A Cultural Cartography of a Migratory Bird's Annual Journey

Pacific Flyway Paintings

C.c. roselaari


* Click on each painting image for a larger lightbox view

Nesting and Raising Chicks

Female Red Knots arrive on the breeding range after the male birds and quickly choose their mates. They lay 3-4 eggs. Both members of the mating pair share incubation duties until the eggs hatch in about three weeks. Shorebird chicks are ‘precocial’ and thus leave the nest within hours of hatching to find food themselves. However, they are completely reliant on their parents for warmth (brooding), until they are able to regulate their own body heat at about 1 week old. Chicks also need protection from predators until they fledge. Predators include mammals, particularly foxes, and birds like jaegers and falcons. Adult birds lead mammalian predators away from nests and chicks with a ‘broken-wing’ display.

These early breeding events and the ‘broken-wing’ behavior are depicted in the painting above as an incised Chukchi ivory carving. Chukchi ivory carvings are unique in their coloring of the incised drawings. No other Arctic peoples used this coloring practice.

The Lemming-Fox Cycle

When lemming populations periodically crash on the Seward peninsula of Alaska, foxes are forced to find other food sources, including shorebird eggs and chicks. As a defensive behavior, adult Red Knots use a 'broken-wing' display in an attempt to lure predators away from vulnerable nests and chicks. 

The predation cycle is shown in this painting, arranged in the mask style of the indigenous Yu’pik peoples of coastal Alaska. Yu’pik masks were ceremonial objects, made of wood and feathers and often depicting animal spirits. In Yu’pik iconography, small animals and hands often symbolize helper spirits. Marine animals are identified as female, whose faces are depicted with a frown. Land animals are identified as male and depicted with smiles. Having both faces within hoops surrounding central figures in traditional masks represented the universe, the connections between beings, and the cyclical nature of life.

Faithful Foraging, Year After Year

Research at Grays Harbor and Willapa Bay, located just south of the Quinault Indian Nation on the coast of Washington State, shows that different bird groups return to specific foraging sites each year during the northern migration. This behavior is known as site fidelity. Migrating salmon, otter, and clam share the Willapa Bay coastal environment with Red Knots in an intricate balance of life.

A separation of beaches appear within the window of the painting. The beach on the left has forest trees in the background; the central beach is bordered by grass. The designs in the sky and the ovoid frame are well-known on the Pacific coasts of the U.S. and Canada. Derived from the highly sophisticated and complex art of the indigenous cultures, native styles have been mimicked by non-native artists for all purposes of art, including the Seattle Seahawks logo. Here, the belly of the blue bird of the sky represents Salmon. The eye of the salmon is a face, symbolizing Clam, the food source of the Red Knots. The darker back of the bird is Otter.


Careful observers of shorebirds continue to see new and unexpected behavior. A Washington State Fish and Wildlife biologist observed an individual Red Knot remove a bivalve from the mudflat, walk with it to a small pool of clear water, and apparently wash it before swallowing it.

The elegant ovoid and ‘u’ shapes of Pacific Northwest Coast designs are arranged in abstract ways by both contemporary Native and non-native artists. Here, white-faced circles represent the bivalve on its journey from mudflat, to the water used by the Red Knot for washing off sand, to the intestinal tract of the bird.

Excess Salt Elimination

Up to a third of C.c. roselaari, spend the non-breeding months in the Ojo de Liebre Lagoon in the El Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve of Baja California, Mexico. The Reserve is home to numerous birds, four species of sea turtles, and California Gray Whale, along with inland populations of threatened Antelope and Big Horn Sheep. The Reserve is also the site of enormous industrial salt evaporation ponds, which make a stable environment for the invertebrates and small fish that feed many species of wintering birds. When shorebirds do not have access to fresh water, they eliminate excess salt through glands in the head. The salt runs down a specialized channel in the beak to drop off.

Little is known of the Cochimi people who first inhabited Baja California. They left pictographs in the San Francisco mountains of central Baja California that include whales, birds, sheep, and cougar. The pictographs were generally executed in red, black, and white paint made from natural materials. In this painting, Cochimi pictograph styles are combined with the intense colors of Mexican painter, muralist, and printmaker Rufino Tamayo.

The First Year

Juvenile Red Knots stay on non-breeding grounds until their second year. For C.c. roselaari, this means birds spend their first year foraging in the mangroves of Santa Clara Estuary at the northern end of the Sea of Cortez, Mexico, also known as the Alto Golfo de California. Thought to be one of the most diverse seas on the planet, the shallow coastal waters of the upper Gulf provide abundant food sources for a variety of year-round bird species, including rails, herons, warblers, and hummingbirds.

Traditional Mexican bark painting originated in the south-central states of Mexico and was used in ancient codices for sacred purposes. Both the bark and the painting were prepared by hand by specialized craftsmen. Today, bark paintings are mass manufactured for tourist destinations throughout Mexico. Colorful images of birds, animals, and flowers are common themes.


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