Peterson’s Precursors: Southwestern Rock Renditions

We looked up at an owl imprisoned in a cage while a rock wren burbled from a sandstone ledge. Another owl seemed to be perched on a rainbow that spanned above human-like creatures and other critters. A guy was caught in the process of capturing a huge, unidentified bird in a net on the other side of the petroglyph panel. Or was he looking after a bird in a cage? The owls are either Great Horned or Screech.

Trying to distinguish between “peeps” and “empids” in ancient rock art is even more perplexing. Whatever their nature, the owls transport us to a period when American Indian tribes hunted and farmed in these Southwestern gorges.

In the Thunderbird tradition, these early Americans regularly represented birds in their art, particularly eagles, which were generally pictured with outstretched wings. According to legend, the Thunderbird created thunder by flapping his wings and lightning by opening and shutting his eyes. For many tribes, the eagle was a clan sign, and eagle feathers, which were used in various rites, possessed extraordinary powers.

Other popular bird themes were domesticated turkeys by 700 A.D., ducks, geese, quail, cranes, herons, and species too cryptic for Roger Tory to name. A hummingbird may be seen flying over the Dolores River in Colorado, while a roadrunner can be seen clutching a snake at the Three Rivers Site in New Mexico. The petroglyphs of macaws and parrots in New Mexico and Arizona are interesting because they demonstrate commerce between these locations and Central America. Around 1100 A.D., these tropical birds were brought to pueblo civilizations. Many petroglyphs include three-toed bird footprints, roadrunner tracks, feathers, and individuals dressed in feathered headdresses and robes.

Although it’s entertaining to make up tales to go with the visuals, only the original creator will ever know what was really intended. Do the anthropomorphic (human-like creatures) with ducks on their heads, for example, represent otherworldly entities or just guys with extravagant headdresses? Is the guy shooting a bow towards a line of antlered animals a prayer to the gods for good hunting luck? Does this imply that a successful hunt occurred? Is it art for the sake of art?

Many academics think rock art is linked to shamanism and supernatural belief. The Barrier Canyon Anthropomorphic Style, located on the Colorado Plateau and in Colorado River drainages, is characterised by ghostly, tapering figures occasionally accompanied by small birds. The Bird Site in the Maze of Horse Canyon, a portion of Canyonlands National Park, is one example.

Polly Schaafsma writes in Indian Rock Art of the Southwest, “Animal spirit assistants, ubiquitous in the shamanic world, may explain the myriad little animals and birds that approach these figures or appear on their heads and shoulders.” Birds may represent the shamanic ability of magical flight in this setting; the bird may guide the soul in flight, or the soul may literally turn into a bird.”

Birds, according to Schaafsma, are a key topic in the Chinle Representational Style and are often shown as headgear, occasionally replacing the whole head of the human figure. Because the heads and necks were often painted with an ephemeral red pigment, they now resemble baskets rather than birds. Canyon de Chelly and Canyon del Muerto in Arizona are two of the greatest examples.

Ducks, according to Schaafsma, have a long history of being associated with shamanistic rites in the Southwest and Mexico. She believes the duck-headed figures seen in the Cave Valley Representational Style (found in southern Utah and northern Arizona) are shamans.

Bird motifs were also employed by Fremont, Hohokam, and many other early civilizations. Todd Bostwick discovered sixty-three Hohokam avian or bird-like figures in Arizona’s South Phoenix Mountains. Waterbirds are the most commonly shown (33), but he also depicts three panels with birds with markings extending from their beaks as if they were singing or communicating.

Bird symbols, he writes in Songs of the Water Bird, may have had a variety of meanings, including “clan markers, mythological or ancestral figures associated with rain or irrigated water, supernatural spirit beings, shaman helpers, or simply personal records of dreams or visions received at those locations during vision quests.”

Sandstone formations with smooth, vertical sides were often employed by rock painters. They carved glyphs into a dark mineral wash called “desert varnish” at the base of the walls, exposing the colour of the underlying stone. They picked protected areas such as alcoves, caves, and overhangs for paintings (which are more sensitive to the weather). On free-standing rocks, some of the greatest bird petroglyphs may be seen.

Petroglyphs were often etched or pecked out by gouging the stone with harder rock, perhaps using a hammer and chisel. Researchers who attempted to replicate this procedure calculated that a one-inch line needed between 25 and 100 strokes. Pictographs were created using minerals such as hematite, ores, clay, and vegetable dyes, as well as binders formed from blood, eggs, plant resins, and other natural materials. One of the oldest methods was “finger painting.” Brushes were later made from of animal hair, plant fibres, and yucca spines. A mouthful of colour was sometimes blasted out via a hollow reed—an early type of spray paint.

Rock art dating is tricky and generally relies on radiocarbon dating of anything linked with the rock, such as charcoal from an old pit, or calculating the development of lichens or minerals in desert varnish. According to Schaafsma, the earliest drawings in the southwest date back more than 2,000 years.

Although much rock art cannot be accurately dated, we do know it has survived millennia of weathering, rock slides, and other natural disasters. However, it may not be able to survive in today’s environment. Power plants are proliferating, causing air pollution and acid rain to worsen. Many sites are destroyed, buried, or drowned as a result of development and dams. Artifact hunters and vandals who write their own names on artefacts and use the drawings as target practise destroy many more. Even those of us who gaze in amazement at these works of art might unwittingly injure them by touching them (oil in our fingertips is the culprit), rubbing them, or outlining them with charcoal.

Until recently, the strongest defence was isolation and the fact that many sites were hidden. However, neither our antiquities laws nor their seclusion are adequate to conserve them. Today, the greatest option for saving our rapidly vanishing rock art is to incorporate it in national or state parks and monuments with enough staff to explain and safeguard it.

The best rock art sites in the nation may be found in four states: Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. The locations that have given us the greatest delight are those that we have discovered on our own. When trekking in canyon country, utilise your binoculars to scout out potential places. You never know when you’ll come face to face with Owl. And if you come across a Salpinctes obsoletus petroglyph, you may add a true rock reproduction to your bucket list.


The locations mentioned below are only a handful of the best places to go birding on the rocks. Inquire with rangers or local experts about specific sites for bird art. Live birds are also plentiful in these areas, so keep an eye out for the petroglyphs’ real-life equivalents. Hummingbirds and raptors of various types, as well as Rock, Canyon, and Cactus Wrens and raven caw-cusses, are abundant.

  • Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico
  • Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona
  • Canyonlands National Park (especially Horse Canyon), Utah
  • Deer Valley Rock Art Center, Phoenix, Arizona
  • Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
  • Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
  • Petroglyph National Monument, New Mexico
  • San Rafael Swell on either side of I 70, Utah
  • South Phoenix Mountain Regional Park, Arizona
  • Three Rivers Petroglyph Site, New Mexico
  • Uncompahgre Plateau, Colorado



  • Barnes, F. A. Canyon Country Prehistoric Rock Art. Salt Lake City, Utah: Wasatch Publishers, 1982.
  • Bostwick, Todd. Songs of the Water Bird: Hohokam Petroglyph Bird Designs in the South Mountains. Phoenix, Arizona. Paper presented at the San Diego Museum of Man Rock Art 1994 Conference, La Jolla, CA, 1994.
  • Cole, Sally J. Legacy on Stone. Boulder, Colo.: Johnson Books, 1990.
  • Patterson, Alex. Field Guide to Rock Art Symbols of the Greater Southwest. Boulder, Colo.: Johnson Books, 1992.
  • Schaafsma, Polly. Indian Rock Art of the Southwest. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1980.

Ruth Carol Cushman is a freelance writer and a retired University of Colorado reference librarian. She has written more than 200 magazine articles and co-authored four books: The Shortgrass PrairieBoulder County Nature Almanac, and Colorado Nature Almanac (co-authored with Steve Jones) and Boulder Hiking Guide (co-authored with her husband, Glenn). She and Glenn, who does the photography for many of her magazine articles, including this one, enjoy hiking, camping, ski touring, canoeing, traveling, birdwatching, and any activity relating to nature. They live in Boulder, Colorado.

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