Eider ducks, two hunters shooting from blind; note dead eider duck on water in foregrounds




Approximately 1,000 years ago, the outlawed Icelander Erik Thorvaldson (better known as Eric the Red) landed on the southwestern coast of Greenland. Four years later, he returned with 14 ships and several hundred people, and established the colony which was to survive for approximately half a millennium.

About 1007 A.D, Thorfinn  Karlsefni, a wealthy and powerful Icelandic merchant who was descended from an illustrious line of Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Irish and Scottish ancestors, some of whom were kings, or of royal blood, left Greenland leading a colonizing expedition to Newfoundland. It may very well be, as many suppose, that the great auk led them to the discovery of North America. It was known to the Scandinavians that the Great Auk during the migration season departure followed the coastline in huge rafts, not venturing too far away from the shore, but other than Greenland they didn’t know how far south they migrated before discovering Newfoundland in 1007 A.D.

The great auk was a flightless sea fowl bird that migrated and kept near the coast in the fall heading southwest along the coastlines from Norway, Greenland and Iceland to Newfoundland and Labrador and even to Maine. To Icelanders, this now extinct bird, was an indicator of proximity to land, but so strange were its habits, and so innocent was its nature, that it permitted itself to be captured by the boatloads; and thus were the ships “supplied with food at little cost or trouble.”

At Newfoundland, they discovered on the beach “so many eider ducks . . . that a man could hardly take a step for the eggs” and “no shortage of provisions, for there was hunting of animals on the mainland, eggs in the island’s birding-grounds, and fish from the sea.” In Iceland, and the small islands to the south, birds were used for food, because larger game was not plentiful. Many of the seafowl were valuable for their eggs as well as for their flesh, feathers, and down.

In 1497, great auks were hunted off the coast of Newfoundland when French fishing ships sailed after cod in the region. They took the Great Auk or “pinguins,” as they termed them, and their eggs in such huge numbers they considered it unnecessary to stock their ships with food for the duration of their stay off the Grand Banks.

In 1534, Jacques Cartier, a French navigator tried to find a sea passage to the East Indies through North America. His orders from Francis I were blunt: Cartier was to search for “a great deal of gold and other rich things.” Two French ships under his command reached the Canadian shores of Cape Bonavista on May 10, 1534. He scribbled in his journal about the Gulf of St. Lawrence that rich things were few, but that fish, geese, ducks, parakeets, and seals abounded. It would be more than 70 years before another Frenchman came to the mouth of the St. Lawrence River. In 1604, Samuel de Champlain and Baron de Poutrincourt settled at the mouth of the St. Croix River. Hunting afforded them the means of providing a great variety of dishes, such as geese, ducks, bears, beavers, partridges, and reindeer. Champlain found here, on the islands, such an abundance of waterfowl that he said, “no one would believe it possible unless he had seen it, such as cormorants, ducks, geese which make their nest there.”

The Acadians were among the first Europeans to settle in North America – before the settlement at Jamestown, before the Mayflower, before most of the settlements that we read about in history books. They were exiled eventually from Nova Scotia and wander throughout the world, eventual settling in Louisiana. The French of Acadia were called crackling geese by the northeastern Algonquian Indians, because they talked so much at meals. The Indians ate mostly in silence having separate times for talking.

Nicolas Denys sailed for Acadia in 1632. Denys spent the next 40 years trying to develop the colony. In 1672, he gave a vivid account of Acadia and a reminder that Denys, despite many reverses, promoted French colonial development there for four decades.

At Cape Fourchu (near Yarmouth) of Nova Scotia, he remarked: “There is fine hunting all along this coast for all kinds of game.” Five leagues from Riviere aux Ours, he came to an inlet between two rocks. He noted that he had been there before on an earlier voyage and “saw a number of ponds of salt water which were full of Ducks, Wild Geese, Brant, Teal, and all other game, of which we killed more than 500 specimens of all kinds.”

From Cape Fourchu, about 1650, he traveled toward Cape de Sable, where he found a great bay in which were many islands called “Isles of Tusket.” Here he said that “Upon these Tusket Islands is so great a number of all kinds of birds [mostly eider ducks] that it is past belief that if one goes there, he makes them rise in such vast numbers that they form a cloud in the air which the sun cannot pierce.” He found many meadows that bounded with all kinds of birds upon which they made their nests. There were “Geese, Cranes, Ducks, Teal, Herons, Snipe large and small, Turnstones, Sandpipers and so many other kinds of birds that it is astonishing.”

The first account of toler dogs in North America came from Denys: “Of the Foxes, there are several kinds distinguished by colors. Some are found wholly black, but those are rare. There are black ones mottled with white, but there occur more of grey mottled with white; but more commonly they are grey or all red, leaning towards the reddish. Those animals are only too common. All these kinds have the disposition of Foxes and are cunning and subtle in capturing the Wild Geese and Ducks. If they see some flocks of these out on the sea, they go along the edge of the beach, make runs of thirty to forty paces, then retire from time to time over the same route making leaps. The game which sees them doing this comes to them very quietly. When the Foxes see the game approaching, they run and jump; then they stop suddenly in one jump and lie down upon their backs. The Wild Goose or Duck keep constantly approaching. When these are near, the Foxes do not move anything but the tail. Those birds are so silly that they come even wishing to peck at the Foxes. The rogues take their time, and do not fail to catch one, which pays for the trouble.

We train our Dogs to do the same, and they also make the game come up. One places himself in ambush at some spot where the birds cannot see him; when within good range, it is fired upon, and four, five, and six of them, and sometimes more are killed. At the same time, the dog leaps to the water and is always sent farther out; it brings them back, and then is sent to fetch them all one after another.

Like most other travelers of this time, Denys was primarily concerned with the value of the various kinds of birds as food, although other pertinent facts of interest were included and indicated that he was a good observer. A paragraph on the brant bears this out: “The Brant is scarcely smaller than the small Goose. Its taste is also very pleasant, roasted and boiled, but not salted. It is a bird of passage; it only comes into the country in summer, and it goes away in winter. If it were not for the taste, which is infinitely better than that of the Widgeon I would say they were the same thing.”

On ducks, he remarked:

As for Teal, it is familiar in France. One knows its value as well as that of the Great Northern Diver, and the Mud-hens, or Coot, and therefore I shall not speak further on them. There are seen also quantities of other birds of the bigness of Ducks, such as Spoonbill , which has the beak about a foot long and round at the end like an oven shovel; . . . the Sheldrake (also known as Shelduck) which has the beak formed like a saw; the Long-tailed Duck (also known as the Old Squaw), because it pronounces this word for its note; the Bufflehead Ducks, because they run leaping upon the water . . .

In 1629, Englishman Captain Richard Whitbourne approached the dangerous entrance to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, his heart was cheered by the sight of immense flocks of a peculiar seafowl. When he saw upon the water the great auk, which he called “a penguin.” Whitbourne said: “These Penguins are as big as Geese, and do not fly, for they have but a little short wing, and they multiply so infinitely upon a certain flat island that men drive them from thence upon a board into their boats by hundreds at a time.”

Though the great auk was killed extensively for food and its eggs taken, it was not until the birds came to the attention of the feather industry that they were headed for extinction. About 1760, the supply of eider down and feathers for feather beds was exhausted due to excessive hunting of breeding eider ducks and the destruction of their nesting grounds along the east coast of North America.

The feather merchants sent crews to the great auk’s nesting grounds, and the birds were killed on an industrial scale: killed for their beautiful black feathers, which were “soft and smooth as silk.” These were indispensable fashion accessories for trimming hats and dresses in Europe.

In 1785, an English adventurer and trapper, George Cartwright, who had been living in Labrador since 1770, wrote:

A boat came in from Funk Islands laden with birds, chiefly penguins . . . It has been customary of later years for crews of men to live all summer on . . . that island, for the sole purpose of killing birds for the sake of their feathers. . . . the destruction which they have made is incredible . . . if a stop is not put to that practice the whole breed will be diminished to almost nothing, particularly the penguins; for this is now the only island they have left to breed upon.

By 1810, Funk Island was the only west Atlantic rookery left. The feather-company crews returned each spring until they had killed every bird. Moreover, the last great auks, a pair, were killed June 3, 1844 on Keflavik, Iceland by a group of fishermen. Their single egg, for they only lay one egg, was smashed in the melee. All that remains of the great auk are 78 mounted skins, 24 complete skeletons, two collections of preserved viscera and around 75 eggs.

An account of the St. Lawrence Valley as it existed in 1663 was given by someone who had been commissioned by the Jesuit missionaries to examine the countryside. He said, “The Isle aux Coudres, the Isle aux Oyes, and the Isle of Orleans deserve mention in passing. Elk are found on the first named, often in great abundance. The second is frequented in their season by great numbers of geese, ducks, and bustards, so that the Island, which is flat and grass covered like a prairie, appears to be quite overrun with them. The neighboring districts constantly resound with the cries of these birds, except in time of earthquakes, such as were experienced here this year; for then, as I was informed by some Hunters, the birds preserved a wonderful silence.”

Probably, the first-recorded passage of the harm hunting pressure had upon waterfowl comes from The Jesuit Relations, recorded in 1636. It was reported that “birds along the St. Lawrence River were abundant in season, that is, in the Spring and Autumn; but as it has been so greatly disturbed in the more inhabited localities, it is going farther and farther away. There are Islands which are full of Geese, Bustards, Ducks of various kinds, Teal and other Game.”

Columbus, seeking a route to India in order to trade for spices, made four trips to the Caribbean and South America during the years 1492-1504. On Columbus’ first voyage, when he landed October 11, 1492 at San Salvador Island in the Caribbean, could it be that migratory birds were what guided him to the New World more than five centuries ago?

The role that the Eskimo curlew may have played in leading Columbus to the New World is narrated in part as follows: On October 7, 1492, “immense flocks of birds, far more than they had seen before, passed overhead all day long, coming always from the north and heading always toward the southwest.”

Towards evening, seeing nothing of the land and observing large flocks of birds coming from the North and making for the southwest, whereby it was rendered probable that they were either going to land to pass the night or abandoning the countries of the north on account of the approaching winter. So, Columbus determined to alter his course, knowing also that the Portuguese had discovered most of the islands they possessed by following the flight of birds.

Therefore, on his sixty-fifth day at sea, out of slight of land Columbus changed course to west southwest and followed the birds. His journal tells us that “the mariners did not know what the non-stop birds were. However, the date and direction of flight at that time and in that place identify them almost certainly as golden plovers and Eskimo curlews, the only shore birds having the speed and power to make the oversea flight of 2,500 miles or more from Labrador in the north to the region of the Orinoco River in Venezuela.”

On October 8, his journal entry stated:

“Steered west southwest and sailed day and night eleven or twelve leagues – at times, during the night, fifteen miles an hour. Many birds, one of which they took, flying towards the southwest, also ducks and a pelican were seen.”

On the ninth, they sailed southwest five leagues. All night they heard the birds of passage passing. On October 12, Columbus landed on San Salvador Island, one of the 700 islands that make up the Bahamas Archipelago.

By far the largest segment of the now extinct Eskimo curlew population began its southward journey by migrating east, possibly from Siberia and certainly across Alaska, the Northwest Territory and the tip of Ungava, Quebec before turning south down the east coast of Canada. While there are records of flocking in Alaska, nothing is known about resting areas between there and Hamilton Inlet, Labrador – a distance of more than 1,500 miles. In Labrador, the birds concentrated along a strip of shoreline less than 100 miles long and probably not more than six miles wide. At Cartwright Harbor, Labrador, the first birds arrived as early as July 28, and they regularly appeared the first week of August. Usually, they stayed in large numbers through the month. Final departure usually took place during the last two weeks of September and curlews in October were a rarity.

The curlews paid little attention to the Atlantic coast of the United States unless strong storms changed their course. When this occurred, Cape Cod and Nantucket, reaching out into the sea as they do, were their first landfall. However, migrating curlews and adverse storms seldom coincided – about once every 10-15 years and, even then, within a brief period, August 26 to September 5.

Once the birds left Labrador, their route was over the ocean, apparently east of Bermuda, with birds landing there and in the West Indies only if they flew into adverse weather. They passed through Brazil and Paraguay, some wintering in Uruguay but many more in southern Argentina, where the first birds arrived in September. Fall migration took two to three months across two continents.

The first English settlements, relatively latecomers in the invasion and colonization of North America, were established along the eastern coast of North America by royal land grants, business speculators and those seeking religious freedom. Here, as reported in my first episode the colonist found an abundance of waterfowl.

For Boston’s first 200 years, the five islands that now make up East Boston were mostly privately owned and used for farming, grazing livestock and military fortifications. Noddle’s Island and Hog’s Island are the two largest islands of the group. Noddle’s Island is now under Logan International Airport.

Situated upon the confluence of the Charles and Mystic Rivers, it was frequented by waterfowl, pigeons and other edible birds, and on this account proved so attractive to hunters it was soon found necessary to pass a law to protect the game which flocked there in great numbers.

This law or order was passed by a “Court of Assistants” on April 3, 1632 to the effect “than no person whatsoever shall shoot at fowl upon Pullen point or Island, but that the said places shall be reserved for John Perkins to take fowl with nets.”

Sir William Brereton, owner of Noddle’s Island, remarked during the first half of the seventeenth century that “in attempting to rise on the wing the Eskimo curlew, or dough birds as they were also known, were chased by the men and boys and knocked down with clubs!” Sir William remarked that they flew by Boston in the month of August, and if the August storm passed by these birds were not seen upon the island, and very few of them would be seen in the market that year.

From the time of John Perkins down to the mid-1830s, Noddle’s Island was a great resort for birds. This was shown in an anecdote in the journal of the Williams’ family. Says the journal, under the date of September 2, 1795: Tom (Williams) went out with his gun and returned at one with six dozen Eskimo curlews, with the assistance of Harry (Williams), who met him at the farm. He would not stay to dine, but took a new recruit of powder, and set off again. They returned at five, with three dozen more.

At the end of the eighteenth century, W.H. Sumner stated that a violent northeast storm he witnessed caused “such large flocks of Eskimo Curlews called dough-birds from their superlative fatness” to light upon the island in such numbers as made it difficult for them to fly as it “is for seals to run.” He observed that as they flew over the island in flocks, they were shot, and were sometimes so fat that their breasts broke open as they hit the ground. By 1758, Sumner stated: “None are now to be seen where once they were so abundant.”

Also mentioned in my first podcast episode was that the Indians were excellent at taking waterfowl. Roger Williams, who was banished from the Massachusetts Colony for “dissenting opinions,” settled in Providence in 1636 with a handful of followers. At that time, several thousand Indians were in possession of the Naragansett Bay shore lands and major islands. He observed that the Indians hunted a variety of waterfowl, including swans, brants and ducks, and he tells us that greater effectiveness in bird-hunting was one reason why the Indians were “marvelous desirous” of obtaining guns, powder and shot. He said:

“The Indians having abundance of these sorts of Fowl upon their waters, take great pains to kill many of them with their Bow and Arrows; and are marvelous desirous of our English Guns, powder and shot (though they are wisely and generally denied by the English) yet with those which they get from the French, and some others . . . they kill abundance of Fowl, being naturally excellent marksmen; and also more hardened to endure the weather, and wading, lying, and creeping on the ground, etc. I once saw an exercise of training of the English, when all the English had missed the mark set up to shoot at, while only an Indian with his own fowling Piece hit it.”

He goes on to say, “The Indians lay nets on shore, and catch many fowls upon the plains, and feeding under oaks upon acorns, as geese, ducks, and turkies.”

Thomas Young left England July 3, 1634 for Virginia. He later became a resident of Maryland and commander of Kent Island and a member of the Assembly of that colony. While exploring near the head of the Chesapeake Bay in the mid-1600s, he saw a flight of ducks and estimated it at a mile across and seven miles long. The taking to flight by such flocks was amazing, he said.

The first Europeans had never seen such bountiful land. Coming from countries where royal families owned all of the game, these first settlers saw this country as a paradise. It seemed to them the whole country was in a state of nature. They even remarked that the new lands were in the same latitude as the biblical Eden.

Prince Maurice River is where the Swedes used to kill the geese in great numbers for only their feathers, leaving their carcasses behind them. Little Egg Harbor Creek in New Jersey, which took its name from the great abundance of Eggs which the swans, geese, ducks, and other wildfowls of those rivers laid thereabouts.

Gabriel Thomas in his history of West Jersey in 1698 gave the following particulars: “In looking over the history of Elizabeth, New Jersey, Daniel Denton wrote in 1670: “How prodigal, if I may say so, hath nature been to furnish the country with all sorts of wild beasts and fowl, which everyone hath an interest in and may hunt at his pleasure. Where besides the pleasure of hunting, he may furnish his house with excellent fat venison, turkeys, heath hens, geese, cranes, swans, ducks, pigeons and the like.”

Thomas Glover, who resided in Jamestown from 1664-1667, gave his “Account of Virginia” to the Royal Society of London in 1676. He said, “On the Chesapeake Bay and Rivers, there feed so many wild fowl, as in winter time, they do in some places cover the water for two miles; the chief of which are wild Swans and Geese, Cormorants, Brants, Shelduck, Mallard, Teal, Wigeons, with many others.”

One Huguenot traveler in 1686, Frenchman Durand de Dauphine, said of Virginia: “There is a prodigious quantity of birds. . . . One sees on the shores of the seas and on the banks of the rivers wild geese in flocks of more than 4,000 at a time. . . . Ducks appear in flocks of more than 10,000. . . . There are a great number of wild-Swans. Wild-geese and Brent geese all Winter in mighty flocks. Wild-ducks innumerable such as Teale, Wigeon, Sheldrakes, the Black-diver, &c.”

Before I close, let me talk about the transition from muzzleloading muskets to flintlocks, because it occurred in this century. The North American east coast was settled by the Swedes, Dutch, French, and English. Muzzleloading matchlocks are noted to be still in use in the American colonies in the early 1700s, but there are no reports of matchlocks being used in the French and Indian War of 1754 to 1763. Flintlocks were made in the mid-1500s, but not well known until 1610, and even then, the matchlocks, although highly ineffective for hunting purposes, remained dominant until the 1660s.

When the colonists first arrived and for several years thereafter the musket was the main military and game and fowl hunting firearm. John Smith reported 300 matchlock muskets, snaphances, and wheellocks at Jamestown. The Dutch and Swedes brought in the precursor to the true flintlock; it was called the snaphance, but outside of the Dutch and Swedes, it did not find much acceptance. Another precursor flintlock was the German wheellock, but it had too many problems and was too expensive to gain hold in the New World. About 1660, the muzzleloading true flintlocks came into general use, especially preferred by the English and French colonists.

Well, I could go on and on about the seventeenth century; it was truly a remarkable time when the Europeans came to the New World to found America. What a sight it must have been to see the woods and plains teeming with wild animals, the shores and waters with waterfowl in every variety, where they had existed essentially unharmed and unmolested, except by the Indians, through hundreds of years, with all the colonists glorying in the beauties of Mother Nature in her pristine state – the realities of which the imagination can only convey an impression or give a foretaste of the charms and novelties of those primordial times.

They came to an untamed, virginal hunter’s Eden, just as the Indians had found it when they came to this land during the receding of the last Ice Age. It was America’s African Serengeti. They came seeking the hope for a better life, for religious freedom, and the right to fish and hunt. For the right to hunt, “The Body of Liberties” of the Massachusetts Colony, 1641, was the first code of laws established in New England, and therefore in a very real sense our “Magna Carta.” Within it was stated that “Every Inhabitant that is a house holder shall have free fishing and fowling in any great ponds and Bays, Coves and Rivers, so far as the sea ebbs and flows within the precincts of the town where they dwell.”


I hope to leave you at the end of each podcast with some words which I regard as reflections. Words that will inspire you and stir emotions within you and make you think and dream of our past and what the future may hold.

For this podcast, I leave you with this reflection:

For the past 1.5 million years, there have been 17 major glaciations, and during the last 750,000 years, eight. For the last 900,000 years, 80% of North America has been in a state of glaciation and the last cycle of cooling was known as the “Wisconsin Glaciation.”

The last interglaciation age, which is a warm period between colder glacial periods, prior to the present one which we are experiencing, and which began 12,000 years ago, began about 130,000 years ago and ended 116,000 years ago. It was a period when Arctic summers were moderately warmer than today, and the sea level was 20 feet above its level today.


PODCAST OF E2:    https://wordpress.com/post/historicwaterfowlingstoriesthegoldenageofduckhunting.wordpress.com/2