This story begins with 12,000-year-old bird bones.
The bones were found in a 1950s archaeological dig that explored a cave at Natural Bridge State Park in south central Wisconsin.
Radio carbon dating established the bones’ age, providing one more sign of how long humans have interacted with birds.
People from the earliest times of human occupation in the Midwest, including Minnesota, were doing more with birds than eating them, writes Michael Edmonds.
He is author of “Taking Flight: A History of Birds and People in the Heart of America,” a book recently published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press.
Edmonds examines the work of archaeologist Warren Wittry, who found evidence left by American Indians living in this region thousands of years ago.
Wittry and his crew documented ages-old human interaction with birds. He “found not only spearpoints and stone tools, but also bird bones that proved to be the oldest evidence of contact between people and birds in the Midwest,” Edmonds wrote.
Edmonds limits his discussion to three topics: “Native religious beliefs about birds, the use of feathers in clothing and ritual, and methods of hunting, cooking and eating birds.”
Sources include 19th- and 20th-century Indian autobiographies, early Europeans’ observations, and modern ethnographical studies. Different cultures understood and related to birds in different ways.
Eighty-five percent of the 5,200 animal bones found by Wittry in the cave were from white-tailed deer.
“But he also found the bones of 21 species of birds,” Edmonds wrote.
Passenger pigeon and ruffed grouse bones were uncovered along with a few from ducks and geese. These species likely were killed for food.
Also discovered were bones from birds you would not expect to find roasting over an open fire.
“Wittry’s crew found bones from woodpeckers, blue jays, and other small songbirds with bright plumage but minimal value as food,” Edmonds wrote.
“They also uncovered the large wing bones of hawks and other raptors, but no bones from other parts of their bodies.”
The author suggests that the people using that cave chose the colorful feathers of the small birds for decorative purposes. Hawk and eagle wings also could have been decoration or have had religious significance.
Bones were found at 15 levels of excavation in the cave. Over time, cave use covered artifacts again and again.
Minnesota interactions are part of the story, many of them prefaced by the boom of a shotgun. Minnesota figures heavily into Edmonds’ story as it progresses to the late 1800s and early 1900s, to market hunting. Birds were killed in wholesale quantities to be sold for commercial use.
Minnesotans certainly were not the only ones shooting waterfowl and shorebirds for profit. People traveled here to hunt. Minnesota’s location on a migration flyway with extensive wetlands was a draw.
During fall migration much hunting was done at Heron Lake in southwest Minnesota. According to a notebook tally after each day’s shooting, seven men took 14,000 ducks in the fall of 1887, the author recounts.
In spring, their fancy turned to shorebirds.
“We killed more Golden Plover than anything else. In about one month, one spring, I killed 2,000 Golden Plover, Grass Plover (Upland Sandpipers), Curlew, Jacksnipes and Yellowlegs,” wrote one of the hunters.
Today, hunting is sharply controlled. Songbirds are protected.
Regardless, bird populations overall are diminishing daily. That could have been a problem for those cave dwellers 12,000 years ago. Today, regardless of myriad conservation efforts, it’s just the way things go.
Read Jim Williams’ birding blog at startribune.com/wingnut.