The case of the missing thunderbird photograph is unquestionably one of the most tantalizing – and tormenting – cryptozoological cases on file. I have already documented it in detail here on ShukerNature as well as in my two prehistoric survivors books, which should all be consulted for comprehensive coverage. However, serving to set the scene for this present article's subject, here is a concise quote from my afore-mentioned ShukerNature account of this elusive (or illusive?) image:
It all (allegedly) began back in 1886, when an Arizona newspaper called the Tombstone Epitaph supposedly published a very striking photograph, which depicted a huge dead pterodactyl-like bird with open beak and enormous outstretched wings, nailed to a barn and flanked by some men. This bird was reputed to be a thunderbird, and judging from the size scale provided by the height of the men standing alongside it, its wingspan appeared to be an awesome 36 ft! In other words, it was three times greater than that of the wandering albatross Diomedea exulans - the bird species currently holding the record for the world's biggest modern-day wingspan.
Since then, countless people claim to have seen this same photo in various magazines published some time during the 1960s or early 1970s, but no-one can remember precisely where. Those publications thought to be likely sources of such a picture include Saga, True, Argosy, and various of the many Western-type magazines in existence during this period in America, but searches through runs of these publications have failed to uncover any evidence of it.
Nor has anyone come forward with a copy of this photo as published elsewhere, and the archives of the Tombstone Epitaph do not have any copy of it either.
A number of photos claimed to be this evanescent, iconic image have been aired over the years, especially online, but these have all been exposed as hoaxes.
I should also point out here that some people have claimed that the ostensibly-vanished photo seen by them actually portrayed a bona fide pterodactyl, not merely a pterodactyl-like bird. However, just a few years after the thunderbird photo was supposedly first published, another story of a huge winged wonder began circulating, and in the same geographical region. This one concerned a huge bona fide pterodactyl having been shot in an American desert, i.e. a totally separate storyline but which has subsequently been conflated with the missing thunderbird photo's storyline, especially in online accounts. Consequently, this may explain those eyewitness reports of having seen a photo of a dead pterodactyl, rather than of a dead bird, pinned with wings outstretched to a barn door.
As will be seen if you search my ShukerNature blog, I have personally exposed a number of hoax thunderbird photos, because I feel that it is very necessary to remove from further consideration such fakes, as they serve only to confuse and detract from serious investigations being made by various researchers (myself included) regarding the original, genuine thunderbird photograph, if indeed such a picture really does exist. And now, yet another fake thunderbird photo has emerged, but one that I was able to expose very quickly, as now fully revealed here.
During the early hours of yesterday morning (12 October 2020), longstanding Facebook friend Randi MacDonald (aka Randi Mosasaur) brought to my attention via a private message on FB the following photograph that she had found on Pinterest, but with no details concerning its origin. I reproduced it at the opening of this present ShukerNature article of mine, but here it is again:
As seen, it has the outward appearance of being a very old, sepia photograph depicting what looks initially like a dead pterodactylian pterosaur pinned with wings outstretched to the front of a barn, in front of which are standing a number of human figures that may conceivably be cowboys or soldiers, or some of each. In short, it closely matches verbal descriptions that have been given by those people claiming to have seen the original, missing thunderbird photograph but alleging that the creature in question was a pterodactyl or at least a pterodactyl-like entity rather than an unequivocal (albeit extremely large!) feathered bird.
However, even the most cursory of glances at this photograph revealed straight away to me that it was a hoax, due to the unambiguously fraudulent nature of the thunderbird portrayed in it. Even if we choose to ignore the scarcely inconsiderable fact that the most recent pterodactyls known from the current fossil record are at least 65 million years old, with no scientifically-confirmed modern-day living example known, thereby rendering as decidedly remote the likelihood of the thunderbird in this photo being genuine, the latter entity is instantly recognizable as a fake, because of its readily visible composite nature. For whereas it sports the crested, beaked head of a Pteranodon-like pterodactyl, the bone structure of its wings as seen through the wing membranes is diagnostically that of a bat!
As shown above, a pterosaur's wing only contains a single greatly elongated finger, the 4th, which runs along its outer edge within the wing membrane. Conversely, a bat's wing contains three greatly elongated fingers. These are the 3rd, which runs along its outer edge within the wing membrane, plus the 4th and the 5th, both of which are contained further down within the wing membrane. In addition, the less elongated 2nd finger is contained within the wing membrane above the 3rd finger. This bat wing structure is precisely the version exhibited by the fake thunderbird's wings.
Yet even though within just a few moments of having first seen it I knew categorically that this photo was a fake, I decided to see out of sheer curiosity whether I could uncover the major original components in it that had been utilized and converted via digital manipulation to yield its image. I began with the barn, and using a combination of search engines I soon discovered the original, unmodified barn photograph that had been used. A full-colour modern-day photo, it appears on numerous websites, of which the earliest that I could find was in a 11 August 2010 post by Texas-based photographer Nancy Wingo Ridley (username = Rustic Images) on the Foundmyself website (please click here to access its site), being one of numerous attractive countryside-themed photographs that this website offers for sale. Please click here to see this photo on the Foundmyself site (where it is described as "Old barn and wagon near Fredricksburg, Tx"); and please click here to see Nancy's Foundmyself page containing her many exquisitely beautiful photographs that are available on this site.
When I compared this genuine full-colour modern-day photo of a barn with the fake thunderbird photo, it was immediately evident that the former had been used by the faker as the basis of the latter, as can be seen here:
As can also be seen, only three major changes have been made via digital manipulation to the actual structure of the barn. The barn door has been widened, the wheeled contraption in front of it has been removed, and the triangular section on the lower right-hand side of the barn roof has been digitally raised, i.e. stretched vertically, so that its outer edge is now tucked just underneath that of the barn roof's upper right-hand side. The effect of this is to make the barn horizontally wider at that particular point – but why would the faker choose to do this? The answer is quite simple – to make the barn wide enough at that particular point for the right-hand wingtip of the wings-outstretched pterodactyl to fit fully on it and thereby match the descriptions of claimed eyewitnesses of the original missing thunderbird photo. Had the faker not done this and had simply used the original full-colour barn photo unmodified, the pterodactyl's right-hand wingtip would have projected quite a way over the edge of the barn roof's lower right-hand edge instead of being contained entirely within it.
Added to the very decent job that the faker has done in converting the modern-day colour barn photo into an aged-looking, purposefully slightly blurry, sepia-tinted photo that one might indeed assume to be 150-or-so years old (as the original, missing thunderbird photo will be by now if it truly exists), this digital widening of the barn in order to make the pterodactyl fit upon it was, I felt, was a clever, well thought-out additional modification of the original full-colour barn photograph – or it would have been, were it not for one massive oversight that again instantly exposed the thunderbird photo to me as a hoax.
Enlarge the two photos, look at the trees surrounding the barn in the original full-colour barn photo, then look at them surrounding the barn in the thunderbird photo. As you will see, they are not just similar, they are identical in every way – every leaf, every twig, every angle of foliage in the original full-colour barn photo is duplicated exactly in the thunderbird photo! An exact match in every way.
One can only assume that either the faker had been careless and had not thought to modify digitally the trees and their foliage in the thunderbird photo so that they were visually distinct from those in the original barn photo, or had chosen simply to ignore this aspect of the photos in the hope that their identical nature would not be spotted (or perhaps the faker did try but found the process too difficult, so decided to leave this aspect alone?).
How long has this fake thunderbird photo been in existence? By using a combination of different search engines once again, the earliest instance of its presence online that I could find was 27 March 2017, on the website tunepk.me (but a link to it no longer operates), which was thrown up by the search engine TinEye. Here is a screenshot of that latter result:
In contrast, its 11 August 2010 appearance on the Foundmyself website for Rustic Images is the earliest appearance online that I could find for the full-colour barn photo, i.e. a full seven years before the fake thunderbird photo.
Turning my attention away from the barn and its surroundings to the composite pterodactyl-headed bat-winged thunderbird, I then decided to see if I could trace online the original photo from where the latter's wings had been obtained by the faker. This again proved surprisingly easy – I soon found a photo of a fruit bat in flight whose wings were identical to the thunderbird's, as readily revealed when this bat photo was simply rotated so that the orientation of the bat's wings lined up with that of the thunderbird's wings in order to make easier direct comparisons of the two images.
Of particular note is that a small notch, presumably the result of some injury, can be discerned at the edge of the section of membrane extending between the very elongated 4th and 5th fingers of the bat's dark brown right-hand wing. It shows up very well in the bat photo because of the pale blue sky visible through it. When these dark brown bat wings were added by the faker to the thunderbird photo, however, the notch is no longer so readily spotted because now it is the dark brown barn that is showing through it (rather than the much more contrasting pale blue sky in the original bat photo), but if you enlarge the thunderbird photo you can then detect the notch.
Here for comparison purposes is the fake thunderbird photo alongside the bat photo, the latter having been rotated by me so that its wing orientation corresponds with that of the bat-winged pterodactyl-headed thunderbird in order for direct visual comparisons to be more easily made:
I discovered that this bat photo had been snapped by a photographer with the screen name 945ontwerp, who had first uploaded it onto a Getty Images website named iStock on 5 June 2007 (please click here to browse through his portfolio of spectacular photos available for purchase), but it has since appeared in numerous online publications. In particular, it opens an article written by Linda McIntosh and entitled 'Meet bats, creepy night critters' that appeared on the same day, 18 October 2016, in a number of different American newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune (click here to access it) as well as the Morning Call, San Diego Union-Tribune, Baltimore Sun, and New York Daily News (and in which the photo, oddly, is credited to cdc.gov).
Finally: the feet of the bat in the bat photo do not match those of the thunderbird, indicating that a separate photographic source was used by the faker to yield these. Sure enough, while seeking the photographic source of the bat wings, I actually came across several different bat photos in each of which the depicted bat's feet were sufficiently similar to those of the thunderbird that some only very minor digital modification and enlargement would be needed in order to create the latter appendages. Incidentally, after some consideration I decided not to expend any additional time on this photo, as would be required were I to seek out the original image sources for the men standing in front of the thunderbird, because as can clearly be seen here, I have already presented more than sufficient evidence to confirm that this photo is a fake. However, if anyone reading this ShukerNature blog article of mine does have the time and the patience to do so, I'd certainly be very interested to learn if you succeed in tracing them online.
Another cryptozoological fake conclusively exposed, Case solved.
My sincere thanks to Randi MacDonald/Mosasaur for kindly bringing this fake thunderbird photograph to my attention.
An extensive documentation of alleged modern-day sightings and encounters with thunderbirds can be found in my book Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors.