On the two Moses Harris Maps of 1749 (previously mentioned), there is a point of land across from the Halifax Peninsula on the Dartmouth shore, called Stags Point. Perhaps this references the animals of the deer family that used to be common within the city limits.
As the walls of the new city were erected, the hooves of moose and caribou would have silently passed through the forest away from the construction. By the early 19th century, the land in and around the city had been completely cleared for farming and settlement, thus quickly exiling its hoofed mammals and other animals from the peninsula. Following their departure, Haligonians interacted with this wildlife via the sport hunt.
Moose and caribou, though once plentiful, were hunted aggressively by settlers. Meanwhile, by the mid 19th century, much of their major habitat was lost to settlement and agriculture. Simultaneously, as people became more numerous, forest fires became more frequent, killing huge expanses of the lichens that the caribou relied on. And so, as indicated by Halifax naturalists Campbell Hardy and J. W. Duvar, these animals were on the decline. They discuss moose, caribou, and also the wolf in these passages:
The Cariboo (Cervus tarandus)…is so seldom met with now in Nova Scotia, that it may be considered on the verge of extinction in that province. (Hardy, 1855)
…Of the wolf we have but a rare visitor from the adjoining province of New Brunswick— and he, gaunt, solitary, and cowardly. Our hunters always know where to find a bear or a loup-cervier (vulgar: “lucifee”). Moose and caribou, if let alone, and especially if the Legislature would prohibit their being hunted for the next four years, would largely increase… (Duvar, 1867)
-Donald Dodds, Challenge and Response: A History of Wildlife and Wildlife Management in Nova Scotia. (Nova Scotia: Province of Nova Scotia, Department of Natural Resources, 1993) 29.
And so, laws were put into place to protect moose and caribou, as well as other wildlife deemed “useful”. As Donald Dodds outlines in his book Challenge and Response, 1856 saw the first closed season for moose hunting. The moose season was also closed between 1874 and 1877. In 1894, hunters were not permitted to claim moose or caribou for a three-year period. The beaver, otter, and other animals valued for their fur were also protected in a closed season in 1862. The beaver, who’s colonies around Halifax had been almost entirely wiped out from the fur trade, were protected again in 1874 (for a three-year closed season), and again in 1894.
A shift is evident here among the early Haligonians and Nova Scotians of European descent— it seems they are aware for this first time of the fragility of this ecosystem, propelling a budding desire to protect certain animals. Nevertheless, this comprehension was reserved for those species that could be considered game, or materially beneficial to the colony. Alongside new protection laws, there were bounties placed on predatory species such as the wolf, the lynx, the cougar, and the fox. The wolf is now extinct in Nova Scotia. The cougar and the lynx are now rare, but they protected from hunters by law. Actually, there have been no confirmed sighting of the cougar in recent years, and it is unclear whether or not it still resides in this province.
With an evident loss of caribou and moose, the province decided to introduce the white-tailed deer as a replacement for hunters. Distributed across the province, some of these were released near Halifax, and several may have come from the grounds of the naturalist and ornithologist Andrew Downs (1811— 1892), who bred them in captivity in Dutch Village. His property lay near where the Armdale Rotary sits today.
In fact, Downs was a celebrated naturalist and master taxidermist. His work won medals in world fairs such as the London Exhibition (1851 & 1862), the Dublin Exhibition (1865), and the Paris Exhibition (1867). Halifax’s wildlife was being showcased throughout the old world. Over the course of his life, Downs estimated that he mounted over eight hundred moose heads. He prepared and delivered live and stuffed specimens to sovereigns, museums, and zoological gardens throughout Europe. Thus, Halifax’s nearby wildlife found itself taken dead or alive and transported across land and ocean to rest in new habitats. At the time of his death, Downs was considered the best naturalist the province had ever had.
Unfortunately, the attempts to introduce white-tailed deer to the province had disastrous affects on the moose and caribou populations, as they spread disease (deer nematode) which attacked the brains of the animals in the already weakening herds. Moose did not perish entirely, although their numbers are greatly reduced. Caribou are now extinct in Nova Scotia.
The twentieth century seemed to bring with it a broader sense for new settlers of the interconnectedness of ecosystems and their animals. Such is evident in this film about the beaver, created and produced by Alexander Leighton of Digby County, viewable on the NS archives website:
Although this was filmed in Digby, the footage now lies tucked away in rows of shelving at the archives, on the corner of Robie Street and University Avenue. Like Downs’ specimens, so too have these beavers traveled.
I’ve noted in this section of Moses Harris’ map that the Northwest Arm was, in 1749, called Hawks River. This indicates that it belonged to the hawks, which I assume were plentiful in that area. Plentiful hawks would equate to plentiful fish, small mammals and smaller birds. I have never seen a river with so many hawks that it would be called “Hawks River”.
I have looked into the presence of hawks in Halifax’s past, referring to the book Birds of Nova Scotia, compiled by the late Robie Tufts. The Nova Scotia Museum has made this book available online, here: http://museum.gov.ns.ca/mnh/nature/nsbirds/bons.htm . Judging from Tufts’ notes, these are the hawks/birds of prey that may have, at one time, lived in the city of Halifax:
One does not often encounter hawks in the city today. Early settlers exterminated many of these birds, which posed a threat to their poultry. As the city grew, the wooded habitat shrank, and most of these hawks have now left Halifax. Hawk’s River was later known as Sandwich River, and then the Northwest Arm.
As described by Tufts, other birds that used to live here, but that are no longer present are:
Northern Hawk Owl: Halifax’s ornithologists of the mid 19th century recorded that these birds were at one time common. But by the end of that century, naturalists Downs and Piers both considered this owl as rare in Halifax and the province. Fifteen of these birds were seen around the city in 1913.
Eskimo Curlew: Considered formerly common, there have been no recent sightings of this bird. A mounted specimen was prepared by Andrew Downs and taken to the new Provincial Museum in 1846. Naturalist Piers saw a specimen of this bird for sale at the Halifax Market in 1897.
The Wood Duck: This animal was hunted by Early settlers for the purpose of stuffing and mounting for home decor.
The Labrador Duck: This bird is now extinct, although it was at one time common along the NS coasts (which I imagine would include Halifax). The only remaining specimen of this bird in Canada was presented by the Halifax Naturalist Andrew Downs to Dalhousie University. It is now on loan to the National Museum. Several other specimens surfaced in Halifax during the latter part of the the 19th century.
The Great Auck: It is probable that this bird would have lived along the coastline of Halifax, but it has been extinct for many years. A flightless bird, it was easy prey to hunters. The last known Great Aucks were killed in Iceland in 1844.
The Passenger Pigeon: Now extinct, Robie Tufts describes various sightings of this bird in Halifax, in Birds of Nova Scotia:
“James P. Kelly (son of Pat J. Kelly, who mounted birds) told me, August 28, 1919 that when he was a boy, say about fifteen years old, (which would be about 1857) about the end of August, he and Tom J. Egan, on returning from shooting across the North West Arm, Halifax, saw a bird near Kenny’s at foot of South Street, on east side of the Arm. Kelly shot it and it proved to be a Passenger Pigeon not a Carolina Dove. It was the only Passenger Pigeon that Kelly ever saw, although his father had told him that they used to be common about Halifax.”
In another passage Piers writes:
“W.A. Purcell, taxidermist of Halifax, tells me that about 1846 or 1847 Passenger Pigeons were abundant and his father, at Purcell’s Cove, used to shoot large numbers of them. He says they disappeared about 1850.”
Actually, the NS Museum of Natural History has a Passenger Pigeon in its collection, and it will soon be celebrating it’s 100th birthday. Last Fall, I sang the specimen a lullaby.
While Halifax’s early residents purposefully killed some birds to protect resources (the hawks, for example), and hunted others, contributing to their extinction (such as the passenger pigeon), other times, species of birds were introduced to the area, and set free. The Pheasant was introduced to Nova Scotia in 1856, and as the effort failed, early naturalists tried again in 1935 with more success. The Gray Partridge was introduced in 1926, and the Willow Ptarmigan in 1933. While this is not a definitive list, I mention the above because they were released in sites that bordered the city of Halifax.
Meanwhile, there are also indications of rare bird sighting in the city, but in earlier times, these sightings were recorded through specimen retrieval— once spotted, the birds were taken from the landscape. Several examples of rare birds taken from Halifax include a Purple Gallinule (1869), Wilson’s Plover (1896), an Eastern Screech Owl (1892), a Magnificent Fuigate Bird (1876), and a Northern Cardinal (1879). (As a side note— there are cardinals living in my neighborhood in Armdale— when I see them in my back yard, I run for my binoculars to get a better view.)
The Brown Pelican is another example: each one of these birds seen in Nova Scotia was taken, until 1924. There was recently a pelican that found itself injured and stranded in HRM in 2010. Contrary to the old practice, this bird was brought to Hope For Wildlife— a wildlife rehabilitation center outside of Dartmouth— where it was nurtured back to health and returned to its home. I went to visit him during his stay.
Halifax’s history with hawks and other aviary species seems emotionally wrought- early settlers either loved the birds so much that they needed to have them for their own, or they hated them and sought to exterminate them. Meanwhile there are more predictable relationships between hunter and prey- the species described above and others not mentioned provided nourishment and monetary value to Halifax’s residents. Haligonians also desired certain species, which were subsequently incorporated into the ecosystem. Today, birds are rarely killed in the city; they are observed, noted, and if necessary, rehabilitated.
I have found the most mysterious and beautiful map of Halifax, created in 1749, by the surveyor Moses Harris. It depicts the hinterland that covered the peninsula and beyond, showing thick and diverse vegetation, rocky hillsides, waterways, and a small waterfall.
This map also offers clues into the wildlife that would have been living in those woods…
At the top right corner is a bear walking out of the bulrushes, and what appears to be a lion or a wildcat perched on a rocky ledge. Farther down the page is a dragon— indicative of other fearsome creatures that lurked in the dense trees.
I am not convinced that there were dragons living in this ancient ecosystem, but perhaps this points to the fear that early settlers felt from the forest that surrounded them— it would have seemed huge and foreign— completely unknown.
This map was never published, as it did not paint a favorable picture of life in the new colony; but, I have stumbled upon another map created by Harris in the same year, which was published in Britain to inform potential new settlers about Halifax.
It offers a tamer depiction of the area’s wildlife with detailed drawings of a porcupine, a beetle, and a butterfly. It is also evident that the trees are less dense, and that this map would have appeared less ominous.
This image is more widely known; in fact, the Nova Scotia Legislature has an original color version in its collection— and so an ephemeral fragment of the former forest still resides in the heart of this contemporary city.
I am not sure which of these two maps is more accurate. But Moses Harris is perhaps Halifax’s first Naturalist.
Note: I first learned of these maps in the article “An Empire on Paper: The Founding of Halifax and Conceptions of Imperial Space, 1744-55”, written by Jeffers Lennox, and published in The Canadian Historical Review, 88, no. 3 (2007): 373-412.
The wildlife of Point Pleasant Park is necessarily active during the day, and the animals are surrounded by bustling moving people and dogs from dawn to dusk. As a little girl, nothing calmed me down at the end of the day like a story read to me by my mother and so, I have decided to perform this same bedtime ritual for these animals.
On July 25th and July 31st at 8:30pm, and beginning at the Tower Road parking lot, we will walk through the park, stopping at areas where urban wildlife is often seen. Chosen from classic children’s literature, I will read bedtime stories to the animals— stories that feature Point Pleasant’s wildlife as protagonists. Anyone is welcome to join in to be read to, along with the animals.
I would suggest bringing a blanket or something to sit on, as some of the stories are lengthy. It will take around an hour to make our rounds through the wooded pathways. We will be walking through the park as night falls, so be sure to bring a flashlight and sturdy footwear— maybe even a thermos of hot cocoa…
Apparently the Lakes around Halifax were once brimming with trout, and salmon was also common in nearby rivers. Upon the arrival of European settlers, sportsmen emerged among the British officers stationed in the city. Local historian Mike Parker describes as much in his book Guides of the North Woods:
In 1784, a sportsman fishing near Halifax landed 150 trout in one and a half hours. Lieutenant Francis Duncan of the Royal Artillery wrote in 1864, ‘There is hardly a stream and never a lake … in all the myriad lakes of this country where fish do not abound.’
-Mike Parker, Guides of the North Woods. Halifax, NS: Nimbus Publishing Limited, 2004) 2.
I was visiting Long Lake the other day with Woods and Lakes Society, and I was happy to see fish jumping in the water; I even made a remark about it in my notepad:I also came across a contemporary sportsman; he was fishing and I decided to interrupt him to ask what species were in the lake. He said there were trout and bass. On the hike home, I noticed another sportsman fishing. So after all these years, there are still trout in the city, but clearly not as many as before— neither fisherman was getting any bites.
Here is a map from 1776, showing a similar area as that described in my last post, but with more detail:
It demonstrates how close the city was to an untouched wilderness, filled with woods and lakes.
I’ve also stumbled upon an aerial diagram of Halifax from 1777— the cleared area seems consistent with the Chart of Halifax Harbour from the previous post:
In this image, houses are popping up in the early suburbs and the streets are expanding. The forest has more detail— it is clearly hilly and judging from the many rivers and streams pictured, it must have been lush. There would have been waterfalls, like the one pictured below in the small circle etching:
These etchings are images of the coastline around Halifax, drawn from the decks of ships passing by.
And so here are more clues about what the hinterland would have been like. Actually, the waterways give some sort of indication of the wildlife that would have been present; there must have been fish swimming through the city— trout perhaps? Salmon? What animals bent to drink from these cool waters, or nested beside the riverbanks?
I have come across this map from the year 1759. Created only 10 years after the drawing in my previous post, according to this image nearly half of the peninsula had already been cleared. This early nautical chart also gives some indication of the terrain around the peninsula, and thus quite possibly the land that was being leveled: woods and lakes.
And so the large expanse of land around the young city was comprised of untouched forest and fresh water.
What would that have been like? Which animals would have made homes near those lakes?
In an effort to learn more, I have begun a society called “The Woods and Lakes Swim Club and Naturalist Society”. Together, we will visit the lakes mentioned in the above map, in their present state. We will swim, we will consider our surroundings, and we will take notes.
I have been searching through the provincial archives to find documents of the wilderness that used to be here, and of the animals who would have shared the city. This early sketch of Halifax is particularly telling; it shows several blocks of houses protected by a fort, and flanked by the forest.
Of particular note:
A fleeting moment in the history of Halifax, in which the city stood beside a great wilderness and citizens shared their home with wildlife.