A Northwoods Almanac for November 19 – December 2, 2010
Historical Methods of Hunting Deer - Drives
According to numerous historical accounts, Native Americans most often hunted deer in late autumn, just as we do today, because deer were then in prime condition and were congregated more than in any other months due to seasonal herd movements and the annual rut. The autumn vegetation was also dormant, permitting far greater ease of sight and travel. Perhaps most importantly, autumn hunting was essential for preparing critical food and clothing for winter survival.
Hunting was not done for sport or excitement, but was arduous and practical. Communal hunting was used far more than lone hunting because it resulted in more kills. Though hunting deer was mostly a male job, it wasn’t unusual for women and children to help in drives.
One large-scale method utilized for driving deer by the Mohicans in eastern New York was to have 100 or more people walking in a line about 100 paces apart and beating sticks on hollow bones. The deer were driven into the Hudson River where other Indians were waiting in canoes to kill them.
Another method utilized by many tribes for hunting deer was to drive deer along fences to isolated points where the deer could essentially be ambushed. The Mohicans drove deer between V-shaped wings of split trees stacked eight feet high for a mile in length. The “V” opening was initially 2,000 paces wide, but narrowed at the trap end to only 5-feet-wide.
The Iroquois in northwestern New York constructed fences of brush in the shape of a V that were said to be 2-3 miles in length. The deer were driven down the V to its apex where they were easily killed.
Samuel de Champlain in 1615 described a Huron drive in Ontario involving “four or five hundred . . . in line . . . shouting and making a great noise to frighten the animals, they keep on until they come to the end of a point . . .” I’m not able to confirm this, but Bersing, writing in 1966, states that the Ojibwa word for lake was “Mitichigan” which literally translates as “as a wooden fence to catch deer near its banks.”
Newspaper articles in Marinette and Phillips in 1883 noted that tribes in northern Wisconsin drove deer along fences 12 to 15 miles in length, built of felled trees that narrowed in a funnel shape (Fence Lake in Lac du Flambeau is thought to have been named for this hunting technique).
I found these particular newspaper accounts to be highly suspect given the incredible number of trees that would be required to build a fence that long, so I asked Ernie St. Germain, an Ojibwa elder, what he understood to be the truth of the matter. Ernie’s response was this:
“As for the hunting style, Shinaabe definitely used "fences" to herd deer. This wasn't any mass killing like you might have seen portrayed in buffalo hunt paintings with the buffalo crashing over a cliff, or hundreds of hunters waiting at the "narrows" and killing wholesale. Much like the "drives" that hunters use to this day, a group would walk in a line following along the fence line while others positioned themselves down the line in waiting.
“The old fence in Flambeau that gave the lake its name began down by the swamp area by the lake . . . The fence headed northwest up along where . . . the old T&L Minimart [was] and where [there now is a] gas company. It continued NW through where the school is today, and all the way to Pokegama (elbow) Lake. This certainly wasn't any 12 miles long but long enough if you can imagine how long it would take to construct. The fence was made by felling timbers and shoring up any places where the wiley waawashkeshi might sneak through and spoil the hunt.
“When I first came to Flambeau in 1975 . . . my grandpa walked me down the old trail that he said was the old line of the old hunting fence. I was very disappointed when that entire area was slashed for timber and the old trail disappeared. Road construction, schools, housing projects and timber harvest have pretty much destroyed what remained of that old fence line trail.”
Ron Pittaway, an Ontario ornithologist, issues a “finch forecast” every fall, predicting what northern finch species will most likely be moving south for the winter, and which ones will stay in Canada for the winter. He bases his forecast on the availability of key boreal tree seed crops, the most important of which are white and black spruces, white birch, and mountain-ashes. South of the boreal forest in the mixed coniferous/deciduous forest region, white pine and hemlock are additional key finch trees. Other trees play a lesser role, often boosting or buffering main seed sources. These trees include tamarack, balsam fir, white cedar, yellow birch and alders.
One of the difficulties in making his forecast is that not all regions experience the same seed abundance. White spruce cone crops, for instance, are very good this fall across the northern half of the boreal forest in Canada. However, spruce crops are much lower in the southern half of the boreal forest, and they’re poor in the mixed forest region of central Ontario.
With that variability in mind, here are his assessments of other key tree seed crops specifically for only Eastern North America:
White pine: Cone crop is spotty with scattered good crops across Ontario. White pine crops, however, are low in Atlantic Canada, New York and New England States.
Hemlock: Cone crop is poor in Ontario and elsewhere in the East.
White birch: Crop is poor across the boreal forest of Canada and in central Ontario, but birch crops are much better in southern Ontario.
Mountain-ash: Berry crops are generally excellent across Canada.
So, how does this translate into what we may or may not see at our bird feeders this winter? Here’s a tally of common irruptive finches:
Most pine grosbeaks should stay in Canada this winter because the mountain-ash berry crop is generally excellent across the boreal forest of Canada. So, we should see very few pine grosbeaks.
On the other hand, most purple finches will migrate south of Ontario this fall because the majority of deciduous and coniferous seed crops are sparse. Though purple finch numbers have declined significantly in recent decades due in part to a decrease of spruce budworm outbreaks since the 1980s, look for ample purple finches at your feeders.
Common redpolls should irrupt into southern Canada and the northern United States this winter because redpolls in winter are a birdseed specialist and their movements are linked in part to the size of the birch crop. The white birch crop is poor across much of northern Canada, so look for lots of redpolls.
Pine siskins love bumper white spruce cones, thus some might winter in northern Ontario where the white spruce crop is heavy. However, siskin numbers were uncommon this fall in the Northeast, so there are only very small numbers that could irrupt south into eastern North America. The bottom line – don’t expect many siskins this winter.
Evening grosbeaks are found in the highest numbers in areas with spruce budworm outbreaks. Current breeding and wintering populations are now much lower than a few decades ago mainly because large spruce budworm outbreaks have subsided since the 1980s. So, evening grosbeak numbers are low everywhere to begin with – don’t expect to see many.
Finally, bohemians waxwings will stay close to the boreal forest this winter because mountain-ash berry crops are excellent across Canada. So, don’t get your hopes up of seeing them here either.
Then Again . . .
Having said all of the above, Mary Kaminski looked out her window on Cochran Lake in the Springstead area on 11/5 and saw six evening grosbeaks on her feeder, four more on the ground, and two on another feeder. In Manitowish the day before, we also counted 17 evening grosbeaks visiting our feeders. And in the Ashland area, there have been numerous reports of common redpolls, red crossbills, pine grosbeaks, and evening grosbeaks.
So, as with any generalization that purports to estimate wildlife populations over a large geographic area, it’s important to remember that local conditions and populations will vary, sometimes dramatically, from the average. That’s normal, expected, and to be appreciated. It doesn’t disprove the generality, but instead demonstrates normal diversity across extensive landscapes.
Thus, it’s always important to never give up looking, because you just never know what the world will offer. One life adage I try to adhere to is to always put myself “in the way of grace.” Grace, of course, comes in a lot of forms and definitions, one of which is the grace of seeing wildlife. As John Hay wrote in his book A Beginner’s Faith in Things Unseen, “What I am really doing is trying to keep open to the unexpected. Who knows what miracles lie in wait? Out of the world that keeps rushing in and out below our house, out of the clouds in their endless transformations and the trees that hold the wind, come messages that could illuminate my existence.”
We’ll see how the finch forecast holds up this year, but if you figure the birds won’t be there – thus why bother looking – you’re creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. The only way we’ll know if the forecast was accurate is to keep our eyes and ears open, and to stay awake to it all. And perhaps we’ll be graced to see some things we never anticipated as well.
The most significant natural event of every November is the first snowfall that sticks and stays, and we got that on 11/13. The next most important natural event in November is ice-up, which typically occurs around 11/25, at least according to Woody Hagge’s 34-year average on Foster Lake in Hazelhurst. I would be surprised, however, if the lakes ice-over this year by that date given our mild October and November, but as we all have experienced, things can change fast.
The full moon occurs on 11/21. Called variously by local tribes “the freezing moon,” “the ice is forming moon,” and “the snow moon,” the names reflect the truly life-altering events of first snowfall, ice-up, and continuous below freezing temperatures. Winter should be here to stay for the next five months, and every living creature has to have figured out its survival strategy, or perish.
By 11/29, we’re down to 9 hours of daylight – the sun rises at 7:17 a.m. and sets at 4:17 p.m. And the last day of November marks the beginning of “the long freeze,” when our average high temperature no longer reaches 32°F.