#13 – Thunderbirds & The Lawndale Incident

The legendary Thunderbirds are an intrinsic part of Native American culture. The Lakota, Ojibwa and Kwakwaka’wakw (which are an actual tribe, and not the sound of a duck sneezing) all tell tales of the times their tribes found themselves in strife, only to be rescued by the daring efforts of Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John.

If only the first white people they'd met had actually been this helpful.

If only the first white people they’d met had actually been this helpful.

Somebody fetch me a clean pair of trousers, as there’s a good chance I’ve just wit myself.

Obviously the real Thunderbird legends are quite different. The stories tell of immense birds that generated storms as they flew and cast lightning strikes from their talons – some Native Americans revere them as shapeshifters and ancestors, having taken human form to marry into the the tribe in the past. There’s probably a joke in there about having difficulty with your husband’s pecker, but I’ll be damned if I’m doing it.

What the hell would you get this guy for Father's Day?

Happy Father’s Day! It’s a dead rabbit.

Like many legends, however, it’s possible that there’s a grain of truth in all the exaggeration; lightning strikes and the summoning of storms may be flights of fancy, but that’s no reason to assume that the Thunderbird has no basis in reality whatsoever. The possibility of enormous unknown birds is an admittedly remote one, due in no small part to the simple fact that they’d be much more obvious and hard to miss than a submerging lake monster, but that doesn’t mean that sightings of them don’t take place. And in the case of the 1977 Lawndale Incident, they sometimes go a damn sight further than a simple sighting.

In 1977 Marlon Lowe was a carefree ten-year old kid in Illinois, playing happily in open fields near his home in Kickapoo Creek. And yes, that is its real name. I can only assume that there is very little to do in small town Illinois beyond kicking shit about and then naming places after the fun you’ve had. Marlon’s mother had guests round for a cookout – in all, there were seven witnesses to what would happen next, all of them remarkably consistent in their description of the Thunderbird.

Marlon as a child, here being embraced by his mother, dressed up as a character from Bo Selecta.

Marlon and his mother Ruth, here dressed as a Bo Selecta character.

Marlon suddenly ran screaming around the side of the house. He was being pursued by two enormous birds, each easily ten feet across and flying wing to wing. One of the massive creatures dived and grabbed the boy in its talons, carrying him off the ground for several feet. His mother Ruth screamed hysterically and spooked the bird, which promptly dropped the child before the two of them flew off in the direction of the creek.

The witnesses at the cookout were unanimous in their descriptions. The birds were huge and coal-black, with curved beaks and a ruff of white feathers around their white necks. The story was corroborated by a mechanic in town whose entire truck had been left in shadow when the two birds flew overhead before the attack.

The unknown birds seemed to share a lot of characteristics with enormous gliding birds like the Andean condor, particularly the ring of white feathers around the neck. Primarily carrion eaters, however, condors don’t hunt on the wing and aren’t considered to have anywhere near the talon strength required to carry prey or food any distance at all. Not only did these massive birds seem to be unknown to science, they also rather worryingly seemed to have a penchant for tiny ginger children (who as we all know have more than enough natural predators as it is).

There’s another possibility for the identity of the Lawndale Thunderbird. Thought to be fairly recently extinct in the grand scheme of history, the Teratorns cover five known species of giant predatory bird. Teratornis Merriami is the best known, with over a hundred examples recovered from the La Brea tar pits:


Spanning up to twelve feet across, this massive bird was contemporary with early man and bones found in ancient dump sites seem to indicate they were even hunted and killed. The larger beaks also suggest they were more active predators than condors, and thus may well have fancied pecking the ever-loving fuck out of the occasional baby in return.

Even Teratornis Merriami, however, is a tiny little bitch in comparison to its Teratorn cousin, found in Argentina. Meet this reconstruction of the largest bird that’s ever lived:

Sesame Street ain't got shit on this bad boy.

Sesame Street ain’t got shit on this bad boy.

Argentavis Magnificens was truly the stuff of nightmares. Anything up to two metres tall and seven metres across, this giant soaring bird probably used thermal currents to aid its flight – the sort of thermal currents that follow raging storms around. John Keel claims to have mapped thunderbird sightings and found that they correspond with storms moving across the United States. It’s highly unlikely that anything on the same scale as Argentavis Magnificens is still flapping about up there, but it would seem to explain a lot of Native American legends if something similar came spiraling out of the heart of a thunderstorm and spooked the crap out of their ancestors a few thousand years ago.

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