02 January 2008

Birds Depicted for Centuries in Rock Art by Native Americans

By James Ed. Ducey. Each original image is Copyright 2008 J.E. Ducey and may not be copied or used in any manner. All rights reserved.

A very unique aspect of ancient avifauna is their graphic presentation in rock art. Petroglyphs and pictographs by native peoples of North America are often little more than carved incisions or pecks on a rock surface.

These images are the first artistic depictions of the bird life of the continent that still exist. The artistic depictions - including a great variety of bird-like images, as well as a myriad of other forms or shapes - date back many centuries, and occur throughout North America.

Sites where rock art was drawn were sacred places, with a special significance due to distinctive features of the landscape, unique cave or alcove, bluffs, a notable boulder, a mountain peak or other unique places. Many of these representations were made along prominent rivers.

"Rock art sites chronicle the long histories, the hunting ceremonies, and the religions of ... diverse Native peoples," (Keyser and Klassen 2001: 5). "They reveal their relationships with the spirit world and record their interaction with traditional enemies and the earliest Europeans, Americans and Canadians who explored and later colonized the area. Although some rock art conveys only enigmatic messages from an unknown past, many sites can be dated or attributed to a specific group or culture. Some rock art can even be read almost like a simple sentence."

Numerous meanings have been attributed to rock art, with a detailed list of potential reasons given for glyphs of woodlands in the northeast region of the continent (Lenik 2002: 11):

  • "Petroglyphs are the work of shamans who recorded their trance visions or spiritual experiences.
  • "They are an attempt by the Indians to make contact with and gain access to the spiritual power and energy at a site.
  • "Glyphs are sacred images that provide a way to tap into the Great Spirit.
  • "They were created to establish a site as a sacred place, the deliberate enhancement of a special place.
  • "They are a means of magical control over other people, spirits, or events.
  • "Certain images or symbols are boundary or territorial markers.
  • "Individual glyphs may be clan or personal symbols.
  • "Some may be a record of historical events or objects such as the coming of Europeans, ships, guns, and houses.
  • "Some glyphs may represent a record of astronomical events or observations.
  • "Some may depict animal figures as hunting magic, an attempt to secure success in hunting or increase the supply of game animals.
  • "Some may incorporate effigy heads as symbols of male authority.
  • "Some may be mortuary markers.
  • "They are meaningless graffiti or doodling."

There is an obvious transition in styles through the decades. Very simple images comprised of lines are typical of the first depictions. Next came an increase in the details shown, and towards the mid-1800s, there were stylized images with a greater extent of detail.

Since the winged ones were a powerful symbol of nature, they were regularly depicted, as indicated by their occurrence at numerous rock art sites. The images show an increased extent in detail at the more recent sites.

Examples of bird petroglyphs and pictographs may represent the Chimney Swift, Crane, Duck, Falcon, Kite, owl petroglyph, Passenger Pigeon, raven, quail, Ruffed Grouse, Sandhill Crane, swallow, unidentified waterbird, and Wild Turkey. Stylized imagery could indicate a species or bird type, but the details are known only to its creator.

Petroglyphs are inscribed on a stone surface by pecking, drilling, abrading or scratching. A pictograph is a drawn image, and may involve the use of colored pigments, usually applied using fingers or simple brushes.

Ancient Bird Depictions

The variety of rock art for a hundred distinct occurrences, is presented from oldest to more recent time period, with dates based chronology given in the source material. Images were recreated from document images.

There are likely other bird-related rock art that is not included with this article. Some simple images may have been noted during research, but the certainty that they are a bird-related image cannot be obvious since some renderings can have different interpretations. What may look like a bird track, may actually have a completely different meaning.

For standardization purposes, the year Anna Domino 2000 is used as a figurative point of reference to calculate the years before present (y.b.p.).

Shucks Cave, Black Hills, South Dakota: Bird petroglyph, in a pecked realistic style; dates to a time within the period from 2500 B.C. to A.D. 700.

Canyon de Chelly, Black Mesa region of Painted Desert, Colorado Plateau, Arizona; A.D. 450-1100.

Birds were an important rock art motif in this area, with multiple depictions of the Wild Turkey, and also a duck and the rarely depicted crane. "The conventional gobbler is basically a bi-colored bird, with head and neck of one color and the body another," according to the researcher. "The beak is usually curved downward and sometimes the fleshy protuberance on the forehead is depicted. Turkeys are usually shown with two legs, never with feet, and occasionally with only one leg or four legs! Wings are never depicted, but an effect of flight is achieved by extending the neck of the bird forward and angling the feet back."

The Pueblo Indians depicted many variations of the turkey at different sites, painted in gray and white, or red and white, or red brown and white. They also had different varieties of "bird-headed human figures" as petroglyphs or paintings.

Yihkao River, north of Grenora, North Dakota: Bird pictograph; boulder with winged effigy prominently drawn; ca. 500 B.C. into new millenium. Noted by Chinese explorers.

Jeffers Petroglyphs Site, rock ledge on a tributary of the Cottonwood River, upper Mississippi Valley, southern Illinois: Bird track drawings; 3000 B.C. to 500 B.C., and A.D. 900 to A.D. 1700

Indian Rock, near Brattleboro, southern Vermont: pecked thunderbird glyphs; 1000-2000 years before present.

Thousand Hills, west of Kirksville, Missouri: Bird petroglyph; circa A.D. 600-900.

Tar Springs Rockshelter, in the lower Ohio Valley, Kentucky: Bird petroglyph; circa 1250 y.b.p.

Burnt Ridge Rockshelter, Kentucky river valley, Cumberland Plateau, Kentucky: Raptorial bird petroglyph; ca. 1250 y.b.p.

Washington State Park, Mississippi River valley, Missouri: Bird petroglyph; ca. A.D. 1000

Rocky Hollow, Mississippi River valley, northeast Missouri; ca. A.D. 900-1050. An interesting variety of birds are shown at this site. The petroglyphs have been tentatively identified to six different types.

Colliers, near Colliersville, New York: Owl petroglyph; late Woodland period, or ca. 1000 y.b.p.

Mitchell Rockshelter, lower Missouri River valley, Missouri: Bird petroglyph; ca. A.D. 900-1050.

Lohraff Cave, on Roubidoux Creek, south central Missouri, northern Ozarks: spotted eagle/owl/hawk pictograph; A.D. 900 to A.D. 1400.


Paint Lick Mountain

Paint Lick Mountain, along Clinch river, western Virginia: Bird petroglyph; ca. A.D. 1200.

Great Murals of Baja California, Mexico

Many of these images have a great size, often several feet in height and grouped in vivid murals on the rock surface, and depicted using colored pigments.

Los Pozos, central desert in the vicinity of San Ignacio; Bird pictograph, eight elements of quail feet; dated to A.D. 700 to A.D. 1100.

Cerrito de Cascabeles, south of El Rosario: Bird petroglyphs rendered using a pecked style; post A.D. 1100. The glyphs may represent a duck, an eagle, and an outline of a bird.

Rincon Grande, 60 kilometers from San Isidro and La Purisima, central Baja California peninsula: Bird petroglyph, three winged forms with one similar to a depiction of an eagle, and two other winged images; dated to 800 y.b.p.

The bird rock art at the following sites are attributed to the period from A.D. 500 to A.D. 1500, by one researcher, while another suggests A.D. 1000-1500 for the era when the murals were created. During this latter period, many examples of naturalistic art were done, in the mural style.

El Brinco, north of San Ignacio, Sierra de San Francisco: Bird pictograph, four birds rendered in dark red, pink and white representing a shore or water fowl, one perhaps a cormorant, one perhaps a duck or goose, according to the researcher.

Arroyo de San Gregorio, north of San Ignacio, Sierra de San Francisco: Bird pictograph, phoenix-like image.

Arroyo de Los Cerritos, north of San Ignacio, Sierra de San Francisco: Bird pictograph, image reminiscent of the phoenix.

El Barco, south of Mulege, Sierra de Guadalupe: Bird pictograph.

Rancho Rosarito, south of Mulege, Sierra de Guadalupe: Bird pictograph, subjects at this site predominantly birds. A second study of pictographs in this region attributes the murals to a date 800 y.b.p., based on an analysis of material.

Las Cerezas, northeast of San Ignacio, Sierra de San Juan: Bird pictograph, three red birds.

Tinaja de Refugio, Vizcaino Desert east of San Ignacio: Bird pictograph, several bird forms depicted; similar imagery dated to ca. A.D. 1432. The bird figures have outstretched wings and feathers, and are said to be similar to eagle figures in other California rock art.

Cochiti Sites, on Rio Grande River, in White Rock Canyon, New Mexico; Bird petroglyph; A.D. 1200 to A.D. 1400.

Navajo Reservoir Site LA 4398, along the San Juan River at Burnt Mesa, Colorado Plateau, New Mexico: Bird pictograph; A.D. 700 to A.D. 1500 (Pueblo).

Machias Bay, east-central coast of Maine, near Machias: birdlike anthropomorphs, or thunderbirds; 3000 to 380 y.b.p.

La Moille Cave, along Trout creek near confluence with Mississippi river, Minnesota; Bird petroglyph; ca. A.D. 900-1650

Youess Site, Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site, Missouri River, North Dakota: Bird petroglyph, duck, unidentified birds; ca. A.D. 1420.

Millstone Bluff, Shawnee National Forest, Ohio River valley, southern Illinois: Bird petroglyph; ca. A.D. 1300-1550.

Upper Ohio River Valley

The numerous rock art sites along the upper Ohio River valley, depict several types of birds, including the duck, goose, Sandhill Crane, thunderbird, Wild Turkey, wading bird and water bird (Morrow 1974). Tracks, wings and assorted features are also depicted.

The Monongahela Man people, a late prehistoric group, are the designated creators. These sites date to the period A.D. 1200-1750.

Timmons Farm Petroglyphs Site, upper Ohio River valley, Ohio: Bird petroglyph.

Sugar Grove Petroglyphs Site, upper Ohio River valley, Pennsylvania: Bird petroglyph.

Smith's Ferry Petroglyphs Site, just north of Georgetown Pennsylvania: Bird petroglyph.

Rainbow Rocks Petroglyphs Site, upper Ohio River valley, near Van, Pennsylvania: Bird petroglyph.

Petroglyphs opposite Millsboro, upper Ohio River valley, east from Millboro, Pennsylvania: Bird petroglyph.

Parkers Landing Petroglyphs Site, east bank of Allegheny river, one-half mile from Parker, Pennsylvania: Bird petroglyph.

New Geneva Petroglyphs Site, east bank of Monongahela river, north of New Geneva, Pennsylvania: Bird petroglyph.

Harrison County Petroglyphs Site, west of Goodhope, West Virginia: Bird petroglyph.

Hamilton Farm Petroglyphs Site, Clinton township, West Virginia: Bird petroglyph.

Francis Farm Petroglyphs Site; southwest of Perryopolis, Pennsylvania: Bird petroglyph.

Dunn Farm Petroglyphs Site, northeast of Masontown, German township, Pennsylvania: Bird petroglyph.

Brown's Island Petroglyphs Site, Ohio River valley, Butler township, West Virginia; Bird petroglyph depicting two Sandhill Cranes.

Saxon Petroglyphs Site, Ohio River valley, southeast Ohio: Bird petroglyph; protohistoric period, ca. 500 y.b.p.

Newark Track Rock, Licking River valley, central Ohio: Bird petroglyph; protohistoric period, ca. 500 y.b.p.

Leo Petroglyphs Site, Ohio River valley, northwest of Leo, Ohio: Bird petroglyph; protohistoric period, ca. 500 y.b.p.

Barnesville Track Rocks, southwest of Barnesville, Ohio: Bird petroglyph; protohistoric period, ca. 500 y.b.p.

Babbs Island Petroglyphs Site, Ohio River Valley, upriver from East Liverpool, Ohio: Bird petroglyph, including a representation of a duck, a waterbird, and stylistic motifs; protohistoric period, ca. 500 y.b.p.

Amherst Petroglyphs Site, near Lake Erie, northern Ohio: Bird petroglyph; protohistoric period, ca. 500 y.b.p.

- - - - -

Navajo Reservoir Site: Bird pictograph; A.D. 1550-1775 (Navajo people).

Wrangell, Alexander Archipelago, Coast Mountains, Gulf of Alaska, Alaska: Bird petroglyph; late period of ca. A.D. 1600-1800.

The Dalles, Columbia River valley, Oregon: Bird petroglyph and owl petroglyph; late period of ca. A.D. 1600-1800. Site inundated by dam construction.

Petroglyph Park, near Nanaimo; Alexander Archipelago, Coast Mountains, Gulf of Alaska, Alaska: numerous examples of Bird petroglyph and Owl petroglyph; late period of ca. A.D. 1600-1800.

Noeick River, near Vancouver, British Columbia: Bird petroglyph; late period of ca. A.D. 1600-1800.

Etoline Island, by Wrangell, Alexander Archipelago, Coast Mountains, Gulf of Alaska, Alaska: Bird petroglyph; late period of ca. A.D. 1600-1800.

Clo-oose, Strait of Juan de Fuca near Vancouver Island, British Columbia: Bird petroglyph and Owl petroglyph; late period of ca. A.D. 1600-1800.

Cape Mudge, Quadra Island, Georgia Islands, British Columbia: Bird petroglyph; late period of ca. A.D. 1600-1800.

Rock Art of Southern Minnesota

The variety of petroglyphs from southern Minnesota are recognized as being carved by Dakota Indians. Each of these sites date to the period of A.D. 900-1650.

Brown's Valley, Red River valley, Minnesota: Bird petroglyph; ca. A.D. 1750.

Catlinite Quarry, at Pipestone National Monument, Minnesota: eleven forms of Bird petroglyph.

Cottonwood County, south and west of Minnesota river, southern Minnesota: Bird petroglyph.

Dayton's Bluff Cave, at bluff in St. Paul, Minnesota: Bird petroglyph.

Harvey Rockshelter, on St. Croix river near Stillwater: Bird pictographs.

Reno Cave, mouth of Crooked Creek: Bird pictograph, two abstract bird forms.

Eastern North America

Chronology details provided with these locales is vague or not provided, so the sites have been attributed to the protohistoric period.

Big Indian Rock and Little Indian Rock, near Safe Harbor, on Susquehanna River, Pennsylvania: pictographs of thunderbird, bird tracks and miscellaneous birds.

Wapanucket Site, north shore of Assawompsett Lake, southeast Massachusett: thunderbird figures inscribed on pebbles, pecked design on a bird in flight, said to be a thunderbird.

Stein River Valley

Stein River Valley various locations, northeast of Vancouver, southwest British Columbia, Canada: Bird effigy, bird petroglyph, bird pictograph, and owl pictograph as red ochre writings of the raven, thunderbirds, other bird forms, and the Stein Owl, a figure with two animals, that is now a cultural symbol; unidentified bird - grey breast, blue on back and green on wing and head; bird people, including the bird boy. "Some warriors named their arrows after fierce animals or birds, whose pictures they painted on the shafts ..." according to historic lore. Attributed to the protohistoric period about 250 y.b.p.

"That's Hwo'laák, the raven. And down below, the boy, Hiihií'ha, is being pulled with a stick, by that bear. It's a story. He's up in the sky now. He was a bird in the mountains, like a pigeon. He says, 'Hii'hií'ha! Hii'hií'ha!'"

Columbia River

A number of the sites in the Columbia River valley were inundated by construction of dams, and the resulting reservoirs. In some cases, notable renditions were salvaged, and may still be extant.

These locales have been attributed to the late protohistoric period, about 300 y.b.p.

Bums Cave, Jefferson County, northern Oregon: Bird petroglyphs represented by four bird track designs.

East Hook, near Hook, Oregon: a stylized Bird petroglyph.

McMeen Pasture, Crooked River National Grassland, Oregon: three Bird pictographs in the "classical thunderbird style"; possibly from the late protohistoric, or early historic period.

Petroglyph Canyon

Petroglyph Canyon, area of The Dalles, mid-Columbia River valley, Oregon: several designs of Bird petroglyph, Owl petroglyph.

The Castle, east of Six-Mile Canyon, south bank of Columbia River, northern Oregon: Bird petroglyph, older depictions, with a profile of a bird 12 inches across that may be of historic origin.

Snake River

Buffalo Eddy, along the Snake River in west-central Idaho: Bird petroglyphs; probably dating to the late protohistoric or early historic period.

Nebraska Pictographs

Each of these sites are attributed to native peoples along the Missouri River, correlating to ca. A.D. 1750.

Atwood Farm, north of Rock Bluff, Missouri River valley, eastern Nebraska: Bird pictograph, representing a thunderbird.

Indian Cave, Missouri River valley, southeast Nebraska: Bird pictograph.

Santee Cave, bluff of the lower Platte River, west of Missouri river confluence; pictograph, a "conventional drawing of a bird."

Atwood Farm pictograph.

Indian Cave pictograph.

Santee Cave pictograph.

Rock Art Parks

Parks have been established at many of the prominent places with rock art. Examples include Petroglyph Park in New Mexico, Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Arizona, Washington State Park Rock Art Site in southeastern Missouri, Thousand Hills State Park in Missouri, Petroglyph Provincial Park on southern Vancouver Island, Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park in southern Alberta, etc.

Select Bibliography

There are numerous web-sites with details and images of rock art.

Harry W. Crosby. 1984. The Cave Paintings of Baja California. Copley Books, La Jolla California. 189 pages.

Carol Diaz-Granados and James R. Duncan, editors. 2004. The Rock-art of Eastern North America. Capturing Images and Insight. University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa. 426 pages.

Edward J. Lenik. 2002. Picture Rocks. American Indian Rock Art in the Northeast Woodlands. University Press of New England, Hanover. 280 pages.

Beth Hill and Ray Hill. 1974. Indian Petroglyphs of the Pacific Northwest. Hancock House Publishers Ltd. Saanichton, B.C., Canada. 320 pages.

James D. Keyser and Michael A. Klassen. 2001. Plains Indian Rock Art. University of Washington Press, Seattle. 332 pages.

James L. Swauger, with artwork by Clifford J. Morrow, Jr. 1974. Rock Art of the Upper Ohio Valley. Akademische Druck- u. Verlagsanstalt, Graz/Austria. 136 pages and 108 plates.


Examples of bird petroglyphs from the Pacific northwest (Hill and Hill 1974, page 271).

Many of the images that have been preserved through the efforts of historians decades ago are no longer present due to vandalism, destruction for modern developments, or other human activities.


Anonymous said...

This is absolutely fantastic.

Dr. Ellen said...

Thanks for this research...fabulous...

Anonymous said...

THANK YOU! These are wonderful - good information, just what I needed!

Unknown said...

Thank you for using the cover of my book; "To the American Coast" in this article. Jim Smith

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