Odd Birds, Good Eggs: Traditional Human Exploitation of Alberta’s Waterfowl

Each March, the vanguard of spring arrives in Alberta on thousands of pairs of wings. Tired, hungry, and honking, near-countless flocks of Canada geese (Branta canadensis) either stop over here or complete the northern leg of their annual migratory path – to rest, refuel, breed, nest, and brood – at or near the edge of Alberta’s many ponds, sloughs, lakes, creeks, and rivers. In the weeks that follow, these geese will be joined by many different bird species, particularly waterfowl, in one of the world’s most abundant migratory bird areas – the Mackenzie-Great Lakes-Mississippi Flyway that crosses western Canada.

Canada geese at Jasper National Park. Photo Credit: Tourism Jasper and Travel Alberta.

The seasonal comings and goings of different kinds of birds is particularly significant to Indigenous groups. According to war chief Fine-Day, the Nehiyawak (Cree) names for six different moons or months describe bird activities within those periods: “Mikiciwpi-cim, Bald Eagle Moon. That is when these birds are seen. Mis-kihpi-cim, Goose Moon … Pinawewipi-cim, Egg Laying Moon or paskawehowipi-cim, Egg Hatching Moon. Paskowipi-cim, Feather Moulting Moon. Ohpahowipi-cim, Starting to Fly Moon. No-tcihitopi-cim, Breeding Moon.”1 Many of these names relate to time periods when certain types of birds are available for human consumption  (e.g., when adults moult or lose their feathers, they are particularly susceptible to hunting). Most people today may not pay much attention to birds – and even less attention to what they’re doing at any given moment – but avian behaviours and seasonal characteristics comprise expansive reservoirs of Traditional Ecological Knowledge held by Indigenous peoples.2 The perception of a bird’s value is not exclusively based on its ability to provide meat—living birds are important resources, too. Some archaeologists allege there is an ancient fascination with and spiritual importance of birds, and water birds in particular, which lies in their ability to fly in the air, walk on land, and swim and dive in water, a rare trifecta of qualities few other creatures can boast.

A bird catching a fish at Police Outpost Provincial Park. Photo Credit: Neil Zeller @neil_zee and Travel Alberta.

In studying ancient diets, historically, archaeologists have given undue credit to “high-ranking” prey species that produce large quantities of meat but require extensive processing (such as bison), at the expense of more easily gathered food items with comparatively few processing requirements (like birds). In addition to favouring big game when reconstructing ancient diets, because of meat per animal, archaeologists also privilege animal species that are available year-round, rather than those that are only seasonally available. The result is that birds have been undervalued in archaeological models of precontact diets in Alberta and beyond. While we tend to think of the act of hunting as taking place only with the aid of projectiles, in practice, many small animals can be captured with traps, snares, and nets, and do not require the active participation, or sometimes even the physical presence, of the hunter. Often, the material components of such objects are fully organic in nature and leave few or zero physical traces in the archaeological record. Therefore, their manufacture and use may escape the notice of archaeologists. For example, birding nets are well-known objects that have been used by humans around the world, perhaps for tens of thousands of years—but the netting itself tends to be made from plant or animal fibers that easily decay. Unlike fishing nets, which typically are accompanied by stone net sinkers and whose use can be inferred through the presence of the latter, birding nets can completely disappear from the archaeological record. In addition, decoys were made of organic materials, bird arrows were often shafts with blunt tips of wood or bone (stone-tipped arrows were more likely to pass through feathers and miss the actual body), and hunting blinds were made of brush. Some hunting techniques don’t even have a material component, such as those described in a 1974 interview with Marie Osecap of the Sweetgrass First Nation on the Northern Plains:

Duck hunting was a much looked forward to event in those days. A duck hunt would be organized in early summer when the baby ducks were big, but not big enough to fly. The women would wade in the water, walking abreast, scaring the young ducks onto dry land. The men would grab them and wring their necks. The women would catch some in the water too. In this way, I caught many ducks myself.3

Waterfowl were important to both early settlers and precontact people in Alberta. Photo Credit: Provincial Archives of Alberta.

Archaeologist Stuart Fiedel has argued that Paleoindian peoples travelling through Alberta’s Ice-Free Corridor (an open patch of land between two large ice sheets that covered much of Canada) at the end of the Pleistocene ca. 12,000 years ago, might have subsisted largely on migratory waterfowl in this biologically sparse environment4, though waterfowl eggs, rather than the birds themselves, may be a likelier scenario5. Bird eggs, particularly those belonging to ground-nesting waterfowl, are easy to access but available only in a very specific seasonal window. Marie Osecap continues:

Early in the spring many duck eggs were gathered by the people. I have gathered a lot of duck eggs myself. The feathers from these duck hunts were saved for making pillows and other useful things. Late in the summer, another duck hunt was organized, this time when the ducks were moulting and could not fly.3

A Canada goose and several ducks on an Edmonton pond, mid-August. Photo Credit: Lacey Fleming.

Marie Osecap’s and other First Nations descriptions of bird exploitation reveal a deep ecological knowledge of ducks: when they are nesting, eggs and feathers are available; when young ducks are large enough to eat but do not yet know how to fly, their meat and feathers are available; and in the late summer moult, once more, their meat and feathers are available. While some species of waterfowl prefer to build secluded nests, many are colonial nesters, aggregating into large groups and building their nests in close proximity. Humans exploiting these colonial nesting areas could collect a staggering number of eggs in a short period of time. Some of these exploitation areas are preserved in modern place names such as Egg Island, Duck Lake, and Goose Creek. Human exploitation of nests for eggs is well-documented in both ethnohistoric and modern scientific literature, and in addition to their high nutritional value, egg products have a variety of non-food applications that may have been attractive to humans in the past: egg yolk and albumin have been used as hide conditioners and waterproofing, as a mordant for fixing natural dyes to hide surfaces, and as a paint emulsifier. The presence of eggshell is a clear indicator of egg exploitation in archaeological deposits, yet the delicate structure of most bird species’ eggshell means it easily breaks and deteriorates, and consequently is rarely found in archaeological contexts – though the Paleoindian Fletcher site in southern Alberta is one such location where it has been recovered in minute quantities. This site suggests that people have been collecting eggs for over 8000 years.

Bird feathers were, and still are, used in First Nations traditional dress. This piece is from the Driftpile Reserve in Northern Alberta. Photo Credit: Government of Alberta.

Bird bones were used to make tubes, beads and other objects. These artifacts are made from swan or geese bones and were found at an archaeological site near Grande Prairie. Photo Credit: Todd Kristensen.

In addition to eggs and meat, bird feathers were used in ceremonial regalia, and bird bones, thanks to their hollow nature, were used for sucking tubes, musical instruments, and beads by North American Indigenous groups. The study of birds in historic documents, modern languages, and archaeological sites is a good reminder of the diversity of traditional cultures, particularly in a province where the archaeological record is dominated by buffalo hunting sites and artifacts. Birds were, and continue to be, important elements of human adaptations in the province.

Written By: Lacey Fleming (Ph.D. Candidate, University of Alberta)

  1. Interview with Fine-Day, 1934. http://ourspace.uregina.ca/bitstream/handle/10294/1814/IH-DM.59.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
  2. Parlee, Brenda, 2011. Traditional Knowledge Overview for the Athabasca Watershed. Athabasca Watershed Council. http://www.awc-wpac.ca/sites/default/files/Athbasca%20River%20Watershed%20SOW%20Phase%201%20TK%20report_FINAL_20110603.pdf
  3. Interview with Marie Osecap, 1974. http://ourspace.uregina.ca/bitstream/handle/10294/1627/IH-068B.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
  4. Fiedel, Stuart, 2007. Quacks in the Ice: Waterfowl, Paleoindians, and the Discovery of America. In Foragers of the Terminal Pleistocene in North America, R.B. Walker and B.N. Driskell, eds., pp. 1-14. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln.
  5. Fleming, L.S. and J.W. Ives, 2013. Paleoindian Bird and Egg Exploitation: A Review of Archaeological Data from Western North America and New Approaches to Research. Presented at the 2014 Canadian Quaternary Association meeting, August 18-22, Edmonton, Alberta.

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