Thursday, September 10, 2009

BIRDS IN ROCK ART - BURROWING OWLS:

Owl petroglyph, Sieber Canyon,
Mesa County, CO, 1981.
Photo: Peter Faris.
Sieber Canyon, off of the Uncompaghre Plateau in Mesa County, Colorado, is a pretty isolated location with some amazing rock art, much of it from the Fremont culture. In this instance I want to look at a pair of owls included in the main Fremont panel in mid-canyon. They are cleverly abstracted with simplified bodies and features, and yet are very recognizable. The first has a face consisting of two circles for the eyes and a short vertical line between them representing the beak. The owl’s feathered body is indicated by double lines of dots in a “U”- shape beneath the face.


Dancing Owl petroglyph, Sieber
Canyon, Mesa County, CO, 1987.
Photo: Peter Faris.
The second Sieber Canyon owl is my personal favorite. Its face also consists of two eyes and a vertical line again representing the beak. Below those a couple of horizontal zigzag lines represent the body feathers. Below those a horizontal line represents the bottom limit of the torso, with two legs below that. The legs are simple lines and one is raised as if the owl is fidgeting or agitated, indeed we used to refer to this as the dancing owl.

Black and white drawing of dancing owl, Sieber Canyon,
Mesa County, CO. Drawn by Sally Cole from a field sketch
by Glen Stone.

The reason for this agitation can be found in the large snake just to the right, rising up over the owl’s head. From the way this owl is portrayed with the body ending above the slender bare legs I believe that the artist was portraying a burrowing owl.

Burrowing owl, Douglas County,
CO, 2007. Photo: Heather Pankratz.
This identification may be reinforced by ethnographic connections between burrowing owls and rattlesnakes in the southwest. If fact the relationship includes prairie dogs as well and is built on the fact that both burrowing owls and rattlesnakes can be seen in prairie dog towns crawling in and out of the burrows. In Hamilton Tyler’s wonderful book, Pueblo Birds & Myths, he related that the Zuni call the burrowing owl “the priest of the prairie dogs” and explained that these owls live “on peaceable terms with prairie dogs, rattlesnakes, and horned toads” (p. 161). I have always personally fancied that I could see a 16th century Spanish priest in the burrowing owl, with spindly bare legs showing below the hem of his ragged cassock. Both burrowing owls and rattlesnakes are frequently seen in prairie dog towns, the burrowing owls live in abandoned burrows, and the rattlesnakes can also shelter in burrows as well as prey on the prairie dogs. Tyler went on to record many different mythological roles for owls among Pueblo peoples, there are a number of owl kachinas, and roles in fertility, hunting, and even war, are played by owls.

These owls express the magic of Sieber Canyon for me. I have hiked in to Sieber Canyon three or four times in past years, and on two of those visits I scared up an owl which flew off as I dropped down into the head of the canyon. As you might imagine, my thoughts of Sieber Canyon are inextricably tied up with those owls, indeed I think of it as Owl Canyon.

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