Any written narratives which directly explain why so many people centuries ago moved tons of earth to create mounds representing various animals, including birds, is not available. The results are readily apparent and important features of the landscape in some places, and still visible and vivid enough to appreciate within their own context.
Such expansive mounds were prominently impressive. Consider one of the oldest known mound-works in North America. At Poverty Point - sadly named for a modern-day plantation instead of its creators - the constructs spread across a mile-square area of land of a floodplain terrace of the ever-flowing mighty Mississippi River, in the state currently called Louisiana.
What inspired some multitudes of people to create the earthen works at this site is not readily known. But an understanding of the place has emerged from modern studies of place considered to be a ceremonial center, or a city, for residents of the region.
Built upon a landscape burnt first to provide bare ground suitable for construction, at a time corresponding to approximately 1450 to 1250 B.C., a lot of dirty work followed. Soil was carried bit-by-bit using a contrived tool of a animal skin or something else similar of purpose was moved - apparently one million cubic meters in entirety - and contributed to the mound's creation. Enough was moved to the right spot to create huge objects envisioned by someone with a great ability to convince others of a worthy goal, despite the obvious effort it would require. Their endeavor at this site included leveling natural ridges, filling gullies and creating the mounds which are now known and appreciated.
One particular feature especially significant to historic ornithology was established at this special place. Mound A - the largest at this particular site - was on the western periphery of the complex created so many centuries ago, and is now considered to represent a flying bird effigy. It is 640 feet by 710 feet with a highest elevation of 70 feet, created by so many unknown individuals which supported the effort to create something of importance to them, while representing a view of a mighty, and familiar bird.
In the current, modern context, Poverty Point is the "largest and most complex Late Archaic earthwork occupation and ceremonial site yet found in North America," according to interpretations by experts of the subject. This site was discovered during the modern era in the early 1880s, and is now a place that has been the focus of different studies and interpretations. The Poverty Point site was designated at a National Historic Landmark in 1962, and though split by a highway, is presently contained within a tract of public property.
Emblematic Mounds - Effigies of Birds
An authoritative and original consideration of earthen mounds and their intimate association with the wild birds, was written some 125 years ago by Stephen D. Peet, giving details on how to interpret the shapes of southern Wisconsin mounds and to understand any relationships to the flying birds depicted. He wrote three articles on the subject:
"There are four questions which arise in connection with the study of birds. 1st. Their shapes and attitudes. 2d. Their habits and haunts. 3d. Their character, disposition and spirit of nature. 4th. The proper method of classifying them.
"After writing about the essential points, Peet's treatise noted important basics to assist in any understanding of what was being shown by the earthen works that mimiced birds.
"(2) It is noticeable that in the effigies of birds the wings are distinctive of the genus or order, but that the bodies or beaks are distinctive of the species. The birds are recognized by the wings, but are distinguished from one another by other parts of the body. There are a few effigies of birds where the wings are not represented, the shape of the body and bill being the only indication that a bird was intended. The most noticeable effigy is that of the woodcock at Lake Koshkonong. This is an exceptional case. If the reader will take the pains to look ever the diagrams, he will notice how uniform the representations of the birds are. It seems as though this method of portraying them had become conventional.
"(3) We next call attention to the different attitudes of the birds. Four shapes may be recognized in the effigies, (first) where the wing is in a straight line forming a long ridge at right angles to the body; (second) where the wings are partially bent, the ridge frequently being of great length, but bent at such points as to properly represent the proportions of the wings; (third) where the wings are bent at right angles; a (fourth) shape is where the wings are curved like a scythe. Here the proportions are also observed, the length of the wing compared with the body being indicative of the species. It is a question whether the species can always be recognized by the wings alone, but there are many cases where the wings make that attitude of the bird. The eagle has generally three attitudes; one where the wings are extended in a straight line; the other where the wings are partially bent; and the third where the wings are at right angles. Eagles are generally recognized by the wings as well as the beak, as the attitudes are represented in a very lifelike manner. The hawk belongs to the same order and resembles the eagle. It is, however, oftener represented with the wings bent, and may be recognized by the angular shape of the effigy. The difference between the hawks and eagles may be seen by comparing the figures. The hawk has frequently a forked tail, but the eagle never has. A good illustration of the shape of the wings may be seen in a group at Lake Monona.
"The eagle is here represented as having its wings extended, the hawks have their wings bent at right angles; the wild geese have their wings curved; the pigeons have their wings oblique to the body, and one figure has one wing protruding forward. The figure illustrates not only the different attitudes of the birds, but also how the birds differ from one another in their shapes. Some of the same birds are represented on a large scale in the figures which follow, and from these their shapes may also be studied.
"(4) The distinguishing marks of the effigies which represent the species of the birds will next be given. These are seen in the beaks and bodies. We shall illustrate this point by figures, taking some of the illustrations from the groups already described but representing the birds as detached from the groups. We shall also mention the individual species, and call attention to the shapes of the effigies as portraying the species. We shall not undertake to describe all of the species, but take the more prominent kinds as typical. The wild goose is the first which we shall notice Wild geese are frequently represented in the effigies. We have seen effigies of them at Lake Monona, at Mayville, near Sauk Prairie, on the Wisconsin river, at Honey Creek, and many other localities. It is well known that the wild goose has a very long neck and a short body. Wild geese are always represented in this manner. A figure is given here representing a part of the group seen at Lake Horicon. Here the wild geese are associated with foxes and squirrels.
"The Duck - It is well known that the duck, on the other hand, has a short neck and a thick, strong wing. A figure is given to illustrate. This represents a group at Lake Koshkonong. There are in one group two birds. These have short, curved wings, sharp beaks and round, plump bodies, probably intended to represent different kinds of ducks, the mallard and blue duck, birds which are common in this region at the present time. These two birds are attended by long, tapering mounds, which were intended for fishes, though the shape of the fish is lacking.
"The Swallow is a bird distinguished for having peculiarly sharp wings. This swallow is seen at Lake Koshkonong, associated with a group with two pigeons and a turtle.
"The swallow resembles the night-hawk, and we are in this case at a loss to say whether it is the swallow or night-hawk which is here represented.
"The Owl is a bird which is easily recognized by its horns.
"The effigy of a horned owl was seen by Mr. S. Taylor, in Grant county, Sec. 16, T. 8, R. 1, W. The owl has a large, thick body, short bill, and is peculiarly heavy across the shoulders. The effigies all have these characteristics.
"The Prairie Hen is also frequently represented in effigy; this is common on the prairies and the effigy of it is oftener seen near prairies than anywhere else. One such effigy may be seen at Waukesha. It is called by Dr. Lapham the cross. Several effigies of prairie chickens may be seen at Crawfordsville. Here the effigy is associated with panthers and turtles, but is called by Dr. Lapham, the dragon. In both cases the bird is seen in the attitude of flight, its wings extended in a straight line, an attitude which is very common with the prairie chicken. The wings are wide the body thick, the tail round and the head short.
"The Pigeon is frequently represented in effigy. This bird has a pointed tail and is represented with wings at right angles or partially extended, and is easily recognized by the shape and attitude. Several pigeons have been described by Dr. Lapham, as situated at Maus Mills on the Lemonwier river.
"The Hawk is a bird which has marked characteristics, but always has in the effigies a sharp bill, a flat head, long, pointed wings and may be easily distinguished from all other birds except the eagle. The eagle belongs to the same family in order and as a result the two effigies are more likely to be confounded. We give a figure representing hawk effigies, taken from the group at Honey Creek. The hawks were there associated with buffaloes and are plainly recognized in the group. There are many other effigies of birds but we have not space to describe them all.
"The proportion between the wings and body is generally indicative of the species. It is remarkable how accurately the proportions were observed. It would seem almost as if measurements had been made, and that effigies were erected from a scale of inches. Occasionally, however, the wings and bodies are erected disproportionately. This, however, was for a purpose. There are localities where the wings of birds serve for defense, and in such places the wings were extended in order to protect the greater area. One such case may be seen in Mills Woods. Here one of the wings of the bird are stretched out nearly 600 feet. At Muscoda, there is a bird effigy which extends over 1,000 feet. In many other localities the same features may be observed.
"An illustration of the skill of the mound builders may be seen in the celebrated eagle at Waukesha. Here the imitative skill of the artist's beautifully shown. The attitude is interesting as it is the one which is natural to the eagle, and shows the shape of the animal while in motion. The eagle is evidently flying or soaring in the air, but is at a great height as the wings are stretched out in a straight line, and the whole attitude expressive of flight. The effigy also conveys the idea that the eagle is taking an outook while preserving its flight as the shape and position of the head is suggestive of this. The bird seems to be in an isolated position - it is situated on the side of a hill and seems to be guarding a group of effigies consisting of the wolf and several conical mounds. It is, however, the only bird effigy in the group. The eagle is a bird which is distinguished for its lofty flight and for its extensive vision, and here both these peculiarities are shown.
"This peculiarity of the birds may be recognized not only in the eagle, but in all of the birds. All seem to be in flight and the particular method of flight is exhibited by the mounds. There are birds which have a very rapid motion. Such birds are represented and the motion peculiar to them exhibited by the mounds. Other birds have several different styles in flying; they soar high above the earth; they dart rapidly through the air; they roll and tumble in their flight; they drop upon their prey; they arise from their perch, or spring from the water, and seem to vary their attitude with every changing motive. These are generally birds of prey. It is remarkable how many attitudes of the birds of prey are represented in the mounds. Any one who will examine the effigies and notice the different attitudes in which the birds are figured will realize this. There are many small birds which are seen among the effigies. Such birds are oftener represented .as rolling and tossing, the peculiar twist and turn of the wing being exhibited by the shape of the mound. The distortion of a bird effigy becomes at times very expressive on this account, as the distortion represents the motion and attitude of the bird. We call attention to a small bird which was surveyed by Mr. Wm. H. Canfield, and which is figured by Dr. Lapham. Here the bird is so contorted that every part of the effigy has a separate measure and a shape peculiar to itself. One wing raised, and the other dropped at an angle, the head is thrown back, the tail is twisted, and the whole figure thrown into shape as if tumbling or rolling in the air rather than flying. Other birds are seen in attitudes as of darting rapidly, but this is peculiar in its attitude.
"2. The gregarious habits of the birds are represented in the effigies. The reader has only to look over the figures to see how often the birds are thus represented. In these figures the hawks are in flocks, sometimes four effigies of them being seen in one group. The ducks are also in flocks, and the peculiar social habits of the birds are shown by the effigies, the ducks being in close proximity. The wild geese are in flocks also, but they pursue their flight either in a line following one another at considerable distances or nearly abreast of one another, but forming the peculiar shape of the drag or letter A. The pigeons are also frequently represented in flocks, but they pursue their flight in a pell-mell method, sometimes following one another, sometimes abreast and sometimes huddled closely together. The different birds are represented as associated together, but when the attitude is given they are driving or pouncing on one another, or driving and being driven. One needs only to look over the figures already given to see how often the birds are thus represented. We give a cut to illustrate the gregarious habits of the birds. It is taken from Squier and Davis. This group was first described by Mr. S. Taylor. It was situated in the village of Muscoda, but has been obliterated by the growth of the village. We quote the language of the author named. "In the group are three figures in the form of a cross (bird:); in the center of the largest of them is a depression caused by an Indian cache." "The distance from one end of this group to the other, is about four hundred and sixty yards. The length across the effigies is about two hundred feet." The birds here are of different kinds, a hawk and two birds which are difficult to identify, possibly pigeons. The hawk has an erect attitude white the other birds are in flight.
"3. The habits of the birds as birds of prey and peaceable birds are also portrayed by the effigies. It is well known that the songsters are generally peaceable in their habits. The songsters are, however, so small that they are not often recognized in the effigies. The birds which are most easily recognized are the birds of prey. These are the hawks, eagles, owls and falcons. It is remarkable that the birds of prey are often associated with other animals which prowl after their victims and prey upon the living creatures about them, the eagles and hawks being associated with foxes and wolves, while the peaceable birds are associated with peaceable animals, ducks and cranes with turtles and lizards, etc. One group of mounds strikingly illustrates this point. It is a group which was evidently used as a game drive. In this the eagles and hawks are associated with foxes, and are evidently hovering near a drove of elk, both waiting for their prey, the foxes in the attitude of prowling and the birds soaring in the air.
"We give a figure to illustrate this point. It represents a group which was surveyed by Dr. L A. Lapham. It is situated on section 18-19, T. 9., R. 6. E., near Honey Creek Mills. The group is in a valley, between several high bluffs, and is in just such a position as would be best suited for a game drive. The elk was probably the game which was abundant in the region. These bird effigies are associated with the figure of a crane, the crane forming a portion of the game drive. The birds may be recognized by their shapes, the hawk having a forked tail, the eagle having a square tail and short neck, but the crane having a very small body, a long neck and curved wings. These effigies have been misinterpreted by Dr. Lapham, for the hawk is said to represent a human effigy and the crane a bow and arrow. The same idea of hawks, eagles and other birds of prey being associated with game drives may be seen in the group on Kickapoo river. Here is a small herd of buffaloes. The buffaloes seem to be feeding, but the hawks are hovering near as if looking for prey among the drove.
"4. The habits of the birds, as prairie birds, water birds, and forest birds, are also depicted. This peculiarity is, however, shown by the effigies. It is well known that ducks and wild geese prevail among the lakes of Wisconsin. A group of effigies may be seen near Lake Wingra, overlooking the marsh and lake. There is in the group a wild goose and a duck in close proximity, both flying toward the water, and a long, tapering mound close by which may represent the fish. The habit of these birds is to feed in the marshes. The effigies studied in connection with the locality give this idea. There are several other effigies in the group, such as an eagle and a swallow, and two land animals, all of them arranged on the side hill, parallel with the water, giving the idea that they were placed there as screens for hungers who were watching for geese and ducks which frequented the lake.
"5. The habits of the birds as conquering and conquered are sometimes depicted by the effigies. In the group at Muscoda, already given, we have the hawk represented as a conqueror over the pigeon.
"In a group at Koshkonong the duck is chasing the swallow, and in other groups hawks and eagles are represented in attitudes as if they were chasing other birds, and still other groups, bitterns and cranes and hawks are in flight, but the habits of the birds may be recognized in nearly all the groups, and the effigies become very interesting on this account. We have already referred to the association of birds with animals having the same character. This is significant, for the habits of the animals seem to correspond, the beasts of prey being associated with birds of prey; the conquering animals, such as the panther, being associated with the conquering birds; the water animals being associated with water birds (ducks and wild geese), the forest animals (wolves and wild cats), with the forest birds (pigeons and hawks), the prairie animals (deer and buffalo), with the prairie birds.
"The habits of the birds are better represented in the effigies than in the cuts, for the effigies seem to have been erected with great care, and the more one studies the shapes, the more does their meaning come forth. If there is a double meaning, this never interferes with that which is perfectly natural. The symbolic is hidden underneath an imitative shape. The great skill was exercised in portraying the attitudes of the birds. No ordinary person could take the heaps of the earth and mould them into shape, so that the effigies could be understood, but here the very character of the birds is exhibited in the shape, so that we read the disposition, the habits, and even the particular intent of the bird pictured before us. It is most remarkable that the attitudes should be so expressive, but when studied attentively they grow in significance."
A section of his second article considered the "use, intent or significance of the bird effigies." Points of importance for the subject were:
"... the effigies are so extensive that we must suppose that they had some use. A great amount of labor was expended upon these objects. ... The size of the effigies is worthy of notice. There are bird effigies which reach to the prodigious length of 600, 800 and even 1000 feet.
His list of importance continued: "There are certain bird effigies which have evidence of a secondary or symbolic significance. ... Dr. Lapham says perhaps the purpose is to represent the birds as bearing to the spirit-land, some person whose remains were deposited in the mound."
Evidence also indicated the bird effigies "were intended as guards to protect inclosures. There are effigies of eagles where the wings are stretched out in a line to an unnatural length. The manifest intent being to make the wings serve as a wall." This was represented by a construct at Mills' Wood, on the banks of Lake Monona.
Peet's third article focused on the "attitudes of animals." Birds were an essential subject, considered closely in the narrative details.
"In one locality the wings of birds form a barrier along the edge of a hill, and are so placed that they serve as a guard to the hill and as a guard to the pass up the bluff, which intervenes between them. This group has been described by W. H. Canfield. Fig. 83. It is situated at Honey Creek Mills, on the edge of Sauk Prairie. Dr. Lapham says, "On the east side of the creek commences a series of earth works of a very interesting character. The principal figure in the form is a bird, with a forked tail. They are on the margin of a beautiful level plain, a part of the great plain or prairie, called Prairie du Sauk. Several excavations made in building the dam have destroyed several of the works. The illustration of the group is herewith given.
"It will be noticed that the eagles have their heads in opposite directions, but always toward the point of approach. One of them is placed on the bank of the stream and guards the bluff in that direction. Another is placed near a break in the bluff and guards the pass at that point. Still another overlooks the pass and protects the bluff on that side. A fourth, which is the largest of the group, has its wings extending to a great length along the brow of the bluff, and prevents approach from that side.
"Other effigies were also arranged along the bluff beyond. There is no doubt that the intent of the group was to protect the village from approach by way of the stream. The immense size of the effigies indicate this as well as the situation.
"In the vicinity of Muscoda there is a group of eagles, the most of them, however, having their wings partially expanded. They surround an inclosure which evidently was once used as a village site. On one side of the inclosure the effigies are placed with their wings parallel, forming a fragmentary and uneven line or wall. On the other side the eagles have their heads and bodies in a line, the wings forming the wall. No other effigy than the eagle is seen near the inclosure. There are a few long, straight mounds, which serve to protect the village.
"The eagle is the effigy which guards the place. The approach to the village is also guarded by eagles, for the banks of, a stream which heads near the village site has eagles stretched along nearly its whole length until an extensive marsh is reached. These eagles, which guard the approach along the stream, are, however, built with their wings extended. One of them has wings nearly a thousand feet long."
Wisconsin was a prominent place for bird-shaped mounds, but other localities are important places with other varieties of birds mounds were constructed in ancient times.
Bird Mounds in Georgia
The theme inherently conveyed by earthen mounds which apparently represent the winged ones, was extended in the current state of Georgia, as indicated by two important examples.
One was located in the midst of a woodland, on a high ridge overlooking the head waters of Little Glady Creek. The feature was created using white quartz rocks, of a size where one or two people could carry them to the proper spot and set them in place to create an eagle-shaped image. It is about 102 feet in length, with a wing-spread of 120 feet. The head of the bird mound is extended towards the east, and at its highest extent is 7-8 feet above the surrounding terrain.
When this site was investigated and closely considered in the 1870s, Charles C. Jones, Jr., described the details:
"It excites no surprise that the eagle should have been selected in ancient times as a symbol of all that was swift, powerful, watchful, daring and noble. Of its feathers was the battle flag of the Creeks composed. Their council lodges were surmounted with carved images or stuffed skins of this regal bird. None among the Cherokees, save an approved warrior, was permitted to wear its plumes. To this king of the feathered tribe were religious honours paid by the Natchez. With them its feathers were recognized not simply as ornaments and trophies, but as marks of dignity and insignia of uncommon worth. No wonder, then, that among these aborigines this bird should have stood as a symbol of strength and honour, and that he who bore the stoutest heart, the quickest eye and the strongest arm should have been hailed as the eagle of his nation. Whether or not this tumulus was erected in commemoration of some such distinguished personage, or in perpetuation of the estimation in which the bird which it symbolizes was held, or what the precise nature and purpose of this imitative mound, we know not."
There was another big bird mound nearby, on the Oconee River. It was also created using boulders of white quartz rock. Its head is pointed to the south-east, with a head-to-tail measurement of 102 feet, and a few inches, with a span across the wings of 132 feet.
Jones explained this big mound of soil represented some type of falcon.
Bird mounds in Wisconsin have received particular attention, with each study providing details which help in better understanding these features.
An article by Moses Strong had a sketch of two antique mounds within Wisconsin, representing birds. The first feature had a wing span of 75 feet. The second mound was on a ridge of the Mississippi River, with a distance of 120 feet between the wing-tips.
Messrs. A.B. Stout and H.L. Skavlem gave particular attention to the mounds carefully placed on the upland around Lake Koshkonong, with numerous sites at its eastern edge.
There were eight bird effigies among the group, the article indicated. Four were among the so-called Hoard Group, others at the General Atkinson group. Both showed bird forms that were spread among the many mounds.
The authors provided a detailed figure indication the shape of the mounds, and measurements of their height and width.
Another article, this time by Charles E. Brown, indicated the different mounds about Lake Monona, eastward of Madison, in Wisconsin. Birds and the goose were represented by the built features, in particular at the Mill Woods Site.
Many of the mounds at this locality have been destroyed, Brown mentioned in his 1922 article.
Shamen of the Bird Spirit
The variety of influence that resulted in the creation of huge mounds of dirt in the shape of different types of birds is not known, yet can be readily appreciated by perusing accounts based on studies of the original places. Native people were convinced to create humongous mounds at many different places, with each earthwork presenting a distinct and original image with some particular purpose.
Tribal shamen with a particular, and directed appreciation of the spirit derived from birds were undoubtedly essential in guiding the creation of bird mounds. Their knowledge of key features of different species meant different shapes and sizes where created so long ago, and whose meaning is still being studied and closely considered.
These prominent creations are readily known and somewhat understood in a context of modern times.
Despite any of the subsequent comments, each instance of a mound conveys a profound presentation of existential times generations ago, as indicated by efforts to create memorials of the winged ones.