HistoryBluebird Hunting by Zuni People

Bluebird Hunting by Zuni People

Sometimes Native American values and cultural traditions and rights are misunderstood, or treated in a disdainful or hostile manner. For example, it may be difficult for non-native Americans to grasp why Zunis hunt bluebirds by the thousands each year on their reservations.

The study summarized below concluded that “10.53 ± 13.76 SD bluebirds (combined western and mountain) taken 1994 – 1995 per hunter interviewed (n = 96 hunters)…. Based on calculated size of hunter population, total number bluebirds taken for cultural/religious purposes estimated at > 11,000/yr.” This could be an overestimate, given the non-normal distribution of the data, but nevertheless it is still probably a large number.


From “Human Hunting of Nongame Birds at Zuni, New Mexico, U.S.A.,” by Robert V. Taylor (Dept. of Biology, University of New Mexico) and Steven K. Albert (Zuni Fish & Wildlife Dept.), Conservation Biology, Pages 1398-1403, Volume 13, No.6, December 1999

“ABSTRACT: Nongame bird hunting is a critical activity of the Zuni people of the southwestern United States. To help determine whether their current hunting practices may be negatively affecting bird populations on the Zuni Reservation, we interviewed 98 Zuni hunters. Nongame bird hunting was practiced by a large portion of Zuni males (45%); the most active age group was 20- to 49-year-olds. The rate a species was hunted was not a function of its abundance at Zuni but seemed instead to be related to its cultural demand. Five “species”- bluebirds (Sialia currucoides, S. mexicana), Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus), woodpeckers (Picoides villosus, P. pubescens, Melanerpes lewis), Steller’s Jay

Portrait of Frank Hamilton Cushing and Zuni, by J.W. Black, 1882, Smithsonian Institution (Wikimedia Commons)

(Cyanocitta stelleri), and American Kestrel (Falco sparverius)- made up 77% of all birds taken. The two most heavily hunted species were each taken in numbers >10,000 individuals per year. Although the greatest number of hunters were active in autumn, 31% hunted in spring, despite discouragement by the tribal government. Habitats favored by hunters were coniferous forests and riparian areas. Rates of hunting of nongame birds at Zuni equaled or exceeded those reported for game birds hunted by indigenous hunters in the Neotropics and New Mexico. The Zuni believe that some heavily hunted species are decreasing in number because of hunting. Although we cannot prove this at present, we suggest measures to mitigate possible overhunting, including the creation of refugia and a reduction of spring hunting.”

More Information:

  • The Zuni reservation consists of 192,000 hectares in western New Mexico and eastern Arizona.
  • Feathers are used as clothing for prayer sticks, possibly on traditional clothing (used in ceremonies, celebrations or other culturally important activities), or in the practice of religion. Because some objects requiring feathers are not reusable, large numbers are needed.
  • By the 1960s, firearms and slingshots superceded snares as the preferred hunting weapon, potentially increasing hunter efficiency. These days, shotguns and .22 caliber rifles are used almost exclusively. Free permits issued to hunters on tribal lands do not restrict the number of birds taken.
  • There are concerns about whether such hunting is sustainable, which is why this study was undertaken. From 1994-1995, 1,199 hunters took approximately 55,000 birds of nongame bird species. Numbers of Stellar’s Jay and American Kestrel have been declining on the reservation, and hunting is believed to be the cause.
  • Most hunting is done during September through December. However, almost a third of hunters reported taking birds during the spring, which is breeding season. Spring hunting is discouraged by the Zuni Fish & Wildlife Dept. Many tribal wildlife organizations are conscientious about wildlife management.
  • The Zuni Fish and Wildlife Department has recently established an advisory team composed of a mix of tribal members who utilize wildlife for religious purposes, and those who use wildlife for recreational purposes. In this way, resource planning will be sensitive to the entire spectrum of tribal values. (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service website, Zuni Cultural Relationships to Pinon-Juniper Woodlands, by Ronald K Miller and Steven K Albert)


  • Prayer sticks are offered by Native Americans at the solstice. The feathers provide clothing for the supernaturals. They are made only by men.The feathers of “summer birds” including the bluebird are often used. Birds are snared or shot, the feathers are carefully kept, wrapped separately in paper and laid away in native wooden boxes with sliding covers. (Source: Introduction to Zuni Ceremonialism, Ruth Bunzel, from the 47 Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1929-1930, Smithsonian Institution, p.500.)
  • “Among both the Hopi and the Zuni, bluebirds are associated with puberty rituals surrounding the passage from girlhood into womanhood. Also among the Zuni, prayer sticks are used as offerings to the spirit realm. Each prayer stick, depending on its purpose, requires a particular combination of feathers drawn from among 72 different species of birds. Prayer sticks serve many of the same spiritual purposes in the Zuni religion that rosary beads serve to the Catholic religion.” (Source: US Global Change Research Project, US National Assessment of the Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and CHange, Educational Resources, Regional Paper, Native Peoples and Native Homelands)
  • Two bluebird feathers are given to each of four unmarried girls and four unmarried boys who dance on the tenth day following the solstice. (Source: The Curtis Collection, notes from The North American Indian, Vol. 17, Zuni Solstice and Harvest Ceremonies.)
  • Most American Indian tribes–and therefore, their reservations–are sovereign nations. On Native American reservations, federal or state laws do not apply and are not enforced. The federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act prohibits possessing feathers of protected native birds, including bluebirds. I would assume this would mean that outside of the reservation, it would be illegal to own a Zuni-made item using bluebird feathers.
  • Sometimes non-native American artists wish to use bluebird feathers in their work. This would be illegal without a permit. Instead, they can use commercially available feathers (e.g., chicken or duck) that have been dyed blue.

References/More Information:

A long time ago, the bluebird was a drab, ugly color.
– from How the Bluebird and Coyote Got Their Color


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