Birds

The diverse ecological settings of the Texas coast provide habitat for an assortment of birds, and many varieties were hunted by native peoples. The Anatidae family (ducks, geese, or swans), roseate spoonbill (Platalea ajaja), and whooping crane (Grus americana) inhabit the marshlands of the Gulf coast during the late fall and winter seasons. Woodpeckers, warblers, crows, cardinals, and various other songbirds inhabit the prairies and forests of the interior coastal plain, along with larger birds such as turkey and road runner. Birds of prey, such as hawks, falcons, and ospreys, also reside throughout the coastal area. Remains of all of these species, although each in relatively small amounts, have been recovered from archeological sites in the coastal region.

Poor preservation and small size of many bird bones found in archeological contexts makes species identification and gauging the role of birds in hunter-gatherer diets difficult. Hunting strategies likely depended on the size of the bird. Projectile points found with avian remains in some sites indicate that birds such as ducks and turkeys were hunted with projectile weapons—darts or arrows. Smaller birds likely were netted or trapped.

In addition to meat for protein, birds provided a variety of materials for coastal peoples. Feathers were used for arrows or elaborate headdresses. Ulnas (leg bones) were worked into awls, beads, or whistles. At the Mitchell Ridge cemetery site near Galveston (41GV66) archeologists recovered several intricately incised whooping crane ulnas that had been made in to flutes, or whistles. Two or three holes were drilled along one side of the tubular bone which was plugged at the end with asphaltum in order to produce a desired tone when blown. Dating to the Late Prehistoric period, the whistles likely were played during rituals, such as a burial ceremony. Accounts from De León in the late seventeenth century mention flute playing in connection with warfare among the coastal inhabitants. Bird bone beads made using the groove and snap technique have been found in numerous coastal sites.

Ducks make their home in marshes and ponds
Ducks make their home in marshes and ponds along the northwestern Gulf Coast during the winter to escape the frigid conditions of Canada. Species such as these Mallard ducks would have provided both colorful feathers for regalia as well as a source of protein for Native peoples. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.
A pair of Whooping Cranes prowl the coastal marshlands
A pair of Whooping Cranes prowl the coastal marshlands for food. Notable for the dark, often reddish coloration of their crowns and the whooping sound of their call, the cranes are the tallest birds in North America. An endangered species in modern times, whooping crane were hunted by prehistoric peoples. Photo from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
An Eastern Wild Turkey moves watchfully toward the brush
An Eastern Wild Turkey moves watchfully toward the brush. These large birds likely were prized both for food and feathers. Photo courtesy Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Detail of engraved flutes made from the leg bones of whooping cranes
Detail of engraved flutes made from the ulna, or leg bones, of whooping crane. Found in a grave at the prehistoric Mitchell Ridge site, the flutes may have been played during the burial ritual. Native peoples used hollow bird bones for a variety of uses, including making beads. Drawing courtesy of Robert Ricklis.