Hawks River

by protectyourlove

Maps K.Top. CXIX. 73 Early Map of Halifax, by Moses Harris, 1749 ((c)British Libr

Maps K.Top. CXIX. 73 Early Map of Halifax, by Moses Harris, 1749
((c)British Libr

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”.HawksRiver

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:

  • Sharp Shinned Hawk
  • Osprey
  • Northern Goshawk (This bird relies on heavily wooded area and flies low to the ground.)
  • Broad Wing Hawk  (rare, but one was sighted in Halifax on December 17th, 1983)
  • Golden Eagle (This bird is very rare, it likes to reside in remote mountainous areas. Perhaps Halifax’s hilly landscape was once its home, before it became populated with people.)
  • Bald Eagle
  • American Kestrel (small- formally called the Sparrow Hawk)
  • Merlin
  • Peregrine Falcon

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.”

Singing a lullaby to the passenger pigeon at the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History (Nocturne, 2012). Photo by Leigh Kirkpatrick.

Singing a lullaby to the passenger pigeon at the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History (Nocturne, 2012). Photo by Leigh Kirkpatrick.

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.

Pelican at Hope For Wildlife, Autumn 2010

Pelican at Hope For Wildlife, Autumn 2010

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.

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