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Researching the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site of Canada
  Recherche sur la Forteresse-de-Louisbourg Lieu historique national du Canada



Microfiche Report Series 83


Margaret Fortier


Fortress of Louisbourg

Part Three - Flora and Fauna


References to birds on Ile Royale were, for the most part, restricted to those which were suitable for food, most notably the perdix. A few commentators, such as Pichon, Holland and Dodd, did extend their lists of the island's birds to include some of the smaller, less useful species.

Properly speaking the birds referred to as "perdix" by the French were not partridges, but members of the grouse family. The grey partridge found in parts of Canada today, including mainland Nova Scotia, is a European bird introduced as a game bird in the 1920s. [1]

Denys described three kinds of perdix as native to the maritime region:

All three were easy prey. "They all perch", Denys remarked, "and are so silly that if you meet with a flock of them upon a tree, you may shoot them all one after the other without their flying away". They were also very easy to capture alive.[2]

In his account of Ile Royale De Laperelle reported that there were two kinds of perdix. The white or grey was larger than those in France and excellent to eat. The "sapiniere" - so called owing to its association with fir trees - was smaller, had a flesh of dark brown, and due to its diet, was almost inedible. [3] Dodd concurred, stating that the former was a "remarkable fine delicate Bird much larger than the English". Like Denys, he found all varieties "remarkably stupid". [4]

Because of their abundance, docility and good taste, the grey and red perdix were very important to the residents of 18th century Louisbourg. In order to preserve the species a hunting season was established in 1728. It became unlawful to hunt perdix between 1 April and 15 September. Besides allowing the females to tend their broods unmolested in the spring, this ordinance kept labourers from deserting their work on the defenses in order to go hunting. Punishment for violating the ordinance ranged from a fine of 50 livres for propertied people to 15 days in prison for soldiers, "campagnons" and indentured servants. [5]

The red and grey perdix described by Denys and the others were two colour variations of the ruffed grouse. The term "birch partridge" is sometimes applied to this bird. The black variety which tasted so bad was the spruce grouse, found in coniferous forests across Canada (except Newfoundland). The spruce grouse has retained the tameness attributed to it by Denys and Dodd. Known as the "Pool Hen", it can still be easily trapped by hunters. The ruffed grouse, probably because it is in far greater demand, has become wary of man and flees quickly at a hunter's approach. Both the ruffed grouse and spruce grouse are found in Cape Breton today. [6]

The outard or bustard is a European bird of the crane family which is not found in North America. In 1613 Champlain wrote that there were large geese in North America which were "en ce pays-là appelé outards". Numerous other references to outards by French observers in the 17th and 18th centuries have led Massigon, in her study of the Acadian language, to conclude that they were referring to the Canada goose (Bernache Canadienne). Bones of the Canada goose have been found by archaeologists at Louisbourg. [7]

References indicate that this bird was one of many types of waterfowl which stopped on Ile Royale in the course of their annual migration. [8] Louis Franquet stated that the outard was an important part of the diet of Louisbourg's residents. [9] This bird may have been among the many species which Pichon described as coming in great numbers to White Point each spring. Their arrival occasioned a massive hunt during which hundreds of birds would be killed. This hunt was very important to the Louisbourg community who, by that time of year, were running short of fresh meat. [10]

Without mentioning the Louisbourg area specifically, Dodd declared that the wild geese which stopped over in March and October were numerous and preferable to tame geese as food. [11] The Canada goose still visits Cape Breton on its way south in the fall; some may even stay behind to winter in the sheltered bays of Cape Breton County. [12]

The Brant goose is a "near relative" of the larger Canada goose. During migration these birds do not fly in the familiar "V" pattern of the Canada goose. [13] The presence of the Brant goose on Cape Breton was mentioned by Pichon, Holland and Dodd. A few bone fragments of the Brant goose have been unearthed at Louisbourg. [14] Though it still may be seen in parts of Nova Scotia today, "for reasons that are not understood they by-pass Cape Breton Island" during both spring and fall. [15] Perhaps the hunt described by Pichon contributed to their altering their flight plan.

De Laperelle classified the blue-winged teal as among the best of the waterfowl to frequent Ile Royale. [16] It was also mentioned by Pichon, Holland and Dodd. [17] A summer resident of Nova Scotia today, the blue-winged teal is "believed to be considerably less common in Cape Breton than on the mainland of the Province". [18]

The black duck was also listed by De Laperelle as fine eating. Many years later Dodd allowed that this was "by far the finest Bird of the Aquatic Kind". [19]

Only Dodd included what he termed the "Tree Duck" in his account of Cape Breton's waterfowl. It was, he said, "a very beautiful bird" which was found in small numbers on the borders of "the Grand Lake". [20] The wood duck, which nests in the hollows of trees as much as 50 feet or more from the ground, is probably the bird to which he was referring. Though more commonly found on the mainland, some do make their way to Cape Breton in the summer months. [21]

Massignon has traced the term moyaque to the eider. [22] It is specifically mentioned as present on Ile Royale only by Pichon; however, the bones of the common eider were the most numerous of those from the archaeological excavations at Louisbourg which have been analyzed. [23] Today the eider breeds along the western coast of Cape Breton Island. [24]

Another favourite game bird with Louisbourg's inhabitants was the pigeon which arrived each summer to feed on mature berries. [25] In describing what he had observed at one spot in New Brunswick, Denys wrote that there was 

a great quantity of Strawberries and Raspberries, and here collects so great a number of Pigeons that it is incredible. I once remained there eight days ... during which every morning and evening we saw flocks of them passing, and of these the smallest were of five to six hundred.

One flock would follow another only minutes apart. They were "killed in quantities, and eaten in all fashions". [26] From their remarks, it would seem that those writing of Ile Royale were describing the same bird. Most certainly it was the passenger pigeon which, prior to its extermination, could also be found on Cape Breton Island. [27]

In the spring of 1726 a group of men from Louisbourg were hunting in the vicinity of Flat Point. They shot a number of macreuse with which they made a stew. [28] This bird was also mentioned by De Laperelle in his description of the island. [29] Denys, in writing of this bird, declared that it was "too delightful" in taste to eat during Lent. [30]

Three types of scoter are found on Cape Breton during at least part of the year. The white-winged and surf scoters might be found here at any time of the year, while the common scoter visits only in the spring and fall. [31] Bones of the white-winged and common scoters have been found at Louisbourg. [32]

Pichon mentioned the presence of the cormorant on Ile Royale. [33 ]Two species of cormorant, the great and the double-crested, breed on Cape Breton today. [34]

Mentioned by Pichon this duck is an occasional winter resident of Cape Breton. From the number of bones of this species unearthed at Louisbourg it would appear that there was a good supply available. [35]

Properly a magpie, the margot mentioned by Pichon was probably a type of crow or jay. All three are members of the same family. [36]

The razorbill auk, mentioned by Denys and Pichon, breeds in the vicinity of Bird Island off Victoria County, Cape Breton. [37]

Pichon and Holland noted the presence of "pingouins" on the island. [38] The now extinct great auk or grand pingouin formerly bred in Newfoundland and possibly the Magdalen Islands of Quebec. Its presence in Nova Scotia "is indicated by bones found in Indian shell heaps, but evidence of breeding is lacking". [39] A 16th century reference by explorers to the sighting of "Pengwyns" on Cape Breton is seen by Tufts in Birds of Nova Scotia as "rather flimsy evidence" of the auk having bred on the island. If they were here the "wholesale slaughter of these flightless, hence helpless, birds on their breeding grounds" probably occasioned their disappearance here as elsewhere. [40] A bone fragment of a great auk has been identified among those recovered by archaeologists at Louisbourg, but there is no way of knowing where the bird had been taken. [41]

Dodd indicated the presence of two kinds of snipe on Cape Breton, but did not elaborate. [42] He was probably referring to the common snipe and the American woodcock, both of which breed on the island today. [43]

There are two species of horned lark common on Cape Breton today, but one was introduced only early in this century. Though similar to the longer resident of the island, it is smaller in size and of slightly different colouration. [44] De Laperelle and Holland mentioned the presence of larks in their descriptions of the island. [45]

There were, according to Dodd, three types of plovers in "immense quantities" on Cape Breton. [46] Today there are numerous varieties of the plover family present on the island. [47]

Rare on Cape Breton today, the presence of the catbird was mentioned only by Judge Dodd. [48]

Dodd commented that there were three kinds of curlew to be found on Cape Breton and they were "innumerable". [49] Today one variety is almost extinct, one exists only in Western Canada, and one numbers only in the hundreds. Like the passenger pigeon, the curlew was a-victim of over-hunting. The Eskimo curlew, now near extinction, was decimated during its return flight from its wintering grounds in South America. The last Eskimo curlew was taken in Canada in 1932. Reports of occasional sightings have kept it from being declared extinct. [50]

The Whimbrel curlew were hunted "relentlessly" in Cape Breton and Richmond Counties, "where they loitered in autumn to fatten on the rich berry-laden barrens". Gorged with food, it was their custom to gather in flocks late in the afternoon and fly to certain rocky islets along the coast which they must have felt were safe places to roost for the night. Hunters, aware of the location of these roosting places, waited in ambush for the birds. The heavy slaughter between 1900-20 brought the population from thousands to a few hundred, where it has remained. It has never been proven that the third species of curlew, the long-billed, was ever found on Cape Breton. [51]

Among the other birds mentioned in references from the-18th and early 19th centuries are general categories such as warblers, swallows, eagles, hawks, gulls, terns and owls. There are also specific references to robins, blue-jays and bobolinks. [52] Obviously this list omits numerous types of birds, aquatic and terrestrial, which are or were found on Cape Breton. In general, it can be said that the bird population of the island, especially in regard to some species, were considerably larger in the 18th century than it is today. In their attempt to fill their need for fresh meat, the inhabitants of Ile Royale contributed to the decrease in numbers or outright extermination of some of these birds.