The ability to procure food in a demanding landscape like the
desert was possible for those who know where and how to look and
have a wealth of hunting and trapping skills. I believe trapping
played a significant role in the menu of hunter-gatherers in the
desert though archeological site reports tend to focus on larger
fauna and hunting implements like the atlatl and bow.
ranking low in the overall archeological interpretation of the
Southwest, deadfalls and snares have been found in quantity at
Basketmaker sites in Arizona and Utah and were used (and still
are in some regions) at places like Hopi and Supai into the
As experienced primitive trappers know who are reading this,
the use of deadfalls and snares is a very calorie-efficient
method for obtaining wild game from the landscape. This is not
to say it was the end-all answer to procuring meat but its
importance is not reflected in most archeological site reports
of the Southwest.
This article will focus on bird snares and deadfalls in
northern Arizona with some reference to southern Utah. During
the past nine years, I have made friendships at Hopi and
continue to gather information regarding wild game procurement
as well as utilize these on extended desert survival courses
that I teach.
The Hisatsinom or ancestors of the Hopi (the PC term
being "Ancestral Puebloans" according to the National Park
Service) did not have the geographic boundaries of state lines.
Other methods such as rabbit nets, scissor snares, and simple
snares were utilized throughout the region and will be covered
in a later article.
"We little boys made snares of horse-hair to catch birds. I
learned to catch bluebirds with a hair from a horse's tail set
as a snare on the upper stem of a sunflower stalk, with a worm
for bait." (Hopi elder Don C. Talayesva in his biography Sun
I had the good fortune of examining a prehistoric bird snare
(Hopi call them, "Wivosi") at the Museum of Northern Arizona in
Flagstaff. It is a delicate setup made of an 18" long stick that
is approximately ˝" in diameter and has 8 single-strands of
(human?) hair made into snares. These are secured on the main
stick with cordage at 4" intervals. Wivosi were used into the
historic period as well as having been excavated from
Basketmaker sites in the Southwest. There is also a fine
photographic example of a Basketmaker bird snare of the above
type in the book Material Culture of the Hopi.
Upon initial testing of this bird snare, I set the trap down
in the evening and secured it with a line of yucca attached to a
grapefruit-sized rock to prevent any airborne theft of the trap
by a particularly pugnacious dove. At sunrise, my dogs informed
me (and my sleepy-eyed kids) that there was a visitor in the
trap. A groggy stumble outside revealed a large pigeon with one
foot in the snare and the other foot attempting a wave to his
freedom-loving pals above. The trap had worked and the pigeon
(not a fan of the meat I must say) was released unharmed by
snipping the cordage near his foot.
Given it's low-tech nature and ease of construction, setting
a few of these in heavily-trafficked areas that birds frequent
would provide a hunter with an easy meal with a minimum of
energy expenditure. If one doesn't have access to birdseed (wild
or otherwise) for bait, then placing the snares alongside
waterholes, where bird tracks have been found, would be the next
Talking with friends at Hopi, it was mentioned how these
snares were used to catch not only birds for meat but for
obtaining bird feathers for ceremonies in recent times.
Another invention that doesn't show up in the ethnographic
literature on the Hopi very often is an upright bird-snare
perched on a sunflower stalk. The setup is a miniature version
of an Ojibwa bird-snare from Canada and is used mainly for
catching small birds such as bluebirds and sparrows, again for
their feathers not meat. During his ethnographic work in the
1930s, anthropologist Clyde Kluckholn mentions that the Navajos
used a similar setup for birds based atop a sunflower stalk (see
In DuPont Cave in Utah there was a cache of 137 bird snares
found and 55 bird-snares in a cave in Adugegi Canyon in Arizona,
both of which are Basketmaker sites. These caves and numerous
others in the Southwest, where such snares have been excavated,
would suggest that birds may have held greater significance in
the diet of prehistoric hunters.
From archeologist Joel Janetski's examination of the bird
snares from DuPont Cave, it was found that "snares consist of a
stick measuring 50 to 60 cm. long by 0.5 to 0.75 cm. in diameter
to which lengths of human hair or vegetable cordage have been
secured At the distal end of each length of cordage is a small
slip noose. Variation is restricted to the number of cords (from
1 to 6) attached to the snare sticks." In my own fieldwork, bird
snares that I have had success with each had 5-8 cords attached.
I also tracked down an example of a Dinka bird-snare at the
Pitts Museum, the University of Oxford's Museum of Anthropology.
The specimen was collected in southern Sudan in the 1930s. It is
remarkably similar in size and shape to the Hopi style but has
the addition of (unfired) clay-pellets attached to the
midsection of the snares. The pellets are almond-sized and would
seem to be in place to prevent the wind from tangling the snares
when left on the ground and/or to prevent the captured bird from
going airborne with the trap. The description indicates the
snares are made of horsehair but the Dinka-English dictionary
states that the name for snare is "Wiel" which denotes a fiber
made from giraffe-tail or elephant hair.
My own bird snare could have benefited from the addition of
such clay pellets as a windy day (when isn't it windy in
northern Arizona!) makes my snare lines look like a tangled
In the western Grand Canyon on Hualapai tribal land, there
was an even simpler design in which "wild pigeons were caught in
a snare, onu'k. This was a running noose of yucca twine. It was
tied to a bush and would tighten up on the bird's leg" (From
Walapai Ethnography by A.L. Kroeber).
"The Walapai have a deadfall trap, kweo'ne, in which they catch
rabbits, rats, mice, and even snakes and lizards" (Kroeber).
Kroeber is referring to the ubiquitous Paiute deadfall used
throughout the Great Basin and Colorado Plateau. The Paiute
deadfall was used by the Supai in the Grand Canyon and was
described by Spier in his work, Havasupai Ethnography.
As Spier noted, "Traps are placed on the rodent trails in the
fields and near storehouses to catch the squirrels and rats
which root up the corn, tear their way into storehouses, etc.
Snakes and birds are sometimes found in these devices, but no
attempt is made to trap or snare large game." Later he states,
"It is baited with dried peaches or mescal pulp tied firmly to
I first learned to make and use the Paiute deadfall from
fellow survival instructor Scott Kuipers on a 21-day trek that
we were leading in Idaho back in 1988. Prior to this I had used
the Figure-four deadfall for years but found the action of the
Paiute much faster. On the Idaho trips, we would set a minimum
of four deadfalls each night which were aimed at small critters
like packrats and mice. I've used this trap as my primary
deadfall since then for small game along with the promontory peg
deadfall (see next section) in recent years.
On a sidenote, I've found a variation of the Paiute deadfall
used in Zimbabwe. From a teaching perspective, this variation
lends itself to a greater success rate for students learning to
set deadfalls for the first time. This particular trap is also
outlined in one of my
You Tube videos.
At Hopi, depending on which village you visit, some people
recounted no memory of using Paiute deadfalls in recent times
while others I spoke with used deadfalls in their corn fields
during this past season and employ them in one of their
"The old people showed us how to make deadfalls to catch
kangaroo rats, prairie dogs, porcupines, badgers, chipmunks,
squirrels, and turtledoves. The men used heavy rock deadfalls
for trapping coyotes, foxes, wildcats, and other large animals."
(Hopi elder Don C. Talayesva in his biography Sun Chief).
Promontory Peg Deadfall
In Danger Cave, located two miles east of Wendover, Utah,
archeologists uncovered over 60 Promontory Peg components made
from willow, milkwort, rabbitbrush, and other materials. One
specimen even had a slice of prickly pear still impaled on the
As far as a field-expedient trap, it's hard to beat the
two-stick Promontory Peg. None of my Hopi friends recalled this
trap being used.
The Danger Cave specimens exhibited signs of spiral cuts on
the platforms which might, as one researcher noted, have been to
increase surface friction or create "threads" to allow for a
better union between the two pieces. I had a hard time setting
up a Promontory Peg deadfall with a smooth surface (the result
of a Mora knife!) and only had success when switching to
stone-tools (proper replication). I recall this was also found
with George Michaud's recreation of the Promontory Peg deadfall.
Stone tools work best.
On a 12-day desert survival course I taught for the military,
students made two Paiutes and two Promontory Peg deadfalls each.
These were baited and placed among the rocky ledges in a canyon
not far from our camp. The trap design that was initially
successful and scored packrats, was the Promontory Peg. After
refinement (and time on field application) during the following
week, students experienced a more balanced success rate between
the two trap systems largely due, I believe, to continual
practice with the delicate Paiute trigger system and field
experience with reading animal signs which ensured better trap
The Great Packrat Roundup
Every Fall, during our annual 5-week program in traditional
skills, we spend a great deal of time on the area of food
procurement, particularly teaching a variety of primitive traps.
This season, we had the opportunity to test out a large scale
primitive trapline (in this case aimed at rodents) on private
property. The region consists of 40 acres of high-desert, pinon-juniper
at an elevation of 6000 feet.
Three hogans and numerous wickiups on site had been infested
with packrats and we decided to have students set individual
traps consisting of 2 Paiutes and 2 Promontory Peg deadfalls per
person. Traps were baited with local flora such as currants,
prickly-pear fruit, and wild sunflowers. All traps were fenced
in with twigs of juniper, save a small entrance. We agreed that,
assuming the animals caught were healthy, we would utilize the
meat in our stews and jerk any surplus. An adult packrat doesn't
weigh a lot so not exactly enough for a juicy rat-burger.
There were 6 participants (myself included) and we spread our
traps over an area of approximately 20 acres, focusing our
efforts inside the unoccupied hogans and on the immediate area
surrounding the outside of the structures along with wickiups
from former students. Care was made not to disturb any nests or
droppings and everyone got a lecture on the dangers of zoonotic
diseases such as Hanta virus from deer mice droppings and
Bubonic plague from flea bites.
Based on prior observation of the area while teaching courses
there over the past six years and consulting local wildlife
biologist Chuck LaRue, we determined that there were roughly 6
packrats per acre, so approximately 120 rats over 20 acres. Plus
it had been a very wet spring and the packrat population was
burgeoning in these parts.
One study in western Nevada found that there were 4600
rodents in one square kilometer of desert! Add in other small
critters like rock squirrels, prairie dogs, cottontails, and
jackrabbits, and a prehistoric trapper would be able to fill his
stewpot using traps. Yet interpretive displays at places like
Mesa Verde and Canyon de Chelly would lead one to believe that
the atlatl and bow were the sole source for obtaining wild game
from the desert landscape.
Traps were set in the afternoon and checked once before
everyone went to sleep and upon rising in the morning. Each
student had been practicing their trap skills for the past week
since the program began and were already familiar with how to
fine-tune their deadfall triggers. It should be noted that
Paiute traps were carved from dry willow with a Mora knife and
Promontory peg deadfalls were carved with quartzite and obsidian
Here are the results based on 24 deadfalls (2 of each type)
set out during a 12 hour period (overnight):