By: Steffi O'Brien
The following short article by Sigurd Olson marked his first piece published in any of the scientific journals. It was published more as what we might now call a “Note” in one of the scientific journals rather than as a full article with citations and footnotes. Nonetheless, Sig’s article documented an unusual biological phenomenon based on his keen observations in the field.
Sig had begun graduate school at the University of Illinois in the fall of 1931, and his family moved from Ely to be with him during his graduate studies. Sig’s major professor was Victor Shelford, one of the early leaders in the study of ecology, and active with the Ecological Society of America. Shelford influenced Sig’s own thinking of ecology, and helped transform Sig’s views of predators like the eastern timber wolf from one of killers of deer (as Sig wrote about in his 1930 Sports Afield article, “The Poison Trail”) to one of predators playing their natural and needed role in the ecosystem. Sig’s master’s thesis, “The Life History of the Timber Wolf and the Coyote: A Study in Predatory Animal Control,” became one of the very first ecological studies ever done on wolves. Two longer articles from his master’s thesis appeared in 1938 in other scientific journals, Ecology and Scientific Monthly. Sig and his family returned to Ely in June of 1932, shortly after this article on fish-eating deer appeared in print.
Beyond the important scientific value that this article on fish-eating deer provided, it also provides some interesting insights on Sig himself. Sig’s keen powers of observation in the wilderness are quite evident in this piece, of course. The article also provides a glimpse into his early guiding summers, and tells us exactly where the 28-year-old Sig was on that May day in 1927, and where he was heading on that canoe trip in Quetico.
By Sigurd F. Olson
published in Journal of Mammalogy (Feb. 1932)
In the February, 1924, issue of the Journal of Mammalogy (pages 64-65), is an article on fish-eating deer by Thornton W. Burgess, of Springfield, Mass. In this article Mr. Burgess tells of deer in the Maine woods stealing trout from his camp. Although he did not actually see the deer taking fish, he had every reason to believe, from tracks and other signs, that such was the case. He mentions an instance in which a companion reported seeing a deer take fish from a canoe but gives no actual first hand experiences of his own. He draws the conclusion that the deer hanging around the Maine camps have perhaps developed a taste for fish offal on account of the salt in it.
According to Mr. Burgess: “The question is, just how generally are deer eaters of fish? Probably the liking for fish is an acquired taste confined to a few individuals. My own theory of the matter is that these particular animals had hung around camps picking up scraps of food and in this way had probably eaten some cooked fish for the sake of the salt. In this way, they had acquired a taste for fish for its own sake. Of course this is pure speculation but it seems to me the most logical explanation.”
The longer one observes animal life and the specific reactions of the individual as compared with that of the group, the less is one sure that individual behavior can ever be depended upon. Although the majority of individuals of a known group will react much alike under average conditions, it becomes increasingly apparent that one can never tell what certain individuals may or may not do. Whether or not deer eat fish habitually is a question still far from settled, but the experience I am going to relate took place far from civilization and camps, in an area of wilderness where the animals in question could not possibly have developed an appetite in the way suggested by Burgess. In this case it was purely a natural reaction, a case of an animal or a number of animals willfully varying their natural vegetable diet with fish.
On May 22, 1927, I was paddling down Cecil Lake in the Quetico Provincial Park of Ontario on my way to Lake McIntyre. It was about noon when I noticed in a small bay a short distance ahead, a doe and a fawn. Approaching carefully, I discovered that both animals were standing in the rocky bed of a small creek flowing out of the lake at that point. Fortunately, I was perfectly screened from their view by a dense reedy point, so was able to paddle to within forty feet without being seen. I might explain that it was the season of the year when the black suckers, Catostomus commersonii, were running up the small streams to spawn. This particular creek was so shallow that the suckers, which I could plainly see, were throwing themselves clear out of the water in order to get up the rocky bed of the stream.
The doe was busily stamping around and to my surprise I saw that she was doing her utmost to impale some of the suckers with her fore feet. Finally she succeeded in killing one and immediately took it up in her mouth. While the fish was still flopping strongly she oriented it as any fish-eating animal would do, and munched it down head first in the same identical fashion she would manipulate a clump of grass. The fawn made no effort whatever to eat any fish or trample on them but gambolled up and down the creek while its mother was feeding. The sucker eaten was about fourteen inches in length. No sooner had the tail of the first fish disappeared, than the doe began trying to get another. This was not difficult because there were dozens of suckers of all sizes flopping and jumping around her feet. In a short time she had trampled another, picked it up in her mouth and begun chewing at the head end. Just about that time, she noticed me, gave a startled leap and disappeared into the brush still holding the sucker in her mouth.
Pushing ashore at the source of the creek, I found tracks which indicated that not only had the doe been there repeatedly but that other deer, among them a huge buck, had been there within the last twenty-four hours. This particular place was not a drinking hole, nor was it a spot to which deer would come for the aquatic vegetation of which they are fond. The only excuse for their coming at all must have been to obtain the fish.