Rattlesnakes, Falcons And Riverside Fish Racks

OK. A little of this, a little of that this week.

First, a new topic I almost addressed a few weeks ago, then pushed to the side. Plus, I intend to rehash a couple of often-discussed subjects, both classic re-emergers that seem to boomerang now and again. Remember, I have filled this weekly space for nearly 40 years … a long time, no matter who’s counting. Thus, some topics are bound to keep resurfacing here and there from new or slightly different angles.

Let’s start with the timber rattlesnake that showed up in Springfield’s South End this summer to a lot of television-news commotion. It was back on July 16 when a Massachusetts Environmental Police lieutenant responded to a Springfield residence from which city animal-control officers had captured a three-foot-long timber rattler five blocks from City Hall. When there was official speculation that it could have been a released pet, I got a little chuckle and, after pondering for a moment, decided against a critical assessment spiced with a pinch of ridicule. Why not wait to see what developed down the road, after the snake had been thoroughly examined?

Finally, last week on a Friday-afternoon whim, I reached out to MassWildlife public-relations maven Marion Larson to see if there was anything new about the poisonous viper and was pleased to discover that my email query was timely indeed. The issue was right there on Larson’s front burner.

“Left a voice mail at your home regarding your inquiry,” she promptly responded while I was in South Deerfield. “There is an interesting update about this snake. We’ll be posting on our Facebook page, probably Monday. … FYI the Environmental Police had two posts about this on their Facebook page. They are very interested in trying to get some leads.”

Bingo! How’bout that? A story. Maybe old news by today, but Larson wasn’t so sure when it would hit the street. Seeing that I haven’t heard a word about it anywhere yet, well … why not?

Upon examining the snake, a protected endangered species, scientists discovered that it had been microchipped by state wildlife officials in the Berkshires two weeks before the South End incident. So, the serpent was returned to its western Massachusetts home at an undisclosed location. And, no, Dick Cheney is not and never has been there.

Because snakes do not travel as far as the great distance between of the snake’s home and Springfield, officials are certain it was illegally captured and set free for city slither. This is a violation of the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act, which forbids anyone from possessing, transporting, harassing or disturbing endangered wildlife. A first offense brings a $500 fine or imprisonment for up to 90 days or a combination of fine and imprisonment. Repeat offenders are subject to increased fines of $5,000 to $10,000 and imprisonment for up to 6 months.

An investigation is underway. The telephone-tip hotline number is 1-800-632-8075.


Turning to last week’s discussion about Mount Sugarloaf’s historic “duck hawks,” which turned out to be peregrine falcons, interesting feedback came my way from three knowledgeable sources. All three knew the Sugarloaf cliffs facing the Connecticut River still housed peregrine nests.

An employee called to report that morning crews opening the state reservation’s gates often find peregrines perched along the chain-link fence separating sightseers from the dangerous cliffs on the east face. Also, he told of a naturalist from the Teddy Roosevelt Administration visiting Sugarloaf in the early 20th century to get rare motion pictures of the fast, showy, acrobatic falcons. Later, when birds of prey were growing scarce due to the pesticide DDT and wanton slaughter by humans protecting favored falcon prey, a movement to collect peregrine eggs was greeted with catcalls, boos and hisses in Recorder-Gazette letters to the editor. Many Franklin County readers apparently were opposed to re-establishing falcon populations. Instead, they favored exterminating an efficient airborne predator that killed popular songbirds, not to mention barnyard fowl and beautiful wild ducks sought by licensed hunters in the Connecticut River flyway.

South Deerfield resident Rob Ranney-Blake, who identified himself as a birder, wrote to tell of today’s Sugarloaf peregrine nests. He did so in a long, handwritten, heartfelt note written inside a folded card, his pencil sketch of Sugarloaf’s eastern face gracing the cover with current peregrine nests marked.

Old friend Karl Meyer had been the first responder, emailing me before 7 a.m. the day last week’s column appeared. Meyer wanted to point out information related to why peregrines were called “duck hawks” back in the day.

“You probably already have this, but you only have to go back a couple of generations to get these three common names for local falcons:

“duck hawk – peregrine

“pigeon hawk – merlin

“sparrow hawk – kestrel.”

He surmised that they were named according to the largest prey hunted.

“Though not a big part of their day-to-day,” he wrote, “peregrines are capable of taking ducks on the wing.”

I responded that I was much more familiar with the term “chicken hawk,” which I assume we’ve all heard. Meyer’s quick reply was that, locally, the term  most often refered to red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks. Days later, when I queried my avid bird-watching brother-in-law from Maine, he explained that many types of hawks were called chicken hawks within different domains. Such hawks were, he wrote, “‘buteo’ hawks, not in the ‘falcon’ class.’”


Finally, just a little note about a common Native American riverside fish-curing procedure that shows up coast to coast in North America.

This interesting topic is always appropriate here in the Connecticut Valley, home of many pre-Columbian riverside fishing sites. To name some of the more prominent places where native people gathered for fishing activities, we have the Enfield, Conn., falls, Chicopee Falls, South Hadley Falls, Turners Falls, Shelburne Falls, the Vernon, Vt. falls, and Bellows Falls, Vt., where spring migrations of anadromous fish (salmon, shad, herring, sturgeon) were harvested by many clever methods.

In recent weeks, I have pored through a great volume of West Coast poet/linguist/ethnologist/anthropologist Jaime de Angulo writings, many of them published after his 1950 death yet still in print. De Angulo came to America in 1905 to become a cowboy but became fascinated and lived with western Indians. While there, he studied their Stone Age cultures, their languages and oral traditions, recording his research in published and unpublished reports. In his well-known “Indian Tales,” a series of ancient stories written for his children and published posthumously as a delightful little novel that’s still in print, he described a fish-processing station along a remote, mountainous northern California river.

Having fished a river with much success, fictional characters Grizzly and Bear decide to preserve the surplus fish they’ve taken by smoking them along the river. To do so:

“They made a platform of sticks and green twigs, like a grill, with a slow fire underneath, burning all day, and at the same time the sun was shining. On this grill they laid the fish, after they had opened them with obsidian knives, and then they turned them over and over while they were drying.”

I have read of this identical fish-curing process with and without smoke (most often with) covering territory from the Great Lakes to the Pacific Ocean. I assume the procedure differed little if at all from what you would have found throughout the ancient Connecticut River basin.

This curing method would have been practiced when the Connecticut Valley was “discovered” by Europeans during the second and third quarters of the 17th century. We are left with no descriptions of these riverside work stations because European interlopers and their ministers cared little about indigenous culture and custom before the Indians were driven out. It makes sense when you consider that the focus was on “Christianizing” the native people and wrestling away their land, not respecting their culture and beliefs and recording their deep-history tales of the landscape.

From what I’ve read, Indians did not fillet their fish – that is separate the meat from the bones with a sharp, thin knife like contemporary fishermen. Instead, they opened their fish along the belly, removed the guts, lightly split the backbone lengthwise and laid the joined sides flat on drying racks. Visually, it wouldn’t look much different than grilling a skin-on boneless breast of chicken held together by the blistering skin. The fish skin would have held both halves together while smoke, sun and frequent flipping sped the dripping, drying, evaporating process.

Once these fish were dried and ready for storage, they were placed in sealed, bark-lined, earthen pits or “barns” that could be opened and emptied months later to be eaten. In this cured state, the skin is easily removed and discarded, hot or cold.

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