such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, the Thunderbird legends have some basis in fact. Some think they were (and are) eagles, which are not common in the area but known to the native people there. And the largest living bird in North America is the California condor, which make their home in the Sierra Madre Mountains: a long way to travel to Washington State. Or is it?

Even the Lewis and Clark expedition had an experience with a possible Thunderbird. On November 18, 1805, Captain Clark led a party of 11 men from the area where modern day Megler, Washington is to Cape Disappointment, where they saw the Pacific Ocean for the first time. On that trip, one of the men killed a bird they had never seen before, one with a wingspan over nine feet long. Based on their description, it was a California condor. There had probably been a small population of these birds surviving in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest until the arrival of Europeans, when they were hunted into extinction. Other giant birds might have survived up to the modern age.

In 2005, a group from the Oregon Archaeological Society was excavating a site near Woodburn, Oregon. They found what they thought was an elk bone, but upon further analysis, it was discovered that the bone and several others on site belonged to an ancient bird known as the Teratorn. Teratorn bones have recently been found in Argentina and all across North America, in Oregon, California, Florida, and New York. The largest example found had a wingspan of over 24 feet, and weighed over 170 pounds. It was probably a carnivore, as it had a beak and jaw designed to pick up and swallow small prey whole. These birds probably thrived at the end of the last Ice Age, and paleontologists think they died out as the glaciers melted.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, several people living in southeast Washington reported seeing a large bird, with a wingspan the size of a piper cub airplane. In 2002, several people in Alaska reported seeing another giant bird with a wingspan of fourteen feet or longer. And passengers on an airplane once sighted one of these birds flying next to them. A cryptozoologist noted that most of these sightings happened when people were at the edge of large storm fronts. He suggested that birds this size needed the high winds to generate enough lift for them to fly, which earned them the name of Thunderbirds.

Some wildlife biologists are discussing plans to introduce California condors to the Columbia River Gorge. It seems that the birds are not afraid of humans or human activities, and many of those raised in captivity and released into the wild have been killed when interacting with people or structures such as power lines. The human population in the Columbia River Gorge scenic area is much lower than in southern California, and the birds may have a better chance of surviving here.

When Weird Washington’s Jeff Davis visited Chinook County Park to find the site where Lewis and Clark killed their condor, he found a small park with an interpretive sign about the incident. As he paused to take some pictures, a bald eagle flew overhead and screeched at him. Coincidence? Maybe the eagle had its own interpretation of the events there.

Weird Washington


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