26 November 2008

Mystery Bird Described by Canadian Held Captive By Indians

In the memoirs of a young man born in Quebec, Canada, an unusual and notable species was described in his account of the birds noted during a decade of living in the northern wilderness.

Charles Dennis Rusoe D'Eres was only fourteen when taken by troops of the fledgling freedom movement for the United States. His fate for the next decade was sealed when he was traded and became a captive of Indians in December 1874.

In the subsequent months, him and his captors left Fort Michilimakinak, at the entrance of Lake Superior, on many days travel to the Indians village.

Although the memoirs are very vague on details of geography, the Red River is mentioned. Going southward from there, the party of travelers reached the Rontooroo River, which by some scholars is possibly the Minnesota River.

It was here that the group reached the home village of the Scanyawtauragahrooote on an island by the same name. D'Eres was to remain their captive for eleven years, being a blacksmith using the abandoned building and tools from a structure built by a Spaniard some years earlier.

Other notable places mentioned in the narrative include the Tartarrac, a very wide and deep river, which was used for canoe travel to a town of the Spaniards, in order to trade.

The events of the tribe, including buffalo hunts, forays for war with neighbouring tribes, and other goings are mentioned.

Towards the end of the memoirs, in an appendix, is a section titled "Of Their Birds." Here are given a few details of the birds common in the country about Scanyawtauragahrooote Island.

The species list:

"BLACK-BIRD, *Blue-Jay, *Crane, *Crow, *Cuckoo, *Duck, *Eagle, *Fish-Hawk, *Goose, *Hawk, Humming-Bird, *King-Bird, *Lark, *Loon, *Martin, *Night-Hawk, *Owl, *Parrot, *Partridge, *Pellican, *Pigeon, *Quail, *Raven, *Robin, *Snipe, *Stork, *Swallow, *Teal, *Thrush, *Turkey, Wacon-Bird, *Water-hen, Whetsaw, *Whippoorwill,*Woodpecker & *Wren are to be met with in all parts of this country during the summer months.
"Those marked thus * are so common in this country, that a particular description of them in this work would be but to remind almost every reader of what he is already fully acquainted with; I would just observe that they are found in the greatest perfection in the Indian country. The Goose and Turkey are not domesticated by the natives of the land, but in a wild state and in great plenty."

Then there is the mystery bird...

"The Wacon-Bird is nearly the size of the swallow, of a brown colour, shaded about the neck with a bright green; the wings are of a darker brown than the body - its tail is composed of four or five feathers beautifully shaded with green and purple, and is three times as long as its body, it carries this length of plumage in the same manner as the Peacock does, but does not raise it into an erect position - the name of this bird signifies the bird of the great spirit, and is held in great veneration by the Indians, and treated by them as a bird of superior rank to any of the feathered race."

Although there is no apparent identification of the spirit bird, there is some speculation on its identity. This is what Elliott Coues - the U.S. Geologist at the time - says in his biographical appendix to the Birds of the Colorado Valley, published in 1878.

"The description of the latter is not reconcilable with any known species, but, in the light of other accounts of the same bird, may be doubtfully considered a hint of Milvulus forficatus."

There is also another native term mentioned:

"The Whetsaw is of the Cuckoo kind, is a solitary bird, and rarely to be met with in the summer months - 'tis heard in the groves; its noise founds like the whetting of a saw, from whence it receives its name."

The "whetsaw" is identified as being Coccygus erythrophthalmus?

D'Eres also wrote about the hummingbird...

The Humming bird is peculiar to America, and is not known in any other part of the globe; 'tis the smallest of the feathered airy inhabitants - its legs are proportionally small to its body, and are not biger than two small needles - its plumage exceeds description - it has a small tuft on its head of a shining black - its breast is red - the belly white - the back, wings and tail a pale green - small specks of a gold cast are scattered over the whole body - an almost imperceptible down softens the colours, and produces the most pleasing shades - with its bill, which is proportionably small to its body, it extracts moisture from flowers, which is its nourishment; over which it hovers like a Bee, without lighting, constantly moving its wings with such velocity, that the motion is imperceptible; this quick motion causeth a humming noise, from whence it receives its name.

His memoirs of the years in the wilderness were written once D'Eres returned to the towns and cities of Canada and the new United States of America in 1787. He arrived first after Detroit, after going from tribe to tribe on his journey to return to Euro-American settlements. Thereafter, he reunited with his family in the Quebec area, but soon left and entered the U.S., got married and then moved to Spencer, up in the New England region, and took his place in civilization, working as a blacksmith.

An annotation by Coues - and renditions by other's that have studied this narrative - indicate:

"Field says of our author that 'his narrative is at all events little better than a fiction.'"

Whatever scholars may say to depict D'Eres recollections, his brief notations about one especially notable species certainly adds an interesting bit of lore to the history of ornithology.

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