Monday, September 13, 2010

Turkey Vultures and the Last three rural schools in Saskatchewan

Stuart Houston overlooking the East Block of Grasslands National Park

A couple of weeks ago, Stuart Houston, good friend and mentor of many prairie naturalists, took a break from working on the manuscript of Birds of Saskatchewanand sent off an email to a few of those who correspond with him. I am using this note, with his permission, as the basis of today's posting.

Anyone who reads Grass, Sky, Song will know that Stuart started North America's first and longest-running wing-tagging program for the Turkey Vulture. The story of this bird on the northern Great Plains is tied to the flow and ebb of rural settlement over the past 140 years.

Though it was common in the buffalo days, the Turkey Vulture responded to the arrival of farmer-settlers, who were often inclined to shoot at any "buzzard," by retreating to the forest fringe and to the Cypress Hills. When I was a young naturalist, to see a vulture I had to go to Duck Mountain Provincial Park north east of Yorkton or to the Conglomerate Cliffs of Cypress Hills. That began to change in the '90s, when nature began to take advantage of a new niche caused by events fifty years earlier.

With the industrialization of agriculture destroying the small family farm and de-populating the countryside from the 1940s onward, the prairie quickly became a landscape of homes without people, barns without animals, and schools without children. These abandoned buildings--so common to prairie people and often remarked upon by visitors--have become the natal home of the returning prairie Turkey Vulture. Where they once nested under fallen logs, brush piles, and in small caves and burrows, Turkey Vultrues now lay their eggs in the attics and haylofts built by our settler ancestors. Stuart Houston, with the help of Brent Terry, Marten Stoffel, and Mike Bloom, began wing-tagging the prairie vultures about eight years ago. Vultures don't do well with ordinary bird bands on the leg because of their habit of excreting on their own shanks. Here is a link to Jared Clarke's posting on the experience of tagging vultures (scroll down to postings on October 26 and August 15, 2009). Here is a photo Jared took of a wing-tag on a young vulture.

In his message, Stuart is lamenting the loss of rural schools in Saskatchewan, which means schools actually outside of the limits of any town. There once were hundreds of these small school houses, most of them the classic one-room affair. Using his topographic maps, and Bill Barry's wealth of geographic knowledge, Stuart put together some details on what he believes may be the last three rural schools remaining in the province. Not surprisingly, vultures get a mention or two.

Unbelievably, although school boards, under government pressure, ignore the benefits of rural and small-town primary schools in Saskatchewan's past, and have recently closed down needed schools in vibrant communities like Englefeld and Glenavon, and are threatening to close the Elbow school, I learned today from Bill Barry that there are, or recently were, three rural schools persisting in Saskatchewan.

Because one of my most precious possessions, Bill's expanded version of PEOPLE PLACES, did not list the location of West Central School, the starting point for directions to a vulture nest known to Marten Stoffel (as of 9 April this year and Harold Fisher on 10 August), I phoned Bill to get the section, township and range of that school. What an enjoyable and informative conversion resulted, as always with Bill Barry.

The last three rural schools in operation anywhere in Saskatchewan, are astoundingly near Prince Albert, where I infer they must locally have a) smallish farms; b) largeish families, and c) unusually intelligent people on the local school boards. And two of the three are on the way to current vulture nests, and the third was within a mile of where I banded Long-eared Owls many years back.

West Central School, NW 16-47-27w2, is just over three miles west of Clouston, and last Bill Barry heard, children were being bused from Clouston, MacDowall and Lily Plain to West Central School. Osborne school, named after the middle name of Prince Albert Member of Parliament and then Senator till his death, Thomas Osborne Davis, [the nearby hamlet of Davis and the short-lived siding of Senator nearby were also named for Davis] is only a half mile east of where Highway 2 jogs a mile west, south of Prince Albert, nw 33-46-26w2.

Wild Rose school is only five miles north of the hamlet of Holbein, and children from that hamlet were being bussed away from highway 3 north to Wild Rose school, NE 10-50-2w3, which is where one turns two miles east when heading for the active Holbein vulture nest. I found this interesting and am sharing it with a few of you. I love 1:250,000 maps!


Here is a photo I found of children attending Wild Rose school.

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