Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Birdlore: The Mighty Thunderbird

 Legends are stories based on primitive human interpretation of witnessed events to explain the natural order of the world. 

Over time, these stories tend to change and become larger than life. A single legend will diverge into various versions as separate cultures will regard the focus of the said legend in a different light.  The legend of the thunderbird is a classic example.  In most Native American cultures, the thunderbird could create thunder and lightning with the beating of its wings.

Patriot the Bald Eagle
The thunderbird is likely inspired by Bald Eagles or Golden Eagles.  Even today, we are still in awe of these magnificent raptors.  It is easy to understand how earlier cultures would see eagles as a logical cause for storms when the science of water cycles was not yet known.

In the Americas references to the thunderbird can be found widespread among Pacific Northwestern, Northeastern, and Plains tribes.  Aside from being the originator of fierce storms, the thunderbird has been regarded as a protector to the Native Americans, a trickster, a challenger to other great powers in the natural world, or a malevolent being that would kill anyone that would trespass on his sacred mountain.

One tale of the Thunderbird comes from the Quileute tribe of the northern Pacific coast:

Legend has it that the Thunderbird was a great creature with feathers the size of a canoe paddle.  As he flew through the sky, he created thunder and wind with the flap of his mighty wings and flashed lightning from his eyes when he blinked.  Hunters were afraid of the Thunderbird, so they did not stay near his sacred mountain very long.

The Thunderbird lived off the meat of the whale and each day would go out to the ocean to catch the whale and fly it back to his mountain to eat. One time Thunderbird had a great battle with Killer Whale.  The Thunderbird would catch Killer Whale and fly back to his mountain, but Killer Whale would escape and return back to the ocean.  On and on the Thunderbird would capture the whale, only to have him get away every time.  During their long and hard struggle, Thunderbird would beat his wings with terrible force and breathe life into storms, which uprooted trees in the many places of their battle in the mountains.

A totem depicting the struggle between Thunderbird and Killer Whale.  

Finally, Killer Whale escaped to the middle of the ocean and Thunderbird gave up the battle. 

According to the legend the battle between Thunderbird and Killer Whale explains why Killer Whales inhabit the deep ocean, and how the storms from so many battles created prairies among the forests on the northern Pacific Coast.

Submitted by Jessica Bunke, World Bird Sanctuary Trainer

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