The Wildlife of the Wissahickon


by Burt Froom

West Mt. Airy:  Yesterday and Today

May, 2013 (Article 8)

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As we look at the “Metropolitan Paradise” (as Contosta and Franklin call the Wissahickon Creek valley and West Mt. Airy), what animals, fish and birds inhabited this place when William Penn and his followers landed here?

In 1684, William Penn wrote to his friend, the Earl of Arran, with a list of the animals and birds he found in southeastern Pennsylvania. “The food the woods yield is your elks, deer, raccoons, beaver, rabbits, turkeys, pheasants, heath hens, pigeons and partridges and innumerable…fowl, the swan… goose, and…the best duck and teal I ever ate…”

In 1700 Francis Daniel Pastorius wrote about Germantown that “there is a great abundance of wild geese, ducks, turkeys, quails, pigeons, partridges and many other sorts of game.” Pastorius said that the Lenape Indians brought hides to trade in Germantown, including “bear, moose, deer, and otter skins, beaver, marten, otter and other furs,” evidence of the animals that existed in and around the Wissahickon. Germantown author John Fanning Watson, Philadelphia’s first historian, reported in 1830 that several wolves and a bear were killed along the Wissahickon as late as 1796.

The fur trade during the 17th and 18th centuries was the most devastating danger for wildlife. Almost immediately upon their arrival in the new world, the colonists arranged to buy the pelts of fur-bearing animals from Native Americans. The Lenape captured, killed, and preserved the fur pelts of vast numbers of animals and traded them for highly desired European-made goods like axe heads, knives, awls, fish hooks, cloth, woolen blankets, linen shirts, jewelry, muskets, ammunition, and brandy and rum. The Indians hunted target animals in traditional ways by setting snares on trails; encircling animals and driving them to a river; lassoing and drowning deer; or they circle prey and set fire to brush to lure them out to be killed with spears.

The first animals lost were smaller furbearing animals like the river otter, marten, mink, fisher, and, especially, beaver. Deer, taken for meat and hides, were also quickly eliminated, as were the slow moving elk. Settlers feared large predators like the wolf, bear, cougar, lynx, marten and wolverine, and pushed them into remote wilderness.

The eventual beneficiaries of this huge international trade were the wealthy classes of Europe. Native Americans throughout northeastern U.S. were induced to ransack their forests for furs and they became agents of the colonists. Sadly, their forests became empty and silent.

Homesteading, agriculture, and the fur trade deprived vast numbers of animals and birds of their essential forest habitats. As trees were felled, animals were forced to move to fields and forest edges. So turkeys, passenger pigeons, bear, otters, weasels, martens, fishers, bobcats, cougars, and gray fox lost the protection and food sources of dense forests, and their numbers declined. They were replaced by forest edge species like the red fox, rabbits, skunk, raccoons, woodchuck and opossum.

The eastern bison was a summertime visitor to the Delaware Valley. This sub-species of the American Bison was a migratory, woodland animal which followed established routes along the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains every winter. They gathered and fed in small matriarchal groups in grassy meadowlands created by the Indians who burned upland grasslands to aid their hunting. It was driven to extinction in 1825.

The more famous plains bison were seven to eleven feet long, six to six-and-a-half feet tall, and weighed 900 to 2,000 pounds. It is thought that over 30 million of them were slaughtered for meat, hides and sport in the later 1800s. By 1900, only 800 plains bison remained. With protection, there are now about 500,000. A small number of wood bison still exist, while the Oregon bison is extinct. The eastern bison was the smallest of these four subspecies of the American bison. They were hunted out of our area by the end of the 18th century, and the last herd in Pennsylvania was killed in Union County in 1800.


Contemporary plains bison – from the Eastern Bison Association

There were predatory birds in our forests, including the red-tailed hawk, the red-shouldered hawk, the great horned owl, and the barred owl. The Wissahickon Valley was home to many migratory birds during the late spring and summer. Many important birds of the forest interior are no longer found in the Wissahickon Valley. These include the Blackburnian warbler, woodcocks, Kentucky warbler, and the ruby crowned kinglet.

Soon after European settlement, human hunting and deforestation severely diminished the abundant bird life. In 1748, Peter Kalm was a naturalist sent by the Swedish government to investigate the botany and natural history of North America. Kalm commented on the great loss of wildlife compared with 60-70 years earlier. Waterfowl had disappeared from bays, rivers and brooks, as people moved in and cut the forests down.

The story of the passenger (meaning migratory) pigeon is well-known and sad. By the mid-19th century, their numbers had diminished to just several billion birds. They flew in enormous flocks that darkened the sky, and they nested and fed in trees. These colorful birds weighed nine to twelve ounces. Passenger pigeons were constantly hunted with rifles, sticks, alcohol-soaked grain, and grass fires. They were viewed as cheap food for slaves and the poor, and their fat squabs were a delicacy. By 1855, 300,000 pigeons were sent by rail to New York, alone. They were hunted to extinction. The last passenger pigeon, Martha, died in a zoo in Cincinnati in 1914.

Print by John James Audubon (1785 – 1851) of a male and female passenger pigeon, billing. The male pigeon was about 16 inches long and the female slightly smaller.

Fish in the Delaware region were prolific. William Penn’s 1684 letter mentions a variety of fresh water fishes.” Our rivers have also plenty of excellent fish … sturgeon, roe shad, herring, catfish, sheepshead, roach and perch and trout in inland streams.” Every spring, the Lenape camped out at the mouth of the Wissahickon, fishing the falls of the Schuylkill River in dugout canoes. This abundance of fish lasted until 1821, when the Fairmount Dam was built downstream. This dam blocked migratory fish and the backed up water changed the currents and increased the water temperature. Thus, migratory fish could no longer reach the Wissahickon.

What is the wildlife of the Wissahickon today? The Friends of the Wissahickon tell us that in the park there are opossums, deer, raccoons, groundhogs, red fox, and also salamander, frogs, toads, turtles and snakes. Deer have multiplied in the park. They are a great problem because they eat the future. Deer eat the seedlings of the native trees. Soon, there might be no forest to inspire our awe. Whitetailed deer are now culled by the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Commission. This is a very controversial matter, but those who love the park look to balance human and animal interests.

What can we learn from the despoliation of our forests and their wildlife during the past 400- years? We can see that all resources are limited and the natural environment is fragile. Even today great forests in Central America, Indonesia, the Amazon and Alaska are being cut down and their creatures driven to extinction for immediate profits and unnecessary uses.

The environmental movement of this generation stresses a value that can benefit all of life: Sustainability. We can relate to the natural world so that its stability, integrity, and beauty may be maintained. Sustainability is the capacity of the natural and the economic orders to thrive together.

We need to be stewards of creation, not consumers of forests, fossil fuel, water and wildlife for our immediate use and profit. We need to value and protect the gifts of nature and reduce our use of these gifts to a level where all of natural life can continue to be sustained. We need to let the natural world belong to the future. We can learn to live on less. Then, forests and their wildlife can be restored and all human societies can be respected.