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Monthly Archives: March 2016

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Today there was an article in the National Post (and I suspect many other newspapers) that reported a mass slaughter of 19 elk in one night by a pack of wolves. The event took place near Jackson Hole, Wyoming, an area where the state Fish & Game Department runs a number of ‘feed grounds’. Feed grounds are places where elk are fed – in other words, elk numbers are artificially maintained at much higher levels than the range can support because the state feeds them. It’s been doing this for decades, because . . . well, I’m sure there is a reason, likely a number of reasons. I suspect, though, the real reason is to make sure there’s a lot of elk around to keep hunters happy, and in Wyoming, hunting is big business.

The department called this event “an extremely rare ‘surplus killing’”. They believed a pack of nine wolves were responsible and that normally only one or two elk a night were killed. They also mentioned that they had an eight year study of wolf predation on the feed grounds and “generally wolves did not kill what they did not eat.”

I’d like to know more about that study. For one, studies I’ve seen on how much wolves eat here in Ontario say it’s about 1 deer every 20 days. So a pack of 9 wolves would need to kill a deer about every 2 days to survive. Seeing as a white-tailed deer is less than ½ the size of an elk, it seems to me one or two elk a night is a lot more than a pack of 9 wolves need to eat. Maybe there are closer to 30 wolves in the Jackson Hole area, which is a possibility, I suppose.

On the other hand, the notion that wolves, and other wild animals, generally only kill what they need to eat, as if they have some sort of moral compass, is bunkum.

Anyone who has a flock of chickens and lives in the country has likely experienced mass slaughter by a marten, an owl, a skunk, a mink, or (fill in the blank ________ with a local predator). One year we had a rogue black bear who loved killing chickens just to eat their crops that were often, but not always, full of grain. But other than the crop, the bear never ate any of the chickens it killed.

Over the years, I’ve spoken to trappers, outfitters and others, and witnessed myself on a couple of occasions, where wolves went on a deer killing spree. Usually this happened in late winter when deer were in poor shape and when travel conditions, for the wolves, was excellent (hard packed snow, waters still covered in ice). The wolves would chase the deer out on the ice, kill them, and eat a few choice parts and go do it again and again.

Wolves do like to kill. It’s why in ranch country, there are often few wolves – over time, farmers more or less wipe them out, because they got tired of having the wolves come in and lay waste to their livestock.

I like wolves and having wolves around is good for a lot of reasons. For one, it helps to keep animal populations in check and healthy, as wolves tend to weed out the old and the sick (and the young). But in a complex and complicated world with competing interests, wolves, like everything else, do best if managed properly. Too many, or too few, and the problems grow.

For a time, I believed wildlife biologists and fish & game departments were there to use their knowledge of science to help make decisions to manage wildlife on a sustainable basis.

It took me years to figure out that actually isn’t how things work. Wildlife management, like just about everything else, is highly political and decisions are more often than not based on whichever emotions are running highest at that particular moment. Or they bend to the ‘rights’ of people to do whatever it is they please to do (be they farmers, hunters or whatever). Often, this is actually accomplished through the courts of law, which more often than not pays little to no attention to management principles and science.

Another issue that is in play here, and one that never ceases to amaze me, is the prevailing meme held by people who I view as being animal apologists. “Animals aren’t like humans; they never kill just for the sake of killing!”

Err, as a matter of fact, they do. Rather often, actually.

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Once upon a time the common name for this friendly bird of the north woods was the Canada jay, but a while back the American Ornithologists’ Union changed the name to gray jay. Maybe it was for consistency, as we have the blue jay and the green jay; then again, there are a number of other jays that make no reference to colour (example, the scrub jay) and then there is the Mexican jay . . .  so why the Canada jay had to go I really don’t know. Interestingly, the Latin or scientific name, Perisoreus canadensis hasn’t changed and which, as any fool can see, has quite the tie-in to Canada. And Canada is where it is widespread and common. Its range does include parts of Alaska and the mountains of the lower 48, but for the most part, it’s a pan-Canadian bird.

Anyway, many of us here in Canukistan still call the gray jay the whiskey jack. That name apparently comes from either the Cree or Innu. Although the Cree don’t have a written language, today many of their words have been transcribed and spelt using the English alphabet, and following this practice, the bird is known as the Wesakachak.

Like the raven, the whiskey jack is a member of the Corvidae family, a family of birds thought to be ‘smart’. And again like the raven, the whiskey jack is a trickster, and often called the camp robber, for it will sneak into supplies and steal stuff to its liking. Usually, that means food, but other things as well. Their facial expression appears to me, at least, to be a perpetual grin, even when it’s -400 C.

Hunters in the north woods will inevitably be visited, usually daily, by the whiskey jack. Friendly birds, they’ll come and check you out, always happy to find a scrap of sandwich. Often, if you hold out some food in your hand, they’ll take it readily. Just don’t leave your pack open and unattended. . .

While the raven is an early nester, they are nothing compared to the whiskey jack. The breeding season of the camp robber begins in late February to early March, so it’s well under way now. Their nests are hard to find; apparently, they are usually in conifers, but the best studies have been done in Algonquin Park, which isn’t really representative of the boreal forest.

Although there are several of these birds that resemble giant chickadees in our yard every day, and we try and watch where they go, we have yet to find a nest. In the past Lillian has seen them going into woodpecker cavities, and she thinks perhaps that is where some of them are nesting, at least around here.

 

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In the north – and near north – one of the most common urban birds is the raven. Unlike metropolitan areas in the south where crows, starlings, sparrows and gulls are the common scavenging birds, in northern cities and towns, the bird most likely to be found hanging around fast food restaurants and malls is the raven; often big flocks of them.

Ravens, like all Corvids, are smart birds. They can figure things out and have learned to live in and among humans.

People have long recognized that ravens are not the typical bird brain like many of our feathered friends. The ancient Greeks viewed ravens in a positive light – in one tale, the Greek God Apollo took the form of a raven in a battle against the Titans for jurisdiction over the world. Europeans, though, often associated the raven with “war, death and departed spirits”. In North America, many if not most Aboriginal tribes had a special place in their culture for the raven. There’s even a charitable organization called “R.A.V.E.N.”, which stands for Respecting Aboriginal Values & Environmental Needs. One of its missions is to provide “financial resources to assist Aboriginal Nations within Canada in lawfully forcing industrial development to be reconciled with their traditional ways of life”.

On the west coast, the raven is a totem. Amongst the Haida, the raven is known as ‘the Trickster’, and it’s a moniker many today who watch the antics of ravens can easily relate to.

As one might expect from a creature referred to as a ‘Trickster’, ravens are mischievous and, as I mentioned, very smart. Here in Kenora, they know that plastic bags are full of garbage, and actively search for them at the roadside during garbage pick-up days. Any plastic bag left in the back of a pick-up truck will quickly be shredded by ravens scrounging for a meal. Ravens learned to recognize Lillian’s truck, which often had road-kill and other carcasses in it to feed other birds and animals she was looking after (she’s a wildlife rehabber), and would follow her around town. Within minutes of stopping and leaving the truck, they’d be in the back, looking for a meal.

They also recognize hunters, and I often see them following me around when I’m deer or moose hunting. A study in Wisconsin proved they learned to recognize a rifle shot likely meant a deer gut pile, and would show up shortly after shots were fired.

I wrote a column for Ontario Out of Doors magazine once titled ‘The Raven Called’, recounting an experience when I was moose hunting on how a small flock of three ravens pointed out to me where a moose was browsing. Believe me, that’s exactly what happened; there is absolutely no doubt in my mind.

They certainly are interesting to watch and listen to. They make all sorts of weird noises, whether they are flying around, feeding, walking about or simply perched. They are known to mimic sounds they hear in their surroundings, so they don’t make the same calls everywhere.

Ravens live a long time; many survive into their teens and some are known to have survived more than 20 years. They start breeding when they are from 2-4 years old, often start nesting when snow is still on the ground and usually lay from 3-7 eggs. Both parents participate in raising young.

In Ontario, ravens, unlike crows and most other black birds, cannot be hunted and are protected by law.