Ortolan of the Snows

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 26 November 2018

[This is a greatly expanded and edited version of an article I wrote for the 7th Annual Newsletter of the Canadian Snow Bunting Network (online here), sent out a couple of weeks ago]

In 1981, during my first high arctic field season, my incomparable group of graduate students and field assistants [1] saw some great opportunities for studying the breeding biology of birds at close range [2]. With the ability to follow birds continuously on the open tundra, they realized the potential for answering some interesting questions about sexual selection and parental care that had proven difficult to study with the more skittish temperate and tropical birds that we were all familiar with. Bruce Lyon, now at UC Santa Cruz, focussed on Snow Buntings so we began by trapping birds, using both potter traps and noose carpets. I already had a little experience trapping Snow Buntings in Ontario in winter with David Hussell, so we were quite successful in catching the mated pairs on our study area at Sarcpa Lake, Nunavut. Little did we know at the time that the Snow Bunting had been trapped for food long before scientists began catching it for research.


My wife’s mother grew up during the 1930s in Sept-Îles on the north shore of the St Lawrence River in far eastern Québec. When I first met her in the mid-1990s, and told her about my high arctic research, she rather sheepishly admitted that her family used to catch Snow Buntings with noose carpets in the winter, to provide a little fresh protein and fat for their limited diet. Even in the 20th century, the fur trappers of Labrador were said to have: lived on a healthy diet of spruce partridge, caribou steaks, ptarmigan stew, snow buntings, salt pork, and flat bread made of flour, salt and water cooked in an open pan over the fire. [3]

This little bird has in fact been an important food source  for people throughout its winter range, shot—and trapped with noose carpets, box-and-stick, grain sieves, and drag ropes—wherever they were abundant [4]. In 1903, for example, a State game warden found nearly 80,000 snow bunting carcasses in a cold storage warehouse in a ‘large eastern’ city of North America, ready to ship to local markets and restaurants [5].

Various snow bunting traps: noose carpet (L), grain sieve (M), and box-and-stick (R)

In the late 1700s, the great English explorer and naturalist Samuel Hearne wrote extensively about the birds and mammals he encountered on his expeditions through northern Manitoba and Nunavut. Many of his observations were unique and perceptive, demonstrating an appreciation of ecology and behaviour well ahead of his time [6]. But he also described how to hunt or catch each species and its suitability as food, thereby providing a guide to other explorers who would have to live off the land—an 18th century version of TripAdvisor or Yelp. Here is what he said about the Snow Bunting:

These birds make their appearance at the Northern settlements in the Bay about the latter end of May, or beginning of April, when they are very fat, and not inferior in flavour to an ortolan…At that time they are easily caught in great numbers under a net baited with groats or oatmeal; but as the Summer advances, they feed much on worms, and are then not so much esteemed [as food]. They sometimes fly in such large flocks, that I have killed upwards of twenty at one shot, and have known others who have killed double that number…In Autumn they return to the South in large flocks, and are frequently shot in considerable numbers merely as a delicacy; at that season, however, they are by no means so good as when they first make their appearance in Spring. [7]

Ortolan by Gould

The ‘ortolan‘ that Hearne refers to here is the Ortolan Bunting (Emberiza hortulana) that breeds throughout eastern Europe and west-central Asia to western Mongolia.  Since the 1930s their numbers have declined markedly in western and northern Europe, largely due to increasing intensity of agriculture but also because they have been trapped for food. Even though trapping and killing endangered birds is illegal in the European Union, poachers in France are alleged to be taking tens to hundreds of thousand of them per year for the restaurant trade and home consumption [8]. This species is not at all endangered but its numbers in western Europe and Scandinavia have been decimated in recent decades.

The ortolan has long been considered a culinary delicacy in Europe, particularly in France where they are still available illegally to people of wealth and power. Knowing that he had only a few days to live, French President François Mitterand [9] famously ordered (and received) two ortolans for his final, gluttonous meal. It is said that he died a happy man.

So, in retrospect, Samuel Hearne’s comparison of the Snow Bunting to the ortolan is incredible praise indeed. Almost a century before Hearne came to Canada to work for the Hudson Bay Company, Father Chrestian Le Clercq, a Franciscan missionary, called the Snow Bunting ‘ortolan’ in his book on Québec’s Gaspé Peninsula [10]. We don’t know, however, if LeClercq used that name because of the bird’s flavour or its appearance. Linnaeus noted that the Snow Bunting was called ortolan de neige in France, and that may well have been why the name was familiar to LeClercq.

We can be grateful that the conservation of birds became a cause early in the 20th century because, even as that century began, it was clear to some that the Snow Bunting could not stand the sort of hunting pressure they were subjected to in eastern North America. Here is Henry Dutcher in his 1903 report: It is to be hoped that they will not become in demand to supply the market, else, from the readiness with which they can be captured, we should look for the early extinction of the most agreeable feathered companion which the northern residents possess during their long, tedious winters. [11]


  • Anonymous (1876) The Snow Bunting. American Agriculturalist 35:253.
  • Cockerill AW (2004) The trappers of Labrador. Material Culture Review / Revue de la culture matérielle 60: (available here)
  • Dutcher W (1903) Report of the AOU committee on the protection of North American birds. The Auk 20:101–159.
  • Ganong WT (1910) The identity of the animals and plants mentioned by the early voyagers to Eastern Canada and Newfoundland. Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada 3: 197-242.
  • Hearne S (1795) A Journey from Prince of Wales’s Fort in Hudson’s Bay to the Northern Ocean. London: Strahan and Cadell.
  • Montgomerie R. 2018. The history of ornithology in Nunavut. pp 49-69 IN Richards JM, Gaston AJ. The Birds of Nunavut. Vancouver: UBC Press.
  • Svanberg I (2001) The snow bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis) as food in the northern circumpolar region. Fróđskaparrit (Annales Societatis Scientiarum Faroensis) 48:29–40.


  1. my first arctic field crew: Of the 6 graduate students and field assistants that came north with me in 1981, four went on to successful academic careers as university professors (Lyon at UC Santa Cruz, Mary Reid and Ralph Cartar at Univ Calgary, and Rob McLaughlin at Univ Guelph), and one became a medical doctor (Linda Hamilton). It amazes me how lucky I was to start my own academic career with such a fun and engaged crew.
  2. observing at close range: because there was really nowhere for the birds to hide we sometimes followed individuals around the clock in an attempt to document rare behaviours (like extrapair copulations) that are so hard to see in passerines that breed in forests and grasslands
  3. quotation about trappers: from Cockerill (2004)
  4. snow bunting traps: see Svanberg (2001) for more details and a summary of the snow bunting as food particularly in Scandinavia, Iceland and the Faroe Islands
  5. 80,000 snow bunting carcasses: information from Dutcher (1903)
  6. Hearne’s observations ahead of his time: see my chapter in Birds of Nunavut (Montgomerie 2018)
  7. Hearne quotation: page 419 in Hearne (1795)
  8. poachers in France take 10 thousand or more ortolan per year: see, for example, articles in 2013 in the Guardian here, and in a 2014 blog post here
  9. François Mitterand: was president of France from 1981-1995. During his second term he was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer, to which he succumbed 8 days after that final meal, a meal that included, in addition to the roasted ortolans, capons, foie gras, and a platter of Marennes oysters.
  10. ortolan on the Gaspé: see page 228 in Ganong (1910)
  11. quotation about conservation: from Dutcher (1903)

    IMAGES: original print of snow buntings in winter from the author’s collection; traps from Svanberg (2001); Gould’s Ortolan from his Birds of Europe; Audubon’s Snow Bunting from his Birds of North America

A great store of fowle

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 6 August 2018

Four hundred and eight years ago this month—in August 1610—Henry Hudson and his crew of 21 on the tiny ship DISCOVERY entered Hudson’s namesake bay in search of a northwest passage to the orient. As far as we know, Hudson’s 1610-1611 expedition was the first time that Europeans had recorded the sighting of an identifiable arctic bird on its breeding grounds in North America. Martin Frobisher, for example, had previously visited Baffin Island three times in a vain attempt to mine for gold [1] but he made virtually no note of the birds [2].

A map made in 1612 from Hudson’s surveys on his final expedition

Hudson’s crew famously mutineed in June 1611 after a dreadful winter spent on their ship trapped in the ice of James Bay. The 12 mutineers set Hudson, his son, and 7 loyal  seamen adrift in rowboat and their fate is still unknown [3]. What we do know about Hudson’s final expedition comes from the writings of one of the mutineers, Abacuk Prickett, who wrote about it after returning to England [4]. Prickett was one of the four mutineers who was tried (and acquitted) for the mutiny, and there has always been some suspicion that his narrative was biased in a way that was designed to save him from the gallows. Nonetheless, there is no reason to expect that his account of the birds is not as accurate as could be expected for a document being written, we presume, largely from memory.

Prickett records that their first landfall in the Canadian arctic was in July 1610 on the ‘Iles of Gods Mercie’, probably the islands off the south coast of Baffin Island [5] near the present-day settlement of Kimmirut (formerly Lake Harbour) in Nunavut. There, they “sprung a covey of partridges which were young: at the which Thomas Woodhouse shot, but killed only the old one” [6]. Given the current breeding ranges of the two arctic ptarmigans, these were almost certainly Rock Ptarmigan, which makes it the first bird species recorded in Arctic North America and, fittingly, the official bird of Nunavut.

Their next landfall was at Digges Island [7] on 3 August. A small crew went ashore, including Prickett who said “In this place a great store of fowle breed…” [8], almost certainly referring to the huge colony of Thick-billed Murres nesting on the cliffs there, today numbering some 300,000 breeding pairs.

Clets on St Kilda

On Digges, Prickett also noted that “Passing along wee saw some round hills of stone, like to grasse cockes, which at the first I tooke to be the worke of some Christian. Wee passed by them, till we came to the south side of the hill we went unto them and there found more; and being nigh them I turned off the uppermost stone, and found them hollow within and full of fowles hanged by their neckes.” [8]. What he is referring to here are small domed stone huts, about 2 m in diameter, built by the local Inuit to hang, dry and protect their game from predators.

Remarkably, my colleague Tony Gaston, who studied the murres on Digges in the 1980s, found at least four of the same drying huts described by Prickett. As Gaston noted, these are very similar to a structure called a ‘clett’ (also ‘clet’) that the inhabitants of the Outer Hebrides use to dry and cure fish and birds (see photo).

From Digges, the explorers headed south, ecstatic that they might have found the passage to China, as winter approached. By the time they reached James Bay, they knew that there nowhere near the orient. But on  10 November DISCOVERY was trapped in the sea ice so the crew prepared for the winter. During that harsh winter, they often went ashore to hunt, taking as many as 1200 ptarmigan, enough for each man to have one to eat every day or two for three months: “for the space of three moneths wee had such store of fowle of one kinde (which were partridges as white as milke) that wee killed above an hundred dozen, besides others of sundry sorts…The spring coming this fowle left us, yet they were with us all the extreame cold. Then in their places came divers sort of other fowle, as swanne, geese, duck, and teale, but hard to come by.” [9]

Digges Island 1952 photo by Les Tuck

With the ship freed from the ice, the mutineers set Hudson and the others adrift at the top of James Bay in June 1611, and headed back to Digges to stock up on murres and their eggs for the trip home. There, they encountered a band of the local Inuit collecting eggs and catching adult murres with a noose, much the same way that today’s researchers catch murres for banding: “Our boat went to the place where the fowle bred, and were desirous to know how the savages killed their fowle: he shewed them the manner how, which was thus: they take a long pole with a snare at the end, which they put about the fowles necke, and so plucke them downe. When our men knew that they had a better way of their owne, they shewed him the use of our peeces, which at one shot would kill seven or eight.” [10]

The natives became frightened and suspicious of the mutineers, attacking an unarmed party that had gone ashore one day to shoot some murres. Three of that party were killed but the others escaped. The remaining mutineers went to another part of the colony where they shot enough birds to (barely) get them home.

None of these vague observations of birds by Prickett really made any useful contribution to ornithology, and I tell this story mainly as an introduction to the history of ornithology in the North American Arctic. By the late 18th century, explorers and naturalists were making regular forays into what is now Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, Yukon, and Alaska. Those later expeditions did make many useful contributions to ornithology, finding the breeding grounds and documenting the breeding biology of many Arctic birds for the first time.

coversSome of this early Arctic ornithology is described in a forthcoming 2-volume book on the Birds of Nunavut that will be launched at the upcoming IOC meeting in Vancouver. I wrote the history chapter for that book, but the limitations of space meant that many stories, images, and details had to be left out. As for much of the history of ornithology, this blog provides a unique opportunity to expand on the details of scholarly books and papers, as I have done here with the story of Abacuk Prickett.


    • Collinson R, editor (1867). The Three Voyages of Martin Frobisher, in Search of a Passage to Cathaia and India by the North-West, A.D. 1576-8. London: Hakluyt Society. [available here]
    • Gaston AJ, Cairns DK, Elliot RD, Noble DG (1985) A natural history of Digges Sound. Canadian Wildlife Service Report Series 46:1–63.
    • Mancall PR (2009) Fatal Journey: The Final Expedition of Henry Hudson. New York: Basic Books.
    • Prickett A (1860). A larger discourse of the same voyage, and the successe thereof. In G. M. Asher (Ed.), Henry Hudson the Navigator: the original documents in which his career is recorded (pp. 98-36). London: Hakluyt Society. [available here]
    • Richards JM, Gaston AJ, editors (2018) Birds of Nunavut. Vancouver: UBC Press.


    1. Frobisher mining for gold: on his third expedition in 1578, for example, he took back to England 1350 tonnes of ore from the vicinity of Iqaluit (formerly Frobisher Bay) only to discover when he got back to England that the ‘gold’ was iron pyrite. No doubt he felt like a fool.
    2. Frobisher’s birds: Collinson (1867) has only three mentions of birds (fowle) in Frobisher’s writings and these were all with reference to birds and eggs being caught by the natives for food. It is impossible to know what birds he was talking about.
    3. Hudson’s fate unknown: there is speculation, however, that the men made their way south where were taken captive by the natives, then transported to the vicinity of Ottawa, Ontario (see here for details)
    4. Prickett’s account of the expedition: see Prickett (1860), in a volume by the Hakluyt Society, established in 1846 to publish original accounts of voyages of discovery. Prickett’s account was actually first published in 1825. Prickett is often spelled ‘Pricket’ but I am using the spelling on his account in the 1860 volume.
    5. Iles of God’s Mercie: these are shown on Hudson’s map (above), offshore where he labels ‘Goods Merces’
    6. Quotation about partridges: from Prickett 1860 page 103
    7. Digges Island: Hudson named this Deepes Cape, thinking initially that it was part of the mainland
    8. Quotations about ‘fowles’: from Prickett 1860, page 107
    9. Quotation about hunting birds in winter and spring: from Prickett 1860, page 113
    10. Quotation about Inuit method of catching murres: from Prickett 1860, page 128

IMAGES: Hudson map from the frontispiece of Asher (1860) where Prickett’s account was published; Clets on St Kilda from Wikimedia Commons; Digges Island photo by Leslie M. Tuck in the author’s collection; book cover from UBC Press.

Eats birds and leaves

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 29 January 2018

Probably my most memorable feast reflecting the title of this post is an ornithological lunch I had with Tim Birkhead at Restaurant Gilles-Simonet in St Girons in the French Pyrenées a few years ago. I had a superb Magret du Canard (the bird) with salad (the leaves) while Tim had the Tartine Pigonneau (pigeon sandwich) and salad [1]. Like so many feasts with ornithologists this one was memorable not only for the food but also for the engaging conversation about birds and ornithology. Over the years, Tim and I have shared dozens, if not hundreds of meals, where the conversation turned to birds and both our enthusiasm and exchange of ideas was fuelled the superb quality of the food and wine.

Restaurant Gilles-Simonet

I started thinking about ornithological meals on reading Jerry Coyne’s blog post last week about people he would have liked to have dined with. Over the years I have had the opportunity to talk birds over a fine meal, and usually one-on-one, with an alphabet soup of excellent ornithologists including: Malte Andersson*[2], Jim Briskie*, Eberhard Curio, Nick Davies, John Eadie*, Peter Feinsinger, Peter and Rosemary Grant*, Geoff Hill*, Simone Immler, Ian Jones*, Ellen Ketterson, Bruce Lyon*, Anders Møller*, Ryan Norris*, Ken Otter, Rick Prum, Jim Quinn, Laurene Ratcliffe*, Jamie Smith*, Niko Tinbergen, Al Uy, Sandra Vehrencamp, Pat Weatherhead*, Stephen Yezerinac*, Amotz Zahavi*[3]. I can honestly say that every one of those meals involved a rewarding conversation about birds, with fresh ideas, insights and stories. And what a great way to spend a couple of hours. As Bernd Brunner points out in his recent book, Birdmania, people who study birds are largely fanatics, sometimes crazy, and for the most part likely likely to be delightful dinner companions.

But Coyne’s post was a variation on that old radio show theme about people from the past you would like to dine with, and where and when, to talk about evolution. He limited his readers to three choices and many, of course, chose Darwin. And Darwin would be my first choice, too, to talk about birds. Here’s why, plus my other two choices for an ornithological repast, and since I will be arriving unexpectedly from the future, I will bring the food and wine:

Sandwalk in 2013

Charles Darwin: I’d like to dine with him in his garden at Down House, then stroll around his ‘sandwalk’ while we talk about pigeons. I have long felt that his work on pigeons provided the key insights into his views on natural and sexual selection, and I would like to see if he agrees. In fact, an early reader of Darwin’s Origin of Species manuscript, Whitwell Elwrinwrote to Darwin’s publisher, John Murray, to say that the manuscript was “a wild & foolish piece of imagination” and that he should instead write about pigeons: “Everybody is interested in pigeons,”  he said, and a book about them would “be reviewed in every journal in the kingdom and soon be on every table.” With the notable exceptions of Charles Otis Whitman and BF Skinner, the pigeon, and Darwin’s insights about them, have been largely neglected by ornithologists, until recently when Michael Shapiro at the University of Utah took up the cause and has already published some amazing work.

I‘d like to meet Darwin for lunch in 1856 and tell him that it was high time he published his big book. Fortunately, Alfred Russel Wallace wrote him that now famous letter in 1858 or we might never have benefitted from his genius. REPAST: tourtière made with breast of wood pigeon rather than the traditional (at least in Québec) Passenger Pigeon [4], with a chilled bottle of Birichino Malvasia Bianca from the Monterey Bay area. He will probably be surprised to learn that we now thoroughly understand genetics, that we wiped out the Passenger Pigeon, that California makes great wines, and that he is still number one on most biologists’ lists of people they’d like to have met.

The Nice’s house in 2002. The buildings in the background were not there in 1932

Margaret Morse Nice: I’d like to have lunch with her in her kitchen at West Patterson Avenue in Columbus, Ohio, in 1932. I’d like to talk to her about her sparrows, in part because I worked on them with Jamie Smith for a couple of winters on Mandarte Island and found them totally engaging. Nice’s two volume monograph is more than 600 pages long, and she published almost 200 papers. How did she do it?  Did she feel that being a ‘housewife’ helped or hindered her scientific pursuits? Did she feel excluded from the companies of men who dominated ornithology in those days? REPAST: omelette of quail eggs and black trumpet mushrooms with Malivoire Chardonnay from Ontario. She will probably be surprised to learn that the Song Sparrow has become a model organism for ornithologists with superb work by Jamie Smith, Peter Arcese and Jane Reid, for example, that women are now well represented in ornithology, that her work is now seen as pioneering, and that there are respectable wines from Ontario.

Heilmann_origin_of_birdsGerhard Heilmann: Heilmann is not well known among ornithologists today, but I was intrigued by his talents, knowledge and insights when writing about him in our Ten Thousand Birds book. Heilmann was Danish, born in 1859, and spent his life mainly as an artist but had an abiding interest in birds and dinosaurs. His book The Origin of Birds is an ornithological classic. I would like to have dinner with him in 1916 at his house on the shore Nakebölle Fjord on Denmark’s northeast coast. There he built an aviary out over the water so he could study ducks and gulls, and a large one on land for studying raptors. There’s really nothing like visiting and chatting with someone who keeps wild birds. REPAST: magret du canard (grilled, rare) with a bottle of Gérard Bertrand 2008 Le Viala Red from the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France. He will probably be surprised to learn that we now have solid proof that birds evolved directly in one lineage of dinosaurs, that some dinosaurs outside that lineage had feathers, and (sadly) that his work has largely been forgotten.

And the following were all on my shortlist: David Lack (brilliant, perceptive), Richard Meinertzhagen (crazy, psychopath), Elliot Coues (insightful, productive), Francis Willughby (pioneering, innovative), and Rollo Beck (passionate about birds, adventurer).

You can’t, of course, meet and dine with any of those people but the annual banquet at the AOU (now AOS) conference is a great way to meet people and talk birds. I have probably been to 50 conference banquets over the years, and the food at almost all of them was terrible and overpriced. But the AOU banquets are thankfully often a notable exception—I fondly remember the fabulous banquet in the Field Museum at the 100th AOU conference in 1982, and last year’s AOS banquet in East Lansing was outstanding, even though they ran out of meat before I got to the head of that line. I don’t want to put any pressure for this year’s AOS conference organizers but I would highly recommend going to the banquet this year in Tucson. At the very least, the setting will be spectacular and you will reap tremendous rewards if you dine with at least one ornithologist who you do not already know. Then go birding before you head home. Eat, bird, and leave.


  • Brunner B (2017) Birdmania: A Remarkable Passion for Birds. Vancouver: Greystone Books.
  • Heilmann G (1926) The Origin of Birds. London: H. F. & G. Witherby.
  • Nice MM (1941) The role of territory in bird life. American Midland Naturalist 26:441–473.

  • Nice MM (1937) Studies in the life history of the song sparrow, pt 1. A population study of the Song Sparrow. Transactions of the Linnaean Society of New York 4:1–246. [Available here]

  • Nice MM (1943) Studies in the life history of the song sparrow, pt 2. Transactions of the Linnaean Society of New York 6:1–328.

  • Shufeldt RW (1916) Present work of Gerhard Heilmann. Auk 33:457–458.


1. I am reasonably sure that those were not the names of those dishes on the menu, but close enough

2. People with whom I have shared many ornithological meals get a star.

3. OK, this is seriously embarrassing. As soon as I had written this list, I noticed that there were only 5 women and 21 men. Should I go back and balance the sex ratio, or would that be even more biased? Honestly, those were just the first people who came to mind as I worked through the alphabet. I could have just as easily mentioned any of the following and more: Colleen Barber*, Theodora Block*, Fran Bonier*, Nancy Burley, Camille Bonneaud*, Colleen Cassady St Clair*, Carla Cicero, Anne Clark, Roslyn Dakin*, Stéphanie Doucet*, Ricky Dunn*, Emily Duval,  Philina English*, Rebecca Kimball, Adeline Loyau*, Sue McRae*, Pat Monaghan, Julie Morand-Ferron, Sue Hannon, Karen Holder*, Kathy Martin*, Beth MacDougall-Shackleton*, Gail Patricelli, Marion Petrie, Melanie Rathburn*, Alex Rose, Kristen Ruegg, Becca Safran*, Allison Schulz, Bridget Stutchbury, Cara Thow*. The interesting thing if you are to compare those two lists is that the average age of the men is probably 20-30 years more than that of the women. This reflects a very welcome trend in ornithology where women now have a strong presence, influence and voice, and are doing some amazing research—such a sea change from the days when Margaret Morse Nice was studying birds from her houses in Columbus, Ohio and Norman, Oklahoma.

4. I often wondered if tourtiére was derived from the French Canadian word for the Passenger Pigeon (tourte) but several sources suggest that that’s a myth. Tourte is, in fact, an Old French (8th-14th century) word for meat pie, derived from the Latin torta, long before Europeans first encountered the bird. Maybe the bird was named after the pie and not the other way around?

PHOTOS: Simonet from their Facebook page; I took the picture of Darwin’s Sandwalk; Nice’s house from http://www.sailorthomson.com/003.html ; Heilmann’s book cover is in the public domain