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Large earthen mounds began to appear on the landscape of the upper Midwest around 300 B.C. Constructed in conical or linear shapes, the mounds were built by Early and Middle Woodland Indian peoples as part of burial and renewal ceremonies. Around 700 A.D. construction of mounds accelerated, and the forms of mounds changed to birds and other animals. When this practice ended sometime after 1200 A.D., up to 30,000 mounds had been created, primarily in Wisconsin and along the borders of southeastern Minnesota, eastern Iowa, and northern Illinois. The lake region around Madison once had more than 100 effigy mound groups comprising over 1,000 mounds. Over 80% have been destroyed by farming and urban development.

Effigy Mounds
Two ancient Woodland Indian effigy mounds embellish the landscape near Washburn Observatory, on the grounds of University of Wisconsin-Madison. In the foreground is a water spirit mound, its bilateral shape delineated by melting snow. A bird mound lies between the telephone pole and tree, facing away from the viewer. Wisconsin Historical Society Image ID 5569.
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The effigy mounds represent three realms of the natural world—air, earth, and water. Bird effigies signify the air or upperworld. The lowerworld is subdivided into earth and water, and is signified by bears and water spirits. Present-day archeologists believe mounds may be "maps" of ancient belief systems. They appear to recreate the structure of the universe and may have been built to epitomize and ritually maintain balance and harmony with the natural world. They model social divisions of the builders, similar to present-day Ho Chunk tribal clan divisions. Oral tradition of Ho Chunk peoples recounts migration out of the southeast and construction of Walking Bear Mounds and related mounds to preserve this history.

Bird effigies predominate in mound groups located along the bluffs of the Mississippi River. Bears and other earth animals are concentrated in central and western Wisconsin. Water spirits, long-tailed animals commonly referred to as panthers, lizards, and turtles, are most commonly found in watery areas of eastern Wisconsin. In Dane County, in the central part of Wisconsin, mound groups containing all three forms—birds, bears, and water spirits—are very common. The shape of the landscape animates the mounds, signifying that the universe is being recreated over and over again.

On the slope of a hill overlooking Lake Mendota in Madison, Wisconsin, an effigy mound in the shape of a bird flying south shares a site of natural beauty with Washburn Observatory, inside which an art exhibition celebrates human connections to the natural world. Organized by the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Starry Transit: An Installation by Martha Glowacki is the artist's interpretation of scientific studies of migratory navigation of night flying birds according to celestial cues.