Wild Life Goes Modern

DAN McCOWAN June 1 1945

Wild Life Goes Modern

DAN McCOWAN June 1 1945

Wild Life Goes Modern


Humans aren’t so smart— many critters soon get onto our ways and sponge on us, although it took the pronghorn 50 years to learn how

ONE OF the most extraordinary animals in the whole world is to be found in certain areas of western Canada. With the feet of a giraffe, the glands of a goat, the eyes of a gazelle, the coat of an elk and the horns of a deer and a bison combined, it seems to have been assembled from odds and ends of spare parts of mammals gathered from various quarters of the globe.

When this strange creature was first discovered and described, its classification placed zoologists in a quandary. There being no other beast on earth to whick it might be likened, it was therefore put in a special class all by itself. It has the further distinction of being perhaps the most fleet-footed of all quadrupeds, goes in for semaphore signalling as a hobby and has developed an abnormal bump of curiosity. The name of this curious animal is pronghorn antelope, whose slogan might well be, “Don’t Fence Me In.” Formerly present in enormous numbers on this continent—less than 100 years ago the pronghorn population was estimated to be at least 40 millions —these animals were among the first to feel the impact of civilization and settlement. For a time, indeed, it seemed that the pronghorn was doomed to extinction because it could not adapt itself to man’s presence. Like those other wild creatures which once swarmed in North America, the passenger pigeon and the buffalo, it was subject to wholesale slaughter and apparently was destined to be found only in the moth-ball atmosphere of natural history museums.

However, this was not to be. It took the pronghorn half a century but, a few years ago, it finally did discover how to live along with civilized man. Its story is typical of the adaptations wild life is forced to make to survive in the path of the advancing railroads, highways and farms.

It was the wire fence that threatened the undoing of the pronghorn antelope, which had depended on speed for safety but had never learned to jump. When the first trans-Canada railroad bisected the western plains the herds of migrating antelope, southbound from the Saskatchewan watershed, were confronted by this entirely new and vastly disturbing barrier. It was not a high fence, only about four feet, but even that proved too great an obstacle. Baffled and discouraged, vast numbers wandered north of the fence until hunger and rigors of winter put an end to their wanderings. Later, when farming operations resulted in additional fencing, the range of the survivors was further restricted and soon they dwindled to a pitiful remnant of a former great host. Not yet had they solved the problem of the wire fence, and their total disappearance seemed imminent. Callous gunners in motor cars chased them into fence angles and did them great slaughter.

Belatedly the perplexed and harried pronghorns were given rigorous protection. It was a welcome

reprieve, which, if it did not restore former freedom, at least freed the animals from irresponsible gunmen. They could now give undivided attention to the barbed-wire puzzle.

Some 20 years later the sugar-beet farmers in southern Alberta began to voice complaints about the great increase of antelope and damage done to crops by these animals. As the beet farms were well-fenced it seemed as if numerous gates were being left open or else creatures other than the pronghorns were browsing on the succulent plants. The complaint was, however, well-founded and the trespassers guilty as charged.

Curbed for several generations by railroad and agricultural fences the pronghorns finally discovered that while these troublesome barriers might not be surmounted it was possible to crawl under the lower strands. Following this they gained new freedom and a new lease of life and are again apparently wellestablished over much of their former range in Alberta. It took them half a century to solve a simple wire puzzle but the effort was worth while. Otherwise they would probably have joined the Labrador ducks and the ill-fated dinosaurs in extinction.

Among the feathered residents of this Dominion the crow and the màgpie have not been greatly nonplussed by modern civilization. Of course this brainy pair are exceedingly observant and quick to profit by experience. It has been proven that a common crow can count up to seven, and generally is highly intelligent. Yet, prior to the rubber famine, a pair of crows nesting near my home devoted much time and

effort to collecting balls from the rough of a golf course. How long it might have taken them to discover these “eggs” were hopelessly hard-boiled I do not know, because a person named Tojo put a stop to their hoarding.

On the Pacific Coast of Canada the crows have found modern hard-surfaced highways highly useful. They formerly dropped clams and mussels from mid-air to the rocks below so that the shells might be smashed and the inmates eaten. The thoughtful black birds were not slow in discovering that better results might be obtained on cement or asphalt paving. Much of the sea food which fell on ragged rocks was lost in crannies but on a smooth hard roadway the shellfish crack readily and the wastage is slight.

Highways are convenient to creatures other than the crows. On autumn days in British Columbia great numbers of hairy caterpillars travel back and forth on bitumen-surfaced roads, making much better progress than in dust and gravel. Last year, on a lazy day at Comox, I timed one of these grubs inching along a main highway. It moved steadily at the rate of one yard per minute and thus, provided it did not halt for a breather or collide with a bus, would cover one mile in slightly less than 29 hours and 20 minutes.

In Kootenay National Park there is at least one wolverine making free use of Banff-Windermere road in getting from place to place. The wolverine, perhaps the most wary of all Canadian mammals, is seldom seen even by woodsmen, trappers or wardens. Yet this individual has learned that walking on a graded and well-surfaced roadway is much easier on the feet than scrambling through thorny woods and clambering over deadfalls. An occasional passing automobile merely causes him, or her, to swerve temporarily into the bushes. Moose habitually hike along National Parks highways in preference to threading thickset woods but that such a furtive beast as carcajou should, in daylight, travel boldly on a fairly busy road is quite noteworthy.

Despite the fact that it is the most primitive mammal on this earth, the wolverine remains utterly contemptuous of mankind with his modern weapons, traps and snares. Jim Boyce, an experienced guide in the Rockies, believes that on occasion these giant weasels actually sneer at and even bear malice toward intruders. In the business of intruding they themselves are peerless. One of the brutes had but recently broken into Boyce’s cabin northeast of Lake Louise and Jim spoke bitterly of the whole tribe. He told how, toward the end of December, he had gone to town for a week or two but knowing there was a wolverine in the neighborhood he had taken extra precaution toward making the cabin reasonably burglarproof. There were strong wooden shutters bolted on the windows, the door was stout enough to withstand anything Continued on page 28

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short of an axe, and the fireplace flue had a grid of iron bars built into it. He left his vital winter supply of meat, a hind quarter of beef, suspended from the rooftree by a wire, hung well above floor and as far out from the walls as possible.

When he returned he found the place in considerable disorder and most of the meat gone. The wolverine had torn shingles off the roof, gnawed a hole through the underlying boards and gained access to the premises. Emulating the flying squirrel, he had climbed to the top of an upper bunk and made a successful leap toward the meat, clinging to it by long sharp claws and eating his fill. This had been repeated many times, to Jim’s sorrow—50 miles is a long way to the nearest butcher shop.

When he tried to leave the cabin the well-fed robber discovered that the hole in the roof was quite out of reach. Most animals, realizing that they had been trapped, would have been in a dither—mountain sheep and mule deer when first made captive are usually panic-stricken. Not so Mr. Wily Wolverine. He set about doing more wood carving. He broke the glass and tore out the frame of one window, ripped off the fly screen, nibbled a hole (slightly larger than that by which he made entry) in the heavy shutter and took his departure.

Through the gaping apertures the north wind blew keen and a powdering of fine snow dusted the gaunt beef bone dangling from the roof. It was a doleful home-coming for Jim.

Bruin, the Panhandler

The coming of the automobile and the building of modern highways through the Rockies and Selkirks brought about a considerable change in the food habits of black bears in that region. Formerly obliged to range the woods and hills diligently in search of roots, bulbs and berries, these animals quickly discovered that almost any passenger car, approached in the right spirit, would yield a tribute of toothsome food. They soon became highly proficient at panhandling on the margin of welltravelled highways, even going so far as to pick a “good pitch.” The middle of a straight stretch of roadway became much preferred to one which had many curves, whereon an anxious mendicant might readily be overlooked. Wartime shortages of gasoline, rubber and candy compelled most of the dusky - coated beggars to revert to berrypicking, to raiding the stores of the bees and to salmon poaching. One seldom realizes that decisions made at Berchtesgaden and Yalta, momentous to mankind, may also prove vitally important to black bears and even to bumble bees.

In pre-war years the establishing of a grain route from western wheat fields to the seaports of Vancouver and Prince Rupert resulted in a welcome windfall to many small mammals and birds along the way.

It also caused a considerable shift in wild life population between the Alberta foothills and the Pacific coast. Tiny dribbles of grain falling from the freight cars were eagerly salvaged and stored by mice and by mountain gophers. Pine squirrels and snow buntings also came to partake of the new bounty. Presently hawks, owls, weasels, together with the stealthy lynx and the enterprising coyote, became aware of the trend toward thetracks and forsook the woods and hills in favor of the railroad right-of-way. Often, when snows melted in the spring, little piles of hoarded wheat might here and there be revealed, mute evidence that many prudent but luckless rodents had fallen victim to the predators.

It is surprising how readily many of the so-called wild animals become accustomed to modern vehicular traffic. Throughout National Parks areas mountain sheep and moose are easier to photograph from a car than on foot—they are more familiar with us as a passenger than as a pedestrian. This attitude toward mechanical transport is well-illustrated in the tale of the nonchalant moose, told to me recently by a railroad telegraph operator and verified by one of the engineers involved.

From the cabs of a trio of powerful locomotives hauling and pushing an eastbound freight train over Kicking Horse Pass, the pilots saw a moose, also heading eastward, walking at leisure on the railroad tracks and toward the spiral tunnel under Mount Ogden. The furious thunder of the ponderous engines and the fierce blast of their whistles echoed and re-echoed among the surrounding cliffs and crags but went quite unheeded by the animal, which continued to saunter along between the lines of steel.

Within a stone’s throw of the lower portal of the tunnel stands a long and lofty trestle carrying the rails across the foaming river. Over this high bridge paced the indifferent moose the while the prudent engineers brought their locomotives to an unscheduled stop. When he was halfway across the trestle the hoofs of the animal slipped

on the creosoted wood, his legs dropped down between the ties and there he hung, helplessly, throwing a whole transcontinental railroad out of gear, perchance impeding the progress of great armies in the field. Certain it was that for the nonce he tied up traffic on the Big Hill at Field and it behooved the trainmen to get him out of his awkward predicament and off the tracks as soon as possible. So they laboriously hoisted the great deer to his hoofs again and, like a team of well - trained pallbearers, tenderly escorted him to solid ground at the far end of the bridge.

Eager to be on their way and confident that after his unpleasant experience the moose would doubtless seek seclusion in the neighboring woods, the men again started their engines. But Mr. Moose had, literally, a one-track mind and would not be detoured. He calmly entered the tunnel and deliberately walked all the way through the dark circular bore, a distance of 1,000 yards, ahead of the snorting locomotives and the profane train crews.

Ravens on the Chow Line

Canada’s North Pacific coast is inhabited by large numbers of ravens, great solemn croaking birds whose background is generally believed to be that of remote and desolate wilderness. Yet recently I saw a whole squadron of these peerless stunt fliers sitting expectantly by the steps of an air station cookhouse door in the hope of a handout. As mimics they far excel the starlings, and their repertoire is quite up to date. A battery commander in Prince Rupert area told me that one of the birds in his neighborhood made a specialty of imitating the sounds made by the starter and engine of a balky jeep on a cold and frosty morning.

That ravens have ever been alert to gain a livelihood at the expense of settlers invading their ancient haunts is manifest in a statement made to me

by W. M. Halliday, Victoria, B.C. He said:

“In 1883, while but a lad, I went to live at Comox. Ravens were very plentiful there at that time. I noticed that many of the pigs on the farm where I worked had been docked of their tails. Strange as it may seem, and I verified it on three different occasions, the ravens would swoop down to attack small sucking pigs, picking them up and carrying them off by the tail. I presumed that, like the gulls and crows with shellfish, the birds would probably drop the squealing porkers from a height sufficient to kill them. On the three occasions mentioned the tail of the animal broke or was snipped through before the captor gained any considerable altitude, and, other than loss of the terminal member, the young pigs were little the worse for the adventure.”

When European starlings made entry to Canada from the United States they did so by way of Buffalo. Their progress toward Toronto and throughout rural Ontario was greatly facilitated by one of civilization’s most recent additions—hydroelectric power. From Niagara to Hamilton and thence to Toronto a long file of pylons strides across the fields and through the orchards. On each of these structures there is a tubular metal cross member, the interior of which formed an eminently safe roosting place for the alien birds. It may also be noted that in large cities of eastern Canada the starlings habitually roost in great numbers on the framework of electric signs on the roofs of buildings. Kilowatt would appear to be their patron saint.

A few years ago, when the honeycomb grids of automobile radiators were still exposed and unguarded, they formed mobile traps for flies, beetles, grasshoppers and all manner of assorted insects. The immigrant house sparrows became quickly aware of this, and thus what they lost when dobbin disappeared was largely offset by gain from the bugs adhering to the

fretted fronts of motor cars. In towns and villages of the Prairie Provinces it was not unusual for an incoming farmer’s car to be convoyed to a parking space by a flight of sparrows, all eager to partake of a good hot meal from insects frying on the metal filigree.

In parts of British Columbia the wasps also gained a good livelihood from this source. In some instances these fiery creatures proved somewhat of a nuisance to the travelling public. When a car made entry to a public motor camp they descended on the radiator grid in a swarm, to glean a speedy harvest of such insects as are palatable to a wasp. Unfortunately, in the intervals between car arrivals, it was but a short flight to the picnic tables, thence to jam pots and pickle jars, and if there is anything more irritating than ants at a picnic it is wasps.

Born under a lucky star, probady Sirius, the coyote has assuredly been

more successful in avoiding the slings and arrows of civilized adversaries than any other creature native to this Dominion. Target for every gunner, prospective victim of poison bait and steel trap, hunted by hounds, and with a price upon his head, this resourceful little wolf not only continues to thrive but also to extend his range. With unbounded courage and optimism he recently took up holdings in western Ontario.

Every coyote is possessed of an X-ray eye and is equipped with a superfine range finder. Thus he can teÜ when the farmer, the rancher or the shepherd has a shotgun within the car and when he has only a pitchfork, a branding iron or a crook. This, together with ability to determine exactly how far a charge of buckshot will travel, has in large measure contributed to the survival and success of the yodelling coyote, whose chief delight is to sit on a grassy knoll and serenade the evening star.