Spring is the best time of all in the North. It brought release from the winter's cold, but best of all it brought a change of diet -- new food in an endless variety.
A man could go to bed one night in a land that had the sameness of winter's end, and awaken next morning to see thousands of ducks and geese over the open water of the narrows. Fat and delicious when they first arrived, they offered a welcome change from our steady winter diet of caribou meat and bear grease. At that time, too, a man could vary the fowl with fresh fish, for the whitefish spawn in springtime in the shallow rapids, almost asking to be caught and fried. Beaver meat, too, which is perfectly edible, was available in the spring. And of course there was always the odd skinny moose, or late caribou on his way to join the herd in the barren lands.
But it was the coming of the birds that the trappers anticipated most eagerly. The earliest ducks and geese would pause only to feed on their way to nesting grounds further north, but many spring arrivals made their nesting grounds where we did our trapping. Thousands of water birds nested every spring at the south end of Russell lake where I made my camp. Where there were nests, of course there were eggs. And how we trappers loved the taste of fresh eggs after the limited diet of our long winter! It was never easy to find a duck's nest, but locating Canada goose eggs was as simple as setting a muskrat trap. The parent geese always stood up tall besides their nests. If a man failed to see them there, he could locate them by the sound of their honking. It was a simple matter to paddle over and gather a feed of fresh eggs. There might be as many as ten to a nest.
The Canada goose likes to nest in muskeg and will return to the same place year after year. On a little island about five feet around in the middle of a muskeg swamp, I saw seven old nests and one new one only about four inches apart.
They would represent eight years that the same pair of geese had returned to their favourite spot. Should one of the pair be killed, I think the survivor would bring a new mate next year to the same spot.
A variety of water birds appeared in the North every spring, and many of them provided us with eggs to eat. We prized eggs of the geese and the ducks, but we didn't like those of the loon for they had a fishy taste. I have eaten the eggs of gulls, too, but I well remember that, after I saw that they had been feasting on the carcass of a wolf, gull's eggs no longer tasted good to me!
These gulls came very early each spring. They liked to nest on rocky islands on the bigger lakes. On a good-sized island there might be a thousand gulls. When they first arrived in the spring, the lakes would still be filled with ice, the islands would be snow covered, and there would be no open water where they might be expected to find food. But they would sit on their island waiting patiently for the ice and snow to melt. Wind and storms didn't seem to bother them at all. About a month after their arrival in the North, they would begin laying eggs. Trappers looked forward to those eggs. A couple of them would paddle to two or three islands and bring back a whole canoe full of eggs and feed four or five families that made up their party.
Although we avoided the eggs of the loon, there were other fish-eating birds whose eggs we enjoyed. One was a late arrival, the pintail duck. The sawbill duck, which lives on small fish, lays a good-tasting egg, as many as a dozen to a nest. The duck itself makes good eating, too, though not as good as the mallard. These sawbill ducks nested under rocks and in old camps. Sometimes they would stay around until after freeze-up, but they never made it through January. I have found them dead in my cabin when I returned from covering my trapline. One would probably come down through the stovepipe hole and be unable to find its way out again, and so starved in the cold of my deserted camp.
Spring snowstorms kill a lot of small birds. Once when I had my tent set up with a little stove inside, a snowstorm came up and at night a small bird fluttered inside to get warm by my stove. Next morning I found it frozen inside the tent.
I remember a loon that stayed in a creek between two lakes all one winter. That creek flowed out of a big lake and the water stayed open. Cold as it was, the loon survives. Loons cannot walk on land. They build their nests in sheltered spots about a foot from the water level and reach them with the help of their wings. They lay two eggs to the nest.
One spring two pigeon hawks decided to build a nest where I was camping. All the small birds were afraid of them, for the hawks had excellent eyesight and would fly out across the lake to intercept any new arrival. I wasn't happy about this because I liked to have birds around. Finally I shot one of the hawks, thinking to bring back the small birds.
The surviving hawk stayed around for half a day and then disappeared. I thought she was gone for good. -- but in a week she was back again with another mate. She must have travelled many miles to find him. Together they finished making the nest that she had left. When I returned that fall I chopped down the tree that held their nest. After that, I never saw them again. I suppose they would be nesting somewhere else.
There were more varieties of birds in the North than I have ever seen in the South. The bald-headed eagles gave trappers lots of trouble. They usually build their nests in the narrows of lakes at a point where they could see a good distance in all directions. One would stay to guard the two eggs and the other might travel great distances in search of food. They would pick up muskrats, young beavers, fox -- anything they could carry -- and bring them back to their young in the nest. When I was trapping muskrats in the spring, it was annoying to find that an eagle had carried off both rat and trap if the rat wasn't sunk in the water out of reach. One pair of eagles gave me so much trouble picking up my muskrats and beaver that I shot one of them in the nest -- but try as I would, I couldn't get a shot at the other. It had taken over care of the nest, but I couldn't get it. I slept outside at night, choosing a place where I could see the nest at sunup -- but with my first move the bird was gone!
One other spring I was trapping in a new spot, and about the first of March a pair of eagles arrived to take over a nest that was already there. Usually they chose a nesting spot where young animals were available, though they would eat fish as well. Two fish hawks then came in. The nest must have been theirs, for they chased the eagles away, though an eagle is twice the size of a fish hawk.
I could write all day about birds of the North. They brightened life for us in springtime. The birds themselves and their eggs as well, fed us before we started our journey southward when the trapping season ended.