Earth’s creatures told their own stories

Paul Sparkes
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Half a century ago, environment authors lobbied for respect for a dangerous, precariously balanced natural world

“At sea, the lack of hiding places from winds is particularly serious to birds. Some, like the giant albatrosses of the Southern Hemisphere, are believed to ride the wind belt around the globe, on wings spanning as much as 17 feet. One shot in 1847 by a ship captain off the coast of Chile bore a message tied to its neck, written 12 days previously by a whaler, 3,150 miles away.”

Hundreds, perhaps thousands of lapwings were blown from the United Kingdom to Newfoundland in 1927.
— From a sketch by Roger Tory Peterson, reproduced from “The Birds of  Newfoundland” (1951)

This paragraph is from “Paths Across the Earth,” a book published 56 years ago by a New Hampshire zoology professor and his wife, a research associate. Both Lorus and Margery Milne held doctorates in their fields. Their research took them to the Caribbean and all three Americas, South, Central and North. The impression is of wonderfully fulfilling lives, telling the story of the Earth to its most intelligent occupants (not always intelligent enough to listen, however).

I flipped through this book, initially caught by the beautifully executed drawings which accompanied the text. The illustrator was Henry Bugbee Kane, a talented and prolific artist, so I understand. I Googled him and, within the time I allotted myself to find out something, I found references to many of the books he illustrated, but also a note to the effect that it is very difficult to find any biographical information on him. The Milnes’ book says merely that he is “the well-known wildlife illustrator.”

Lorus and Margery were world travellers and writers. She died at 94 in 2006 and was “an internationally known naturalist”; he was a Canadian, a university lecturer, and died in 1986.

Below, I provide whatever information I can find on obtaining copies of the long-out-of-print books I mention here.

 

Lapwing invasion

Besides the drawings in “Paths Across the Earth,” my eye fell upon the word Newfoundland, and near the paragraph on albatrosses, I read: “In the winter of 1927 a hard frost in England seemingly started thousands of lapwings toward Ireland. But a 55 m.p.h. gale from the east brought many of them instead to Newfoundland — 2,200 miles non-stop in little more than 24 hours.”

I turned to Peters and Burleigh’s The Birds of Newfoundland (published in 1951) and found this under the subheading “Lapwing”: “In December 1927, a most remarkable flight occurred and some hundreds were reported in Newfoundland. The first was found at Garnish, December 17, while the last was reported at Bonavista, January 15, 1928. During the month’s interval the birds were reported from at least 20 localities, among them La Scie, Henry Harbour, Notre Dame Bay, Cape Freels, Elliston, St. John’s, Bay Bulls, Burin, Ramea Island, St. George’s and Corner Brook.

“One taken at Bonavista, December 27,” the authors continued, “wore a band placed on it as a nestling at Ullswater, Cumberland, England, in May 1926.”

Peters and Burleigh also reported that a lapwing was shot at St. Anthony November 19, 1944, after being observed for several days.

The lapwing is a large bird of the plover family, its mature body measuring 30 to 33 centimetres (12-13 inches); it is blue-black with white and wears a distinctive tuft at the back of its head (Peters and Burleigh call it “a wispy crest”). It has a wobbling flight action and is (was?) a popular prey of hunters in Europe.

Franklin Russell was deeply dedicated to the natural world and he also travelled widely. His “The Secret Islands” is about birds off Newfoundland’s coast. But one view of this book is that the author “is plunged into exhausting speculation about the meaning of life and death in the natural orders” (Kirkus Reviews).

In his 1964 book “Argen the Gull,” Russell builds a story around the life of one Newfoundland-born gull. He does not, however, limit his dramatis personae to feathered players. There is a very horrendous and graphic segment about whales, for instance. He describes the stalking and killing by a group of killer whales of a large whale which had been heading north past Newfoundland to its breeding grounds.

The killers are shredding flesh strip by strip from the huge mammal as it summons up all the energy possible to get away. These are hunters who eat the quarry before they kill it. The whale’s effort is to no avail. At one point, Russell writes, “his bulk thrust ever upward, cavernous mouth agape, tiny eyes staring, the hidden fluke of his tail striving, it seemed to lift him clear out of the water and away from the dreaded killers.”

Russell is also known for his “Watchers at the Pond” (you haven’t lived until you have read about an earthworm clinging to its burrow trying to withstand the tugging of a robin above — and losing); and “Searchers at The Gulf,” a place said to be astonishing and mysterious with ice and thaw, gale and calm. I have not fully read either of these, or, in fact, “In Defense of Nature” by John Hay, but I should. As they are all roughly from the same time frame (the latter was published in 1969) I think it is probably fair to say  these books, and others of course, especially Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” greatly boosted our evolving conscience in respect to our environment. In one part of In “Defense of Nature,” Hay writes, “We have been treating the Earth with a recklessness which is no tribute to human genius.”

John Hay’s place of interest is not Newfoundland or Labrador, but in one part of his book he writes about the dovekies, little birds “of primary importance to the Eskimos.”

And in this part, Hay refers to Donald MacMillan, the American businessman well-known for his explorations, and noted for his several visits to Labrador. Hay quotes from MacMillan’s writing: “What is that great, pulsating musical note which seems to fill all space? Now loud and clear, now diminishing to a low hum, the sound proclaims the arrival … of the dovekie, or little auk. The long, dark winter has at last passed away. The Eskimos are living from hand to mouth. And then that glad cry … bringing joy to every heart – ‘Little Auks! Little Auks!’”

MacMillan explains that the native people net the birds “with long-handled nets as they fly over their breeding cliffs and store them in the frozen ground for winter food; Eskimo women gather their eggs … they also use their skins for a birdskin coat … for one such coat, about 50 skins are needed.

“The dovekie is also called the bull bird (Peters and Burleigh). The body can be up to 23 centimetres (9 inches) and the wingspan, more than 38 centimetres (15 inches). They are said to be so small (I suppose in terms of the amount of effort per amount of food they provide) that hunting them is pointless unless they can be found in large numbers: “they are sometimes caught in nets and one report from near St. Anthony stated that about 700 were caught in an hour or two at the edge of the ice on January 8, 1947.”

I would decidedly not like to sit down to pluck 700 bull birds.

Henry Gordon was a cleric who ministered to the people of our Labrador coast through the years of the First World War and into the 1920s. He famously cared for many (both living and dead bodies) during the great Spanish influenza which hit that coast in 1918. In his diary, issued in typewriter format by the Provincial Archives in 1972, there is this observation (I cannot find a date for this entry, it is fall, and possibly 1915): “Our choicest supply of fresh meat came from the swarms of partridge (ptarmigan) which now began to arrive. It was an astonishing sight to go out one morning and see what looked like hundreds of speckled hens perched on trees, roof-tops and every available resting place. This annual migration goes on for only a short time, but while it lasts everybody lays by a good store of them — either by packing them in snow or putting them down in salt. The creatures are so tame that they can be knocked off their perches by sticks or stones.

“I was told by some of the old folk that in days gone by, the curlew swarmed by in a similar way. Now they are very rare visitors and one hoped that the partridge would not follow suit.”

Probably Gordon is referring to  the Hudsonian whimbrel (local name “curlew”) which Peters and Burleigh describe as “an excellent bird for the table.” With a body length of from 38 to 45 centimetres (15 to 18 inches), it does sound rather like a dinner on two wings.

 

 

BOOK LIST

 

Paths Across

the Earth

by Lorus and Margery Milne

Harper, 1958

 

Bright World Around Us

by Miller and

Margaret Stewart

Peter Martin

Associates, 1965

 

Searchers at

the Gulf

by Franklin Russell

McClelland &

Stewart, 1970

 

Watchers at the Pond

by Franklin Russell

Time Inc., 1966

 

Argen The Gull

by Franklin Russell

McClelland & Stewart, 1964

 

In Defense of Nature

by John Hay

Little Brown, 1969

Paul Sparkes is a longtime journalist intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. E-mail:  psparkes@thetelegram.com.

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, New Hampshire, Caribbean Americas South England Bonavista St. Anthony Ireland La Scie Notre Dame Bay Cape Freels Bay Bulls Corner Brook Ullswater

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