BRAS D’OR BIOSPHERE: September is mate calling time

Dr. Annamarie Hatcher

By: Dr. Annamarie Hatcher

The September moon is called Wikumkewiku’s, or mate-calling time, in Mi’kmaw culture.

I am sure that the mating antics of the moose (Mi’kmaq: Tia’m) played a part in that descriptor for this time of year. Prehistoric-sounding wails of a cow moose in heat are answered by a quieter, guttural sound from the bull and the two find each other to bring this lovesick singing to its logical conclusion.

Those noisy moose are relative newcomers to Cape Breton. Native Cape Breton moose were common in the 1700’s but thousands were killed by colonists and the population was wiped out by the early 1800’s. In 1947-48, 18 moose were captured at Elk Island National Park in Alberta and released at Roper’s Brook on the eastern side of the Cape Breton Highlands. The present population of the island is largely composed of their descendants. That bull moose may be in hot pursuit of a potential mate that is his second cousin.

Another voice added to the September chorus in the Biosphere is that of the white-tailed deer (Mi’kmaq: lentuk). Lentuk is another newcomer to modern Cape Breton. In a book by Benson and Dodds called Deer of Nova Scotia, which was published in 1977, it was reported that during the mid 1890’s white-tailed deer were released in the Digby and Halifax areas. The herd spread and had reached all mainland counties by 1904 and Cape Breton around 1911. Ever since then, during September to November, the Biosphere forests and fields have been peppered with bleats and grunts as white-tailed does and bucks indicate to each other their readiness to mate.

A third mammal that may have played a part in the September mate calling chorus is the porcupine (Mi’kmaq: mateus). During September and October they are very vocal with moans, screams, grunts and barks as they search for suitable mates and try to attract their attention. These prickly rodents whose Latin name translates to “quill pig” are common across mainland Nova Scotia and the rest of Mi’kma’ki but are absent on the island. If their mating calls played a part in the original Mi’kmaw name of the September moon, then the naming must have originated somewhere outside of Cape Breton.

The story of why there are no porcupines on Cape Breton Island is intriguing. What is your theory? I have heard many ideas about this gap in our wildlife community, ranging from the inability of the prickly mammals to stay afloat and swim across the Canso causeway, to a supposed fear of walking along the lonely stretch of road linking the island to the mainland. I know that they are good swimmers and steady (but slow) walkers, so these suggestions may not apply.

Ecologists have examined the habitat on both sides of the Strait of Canso and can find no difference in terms of suitability for porcupines. This leads me to believe that the story about a curse may have some merit. Have you heard the story about an early Jesuit missionary being killed by porcupine and skunk torture? The tale, which explains it all, was recounted by a Mr. F. Speck in the Journal of American Folklore in 1915:

“During the war between the English and French in Canada, the English soldiers at Louisburg, Cape Breton, captured a French priest. They tortured him by putting him naked into a pen with porcupines and skunks to kill him by their quills and the odour. Then he said that never again would skunks or porcupines live on the island, and now today there are none here. Even if they are brought to the island they die when they eat the things that grow here, on account of the curse.”

So, this intrigue may lend an interesting twist to autumn walks in the Biosphere. What belongs here and what has been introduced? What are the things that grow here that kill porcupines? Listen for the lovesick cries of the moose and the deer (come from aways) and if you see or hear a porcupine, please take a picture and let us know.

Dr. Annamarie Hatcher is a consulting ecologist and a board member of the Bras d’Or Lake Biosphere Reserve Association. For more information about the Bras d’Or Lake Biosphere Reserve Association, please visit our Facebook page or http://blbra.ca/.