For the Birds Radio Program: Avian Spearfishing

Original Air Date: May 8, 1989

The rich history of avian spearfishing is explored in today’s “For the Birds.”

Audio missing


(Recording of a Great Blue Heron)

The season of spearfishing is again upon us. Noble spearfishermen stand along the shores of or glide above the great northern waters of Minnesota and Wisconsin as they have for millions of years. Their patience, cunning, and lightning speed allow them barely enough wins against slippery fish perfectly adapted to their watery world that the spearfishers manage just barely to hold on, while the triumphant fish continue to outnumber their hunters, be they eagles and Osprey wielding spear-like talons, loons and herons with their elegant spears built into their beaks, or human beings wielding hand-held spears.

The techniques of avian spearfishers are as varied as the birds who use them. Eagles and Osprey catch their prey on the wing—dropping down and grabbing fish near the surface with their powerful feet. The talons of Osprey are refined to perfection for their role—the thick and powerful claws are curved about one-third of a circle for deeply grasping a heavy fish, the pads of the toes are covered with spicules so even the slipperiest wet fish can’t wriggle free, and the outer toe is reversible, so even a heavy fish can be held firmly, with two toes on either side, as the osprey carries it to its nest. These adaptations give the Osprey some advantages over the larger and stronger Bald Eagle—eagles have adapted to this by learning over millennia to follow Osprey and steal some of their catches. But eagles leave the ospreys most of their own catch—otherwise the osprey would die out, forcing eagles to catch their own all the time. Fortunately, even with less-than-perfect feet, eagles are expert fishermen in their own right. A 10-pound female eagle can pull a four-pound fish out of the water with little trouble—that would be about the same as me catching a 46-pounder all by myself.

Loons and herons spear their fish with their beaks. Loons chase the fish down, being among the most perfectly adapted of all avian swimmers. They’ve been caught in nets over 240 feet below the water’s surface, and have been recorded holding their breath underwater possibly as long as 15 minutes.

Herons spear their fish from a standing position. Great Blue Herons stand perfectly still in the water, waiting patiently for a fish to come within striking distance. Although they occasionally fish in water up to their bellies, they generally choose shallow spots. The little Green-backed Heron perches on a low branch over the water and strikes its fish from there, so it can fish in deep water.

There were plenty of fish in the Northland for an abundance of eagles and osprey and loons and herons and Indians to share for thousands and thousands of years. The total spearfishing catch last year was an insignificant 2 1/2 percent of the total walleye catchin in Wisconsin, a small enough price to pay for a nation to honor its treaty commitments. It was the white man who persecuted and decimated eagles, cormorants, herons, and Indians rather than share the water’s abundant riches. It was the white man who introduced chemical poisons to America’s lakes and rivers, and it was the white man who drained over half of our nation’s wetlands, reducing fish populations to their present sad levels. The white man’s record over the past 200 years has been one of broken promises and thievery—stealing land and water and clean air from the creatures who held the land first, and from the Indians who knew the secrets of sharing natural resources so all could live in harmony together. Anyone who throws a rock or an ugly epithet at any Native American spearfisher, avian or human, further degrades my race, and continues a shameful history of lies, exploitation, and mean-spirited selfishness—a history which should be laid to rest once and for all.

(Recording of a Great Blue Heron)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”