UF professors collaborate with tribe to design eagle aviary

Published: March 3rd, 2005

Category: Architecture, Religion, Research

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — For centuries, the Zuni Pueblo Indian tribe of New Mexico has been caring for eagles and collecting their feathers for use in tribal ceremonies. An aviary designed by a University of Florida professor ensures that tradition will continue for generations to come.

“This is a tribe that is very linked to their heritage and to their lands,” said Donna L. Cohen, who has taught at the University of New Mexico and has been teaching in UF’s School of Architecture since 1999. “This aviary will really become part of the landscape in New Mexico due to its cultural significance.”

Although the aviary, known as the Zuni Eagle Sanctuary, is the first of its kind in American Indian communities, the practice of caring for injured golden and bald eagles is intertwined with the history of the people, Cohen said.

Until the 1940s, it was common for each Zuni family to have its own eagle to care for outside their homes. But as eagle populations in the United States declined during the first half of the 20th century, the federal government curtailed unsupervised eagle care.

“The only way to get feathers then was to apply for them through a service in Colorado that was a repository for dead eagles,” said Steven Albert, the former director of the Zuni Fish and Wildlife Department in Zuni, N.M. “This led to a drastic cutoff in the supply of feathers.”

The Fish and Wildlife Department began working with the Zunis in the late 1990s to develop a way to easily collect feathers without having to apply for them.

“One option we came up with was to construct a facility for nonreleasable eagles,” Albert said. “This would be a place to care for eagles with broken wings or that have been (injured by electric shock) or that are just too old to survive in the wild.”

Albert said that while zoos would be ideal places to care for injured birds, the zoos prefer to keep birds that are not disfigured.
Enter the Zuni Eagle Sanctuary.

Although the birds in the Zuni aviary cannot be released, they are allowed to breed, parenting offspring that can be returned to the wild.

“The Zuni aviary keeps the eagles that are not capable of living on their own, and as they molt, the workers are allowed to collect their feathers for the tribal ceremonies,” he said.

Staff members collect the fallen feathers from these birds during their annual molt. The feathers are then shared among the religious leaders of the Zuni community for sacred ceremonial uses. In addition to continuing cultural traditions that have been in place for centuries, the aviary functions as a place to house and care for birds that otherwise would be euthanized.

Over the five years since its completion, the Sanctuary has grown to house 17 injured birds, and further expansion is being considered. The aviary currently is 100 feet long, 25 feet wide and 18 feet tall.

One important aspect of the project that Cohen stressed during the design phase was that the building be aesthetically appealing. Cohen and her husband, architect Claude Armstrong, who was her partner on the project, designed the aviary to be in harmony with its surroundings in northwestern New Mexico.

“The drawings we started with were all relatively simple because of the simplicity of the structure,” Cohen said. “We wanted it to reflect the natural area around it, and we made the decision that the materials would come as relatively local as possible.”

A reddish stone native to the area called Zuni sandstone was incorporated into the walls of the aviary, and lumber for the project was milled from local pine trees at the Zuni Community sawmill.

“The Zuni have a really beautiful way of building with the sandstone where they sort of lay it up so that the stone forms the walls of structures,” Cohen said. “It is a traditional practice that many of the Zuni today aren’t very familiar with, so while we were building the aviary, they started a program for the elders to teach how to lay up the sandstone.”

In addition, the aviary faces the Dowa Yalanne, the sacred Corn Mountain, a large mesa that dominates its Zuni surroundings. Cohen said the mesa has cultural significance to the Zuni, and the aviary was designed so the eagles could view the mesa from their cages.

Cohen’s work has not only given the Zuni a way to continue their heritage, it also has earned them international recognition and respect from other tribes.

“Because of the nature of the project, we were able to get grants from the federal government’s National Endowment for the Arts for the design fee,” Cohen said. “Grants from private sources funded the materials and labor.”

Models of the aviary are traveling the United States as part of an exhibit for the Premio Internazionale Dedalo Minosse award for architecture, an Italian award that celebrates the architect/client relationship. Photos of the aviary are included in the show, which tours internationally.

“This is not just about the Zuni Pueblo but about other tribes as well,” said Edward Wemytewa, a Zuni Pueblo tribal councilman. “Our eagle aviary shows other tribes with a heritage of eagle husbandry that they also have the flexibility of continuing their traditions as we are planning to do for future generations.”


Donna L. Cohen, dcohen@ufl.edu, (352) 514-8829
Meredith Jean Morton, mjm1939@ufl.edu, (352) 392-0186

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