A Cultural Cartography of a Migratory Bird's Annual Journey

Eastern Atlantic Flyway Paintings

C.c. canutus


* Click on each painting image for a larger lightbox view

First Feathers

C.c. canutus nests on tundra breeding grounds of the Taymyr Peninsula in northern Russia. Chicks grow quickly, changing their first down to the contour feathers of the body. The flight feathers emerge from hollow shafts along the wing bones. Without the ability to fly, they must protect themselves from predators in other ways. Crouching flat to the tundra ground, they become practically invisible among rocks, lichens, and flowers.

The Taymyr Peninsula is home to the Nenet people, who are nomadic reindeer herders. Modern Nenet women have adopted machine-made headscarves of colorful Russian peasant designs. These floral patterns once decorated cloth and wood objects, which were prize possessions of individual Russian villages.

Hunted by Peregrine Falcons

The Friesian Islands off the coast of the Netherlands form the northern boundary of the Wadden Sea, a major habitat for breeding, non-breeding, and migrating birds. Studies have shown that birds who forage in sites hunted by Peregrines, and who will need to take sudden flight, have more breast muscle mass than other birds. Individuals and flocks must weigh the advantages of nutritional resources against disadvantages of predation and other disturbances when choosing foraging sites.

Delft tiles with their distinctive blue colors (adopted from Chinese Ming Dynasty ceramics), are well known for their landscape and floral designs. Groups of tiles arranged as murals have created large scale and masterful wall decoration for hundreds of years. In this landscape, the ubiquitous Dutch windmill is seen with its modern counterpart: the offshore wind turbine. Shown in the background of the painting are a flock of Red Knots being dispersed by a hunting Peregrine Falcon. Shorebirds who breed in the meadowlands – farmland reclaimed for wildlife habitat – include Blacktailed Godwit, Dunlin, Redshank, Whimbrel, Northern Lapwing, Snipe, and European Oystercatcher.

Foraging at Night

In general, Red Knots forage by day as the tide lowers. However, under pressure to secure necessary calories for migration, birds will forage at night. Additional pressure from sport hunting on the coast of Western Europe also threatens migrating species.  

This painting, Red Knots Descending the Beach, is adapted from the painting Nude Descending the Staircase by Marcel Duchamp, a French-American painter and sculptor widely considered to be one of the most important and influential artists of the 20th century.

Migration Across the Mediterranean

On the northern migration, some flocks of C.c. canutus travel along the Atlantic coast of Africa. Others cross the Sahara to refuel in the wetlands of the Tunisian coast before crossing the Mediterranean into Europe.

A flock of Red Knots, beginning a migration flight on the full moon, is pictured as calligraphy inspired by the urban mural art of French-Tunisian artist eL Seed. eL Seed's murals use letter shapes to create dynamically flowing graphic designs, whose individual words may be difficult to decipher. Following Arabic tradition, the script is written right to left. The letters are from the Latin/English alphabet, written backwards. The text reads: “Red Knots, Godwits, Shorebirds, Humans – We travel together into our future.“

Smaller Birds, Shorter Bills

Scientists have shown how nutrition resources from one part of a species' migration territories can affect well-being in another. Young birds that do not obtain adequate nutrition in the Arctic breeding range will be smaller is size and have shorter bills than more robust individuals. On the non-breeding range, where fuel resources are different than the Arctic, such birds will again have fewer food sources. As their bills are not long enough to reach the surface depth of energy-dense bivalves, they instead eat roots of sea grasses. This lower calorie foraging means they will have less energy resources when the time comes for their northern migration.

Banc D’Arguin on the coast of Mauritania is an important reserve for many species of birds and marine animals. Designs from Mauritanian architecture make up the clouds and sea in the painting. Henna designs used to decorate women’s hands and feet for important social occasions show the pattern of the birds’ feathers. Designs for decorating leather containers make up the sand.

Molting Strategy

The southern migration strategy of Red Knots includes the need to replace flight feathers. Over a 60 day period, each of the primary and secondary flight feathers are shed and regrown one at a time. During this molting process, the stress of long distance flight makes migration impossible. Flocks migrating south on the African coast use the Bijagós Archipelago as a site for molting before continuing to a final destination or for residency during the entire non-breeding season.

The Bijagós Archipelago of Guinea-Bissau consists of over 80 islands that provide habitat for a million migratory birds, nesting areas for endangered sea turtles, gulls, terns, and herons, and coastal waters for African manatees, endangered sawtooth sharks, and the only population of marine hippopotamus. It is an example of a natural environment that conservationists have sought to protect through several key designations. As a Ramsar site, the Archipelago is recognized as a wetland of international importance. As a Marine Biosphere Reserve, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), recognizes the diversity of mammals, reptiles, and birds linked to its sea, mangroves, and mud flat environments. Additionally, the Archipelago has been proposed as a World Heritage Site. This designation seeks to preserve the unique human culture of the islands that has, for generations, protected the unique natural environment of the Archipelago. The majority of the islands are designated as sacred sites, each with its own guardian spirit, and not used for other human activities. 

Bijagós art is primarily known for its wood carving of these guardian figures, known as iran, and animal masks worn for related ritual dances. Animal figures and geometric designs are painted on houses and incised in calabashes, also known as bottle gourds, that are used as household containers, utensils, and for drums. This view of a group of calabashes shows a variety of styles. In the largest gourd, Red Knots have dropped a single primary and secondary feather as part of the molting process.


Foraging behaviors of Red Knots include probing the sand for food, where organs at the end of the beak sense changes in water pressure of the sand around small mollusks. While roosting together, individual flocks make choices concerning flight paths and foraging sites.

Represented in the geometric style of kente cloth of Ghana, this painting shows roosting birds, flocks flying in different directions, and forging birds. Traditional kente patterns were used to denote social classes and leadership responsibilities. Woven in thin strips and sewn together to create large pieces of textile, the geometric designs are richly symbolic with widely understood meanings.


Economic pressures and social conflicts make scientific studies difficult in many regions. These regional conflicts also limit the establishment of conservation zones in affected areas. Along the Niger Delta, habitat is severely impacted by oil drilling and pollution, by the effects of upstream logging, and by development for human habitation. In spite of numerous pressures, some birds continue to use the area in the non-breeding season.

The Oshogbo School of legend paintings developed in Nigeria in the 1970’s, with some artists such as Twins Seven-Seven becoming well-known on the international art market. Determined to maintain her access to shoreline habitat, in this painting an imaginary legend pits the "Determined Sandpiper" against a gluttonous hyena, a symbol of the resource extraction industries. A turaco, endemic to sub-Saharan Africa, looks on from a small slice of forest habitat, the common focus of most private and public conservation efforts.

* How this painting was created.

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