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A database of lessons and units searchable by content and cultural standards, cultural region and grade level. More units will be available soon. You can use Acrobat Reader to look at the PDF version of the Cover Sheet for the Units and Self-Assessment for Cultural Standards in Practice.


Lesson 6 Birds as Food




1) Students will know the traditional importance of birds in providing food and the traditions of how this food was treated and shared in the Athabascan culture.

2) Students will identify which birds are still of importance in the local economy.

3) Students will describe traditional ways of hunting birds and how the modern changes in those ways have affected bird populations of game birds.


1) Invite elders to class to talk about their use of birds as food.

Discuss how and when people used certain kinds of birds and their eggs as food. Classify birds on the class list as edible or inedible.

Illustrate with a chart, and indicate which part of the bird is eaten.

Why are swan and crane to longer widely used? (It's against the law!) Does anyone still eat the smaller birds? Ask if the elders know of any food taboos, birds that should not be eaten for cultural reasons, (for examples, see Make Prayers to the Raven, pg. 84,89)

2) Ask the elders how the edible birds were used and how they were preserved. Discuss how and why these ways have changed. Include drying, jarring, freezing, etc. Find out which birds are still regularly eaten and preserved. (Refer to Bird Traditions, pg. 16-17)

3) Make a bar graph to show which is the students' favorite type of bird to eat. You could include chicken and turkey!

4) Research traditional weapons and ways of catching birds. (Bird Traditions ..., pg. 7-11 and other ethnographic publications).


Discuss how the advent of guns has changed hunting and caused a decrease in some bird populations.

Preparing and Preserving Birds for Food

Because waterfowl have been consumed in larger quantity than other kinds of birds, preparing and preserving them is described in the greatest detail. Although much of the same information pertains to other game birds, an attempt is made to note differences.

Lime Villagers consume almost all parts of a bird. People have traditionally eaten the meat, fat, bone marrow, organs, feet, cleaned gizzard, and head including the brain, eyes, and tongue, Due to lack of meat, the tip of the wing beyond the last joint is not used. One reason for not eating the intestines is that their small size makes cleaning them difficult. An additional reason given for not consuming waterbird intestines is that waterbirds may feed on poisonous water plants and that the poison could be transferred to humans. Bird feathers, bones, and beaks are not eaten because of their inedible nature.

Depending on the species, time of year, diet, type of bone, bird bones differ in the amount of marrow or oil contained in them. For example, fall ducks are said to have more leg bone marrow than spring ducks since in the fall a person can suck the marrow from a cracked leg bone. A bird's fat content in other parts of its body also varies for the same reasons. People explain that birds have a large amount of fat in their shoulder and wing vicinity because of strength needed for flying. Waterfowl most favored for food have the highest general fat content including scoters, buffleheads, goldeneyes, and harlequin ducks.

Traditionally larger feathers have been plucked soon after the bird is harvested because the feathers are men most easily removed. Especially in earlier days, the birds were often needed for food immediately, a situation that has sometimes occurred in modem times. People give accounts of being at spring camps when freshly harvested birds were promptly cooked because there was little other food.

After waterfowl and sandhill cranes have been plucked, they are singed over a fire to remove the pin feathers and other remaining feathers. Skill is required to singe a bird so that the meat does not burn and acquire an unpleasant flavor. Singeing a bird is said not only to prevent waste of the skin, but in some people's opinion to improve its taste. Once the bird is singed, it is washed, butchered, and then cooked or saved for later use. At least one reason ptarmigan and grouse are not singed is because their feathers are more easily removed.

Boiling game birds for soup has continued to be the most common way of cooking them. Rice and potatoes are popular additions to the soup. For added flavor, birds may be smoked several days before being cooked.

Especially at hunting camps, people have frequently roasted gutted ducks and geese slowly on a stick over an open fire. Another traditional method of cooking waterfowl is to bake them in a hole lined with rocks dug in beach gravel. After wrapping the cleaned bird in birch bark, it is covered with gravel and a fire built on the gravel.

People have smoked gutted geese and ducks in the smokehouse for several days to a week both to flavor and preserve them. If the weather is cool enough, the birds may be left hanging there or placed in a cache. They have also been preserved in air-tight fish skin sacks. When stored in a cache, birds taken in the early spring keep for about a month during cool weather and fall birds approximately until Christmas. The size of the birds and other factors may affect the length of storage. Another traditional method of storing birds so that they remain fresh-tasting is by freezing them in water-filled birch bark containers.




Traditionally the upper Stony River people have used two primary strategies for harvesting birds. In one strategy, the hunter sets stationary objects such as snares, deadfalls, and nets. Although he checks them regularly, he does not have to be present to catch the bird. In the second strategy, the hunter uses bows and arrows, throwing weapons, and in more recent times, guns. The employment of those weapons demands the active involvement of the hunter in the bird's death. Following is a description of the two harvesting strategies and associated equipment.

Snaring: Snaring has been one of the most common traditional methods of harvesting birds. An elder comments that generally it is the most humane way because usually the bird is snared by the neck and quickly dies. Although other birds including cranes and eagles have been snared, waterfowl, grouse, and ptarmigan appear to have been the most frequently snared birds. Snares have been used in the majority of environments that birds inhabit and a variety of techniques have been developed for employing them.

The most common snaring method which can be used for any type of bird is to simply set individual snares where birds tend to rest, land, feed, or be otherwise active. The snares are hung on poles or branches at the height of the bird's neck so that the bird is hung by its neck and dies quickly. Snares areplaced on ice where waterfowl are known to land, on banks and beaches where they walk to and from the water, on beach logs where they rest, and in vegetation along shores where they feed. Eagle snares have been located in the bird's habitual landing spots and crane snares where they feed.

People have piled willow and other shrubs inapproximately two foot high horizontal rows or "brush fences" and placed snares in the brush to capture ptarmigan and grouse. Snares attached to a standing stick at the height of the bird's neck are placed in openings in the fence. An alternative style is to bend the branches holding the snares so that the birds are snared by the feet. In order to remove the birds quickly and prevent unnecessary suffering, the snares are closely watched. Reportedly, waterbirds have also been snared in "brush fences".

To obtain waterfowl, people have stretched lines with fastened snares above small streams and small inlets where birds tend to land. The birds fly or swim into the snares. Traditionally feather or spruce root snares and spruce root or sinew lines have been employed. Spruce roots snares are braided with three or four relatively thin roots. Thick roots, difficult to bend and braid, are not used because braiding gives the snare essential strength. Spruce root snares and other snares that tend to become brittle and dry are oiled unless they are placed near water. Although feather shaft snares become dry, they do not break and thus do not need oiling.

To snare waterfowl on lakes, people have constructed small, hand built rafts. Mud added to the raft holds up the brush to which the baited snares are fastened. The bird is snared by the head and dies on the raft.

Another means of snaring waterfowl on rafts is to tie a snare to a line attached to a rock which holds in place the trigger. When the bird steps on the trigger, it is caught by its feet and pulled by the rock into the water where it drowns. Because the bird is tied to the line, it is easily retrieved.

Besides spruce root snares as described earlier, snares for birds and other wildlife have been made from feather shafts (see Feather Technology). Snares for capturing large birds including ducks have been constructed from dried moose and caribou hide and sinew. Snares placed in wet conditions are waterproofed with spruce pitch. An elder observes that if a person ishungry and has no snares, he can remove the lines from his snowshoes tomake snares and replace them when game has been caught. Lime Villagers have constructed snares from leg tendons, especially those of larger birds.

Nets: Nets have been stretched across streams for the same purpose as snare lines and in the same manner except that nets may be placed both above and below water. Another traditional means of netting waterfowl is to stretch a trout net between two sticks on a beach. The birds fly or walk into the net which may be baited with water vegetation or other food.

Deadfalls: Besides snaring birds, deadfalls have been another traditional stationary means of harvesting birds. Usually made of wood and rocks, various types of deadfalls have been used depending on the size and kind of bird to be harvested. Deadfalls for large birds are constructed of logs and rocks. As is true of snares, deadfalls are located in areas that the birds regularly inhabit. For example, waterfowl and crane deadfalls have often been built on beaches and geese deadfalls also in shore vegetation where they feed. Waterfowl deadfalls made of wood have also been placed on floating rafts.

In active hunting situations, Lime Villagers explain that the number of needed birds, the humane treatment of the prey, and the safety of people are the most important considerations. For example, it is essential to know where both hunters and non hunters inthe area are located. Before using a weapon,the hunter judges the bird's angle, distance, speed, and the bird's awareness of the hunter's presence.Besides wasting ammunition,misjudgment may wound the prey or spoil the meat if hit at too close range. In some situations, eye contact helps closely located partners know each other's target.

Harvesting times are ideally in the early morning and early evening when the birds tend to feed. Traditionally hunters have preferred to be upwind from the birds with the sun at their backs.

Weapons: The upper Stony River Dena'ina have used a variety of traditional weapons that involve the active participation of the hunter in the bird's death. These include shooting and throwing weapons, which have for the most part been replaced by guns. While some types of weapons had a variety of styles, only styles employed in harvesting birds are discussed below.

Besides the standard sharp-pointed arrow, a blunt arrow and an arrow with a sharp, detachable tip havebeen used. The tip of the latter type, employed primarily for waterbirds, comes loose when it hits its target but remains attached to the shaft by a line. The purpose of the blunt arrow used only on ducks, grouse, and other smaller birds is to knock the bird unconscious or quickly kill it without tearing the body. Because larger birds such as geese and swans are only wounded by the arrow and caused to suffer, it has not been used to hunt them. Waterfowl and other game birds have also been shot with small, sharp arrows that kill them when hit in the head or neck. While shooting a duck or other similar-sized or smaller bird in the body may kill it, hitting a swan or goose on its wings, whether with a gun or arrow, often only wounds it. Because of this, swans especially have normally been snared or killed with a gun but not shot with a bow and arrow.

The best wood for arrows used in wet conditions has apparently been the hard dark wood often located onthe windward side of a spruce or on spruce growing in especially cold, wet conditions (Kari 1987:28,29). The arrows are waterproofed with spruce pitch mixed with the right amount of grease (see ibid.:32 for more information). Arrows for hunting land birds have been constructed of birch and not waterproofed with pitch (ibid.:43). Hunting bows have also been crafted primarily from birch.

An elder observes that bow and arrows were largely replaced by .22 caliber rifles and other guns in the early twentieth century. He notes that his grandfather always used a bow and arrow while his father learned to shoot a gun. In modern times, waterfowl and other game birds are usually taken with .22 caliber rifles or shotguns. As wastrue in the past, hunters have continued to aim at the bird's head, in order to kill the bird quickly without unnecessary pain.

The use of slingshots for killing ducks, grouse, and other small game has continued into modern days. Several people describe making a slingshot from a piece of forked willow because willow is both strong and flexible. The willow ends are tied together tightly with a leather, line so that the rock fits snugly between them. A well made slingshot can hit a fairly distant target, such as a duck on the opposite side of the Stony River.

Besides shooting weapons, the upper Stony River people have made throwing weapons for harvesting birds. One kind is a throwing stick made from a long, stiff stick carved at one end to hold a flat rock. The normal size of stick, which can be made from any kind of wood, is approximately an inch indiameter and 3 to 4 feet long. The length of the stick depends on the strength and size of the thrower because the longer the stick, the further the rock can be thrown. The weapon has been used to kill waterfowl and cranes but not grouse and ptarmigan because they can be harvested by a hand thrown rock.

A sling rock thrower for killing waterfowl is constructed by tying any shaped rock to one end of askin line and whirling it to gain speed before sending it to its target. The longer the line, the further the rock travels and the more dangerous the weapon is to the user because it is more likely to hit him as he whirls it. People with strong arms have sent rocks across the Stony River. At least one elder remembers having used a sling rock thrower.

Although weapon technology has changed, many of the same or similar hunting strategies continue tote used in modern times. Because waterfowl have been harvested in greater numbers than other types of birds and more strategies have been developed for hunting them, waterfowl hunting is emphasized. Unless noted, waterfowl have been obtained in the following ways and other kinds of birds when specifically mentioned.

A common method of hunting with a bow and arrow or gun has been to hide in or behind natural or constructed blinds and wait for an opportunity to shoot a bird. A similar way is tosneak from blind to blind, usually natural blinds, until the right harvesting situation occurs. Surprise hunting gives the hunter a better choice of which bird to shoot. Hiding along a stream or lake bend gives a hunter additional surprise advantage. The bird tends to fall near the hunter when shot at a bend.

Especially during the early part of the season, hunters have waited at stream mouths and areas of ice overflow because waterfowl tend to congregate at these first open water spots. The shallow water on the ice allows them to be easily shot. When ice frozen to the bottom floats up, it brings food with it and thus more birds to the area.

After taking a first shot, the hunter has often remained very still in the same position in hopes of getting another good shot because the birds may circle back or come out of hiding and give him the opportunity to try again. For example, if the bird's mate has been shot, it may return looking for its partner. Unless the meat is not needed, often the mate of a harvested bird is shot to prevent the bird's emotional suffering.

Lime Villagers have harvested birds by standing in an open place and shooting overhead flying birds. Hunters shooting over land have attempted to aim at birds that are very likely to fall near them. If the bird does not land in the vicinity, they make a reasonable effort to find the bird. A child may be sent to retrieve birds on land so that hunters may continue to harvest birds.

Because hunters know the route waterfowl take between lakes, they may stand along the route and shoot as the birds fly above them or they may wait near where the birds habitually land. They have tended to avoid long shots at overhead birds because they are more difficult to hit accurately and may only wound them. Hard to obtain ammunition may also be wasted. For the same reasons, Lime Village hunters follow this practice in any potentially inaccurate shooting situation.

Regardless of where the hunter is situated, if he hears shots at a different location, he watches carefully in the event that frightened birds may fly his way.

In the early part of the spring waterbird hunting season, a bird that has been shot may land on unsafe ice. One way of retrieving a bird from unsafe ice has been by throwing a line with an attached hook at the bird and snagging it under the wing. Hooks has been made from willow or other available brush. The added weight of the wooden hook makes a more efficient throwing line. In the same type of situation, long poles have also been employed.

Hunters may obtain birds from unstable ice by pushing two logs tied together ahead of them on the ice. If the ice breaks, they hold on to the floating logs until they reach safety. Small watercraft have been used in the same way.

People have tried to shoot near but not directly at waterfowl resting on unsafe ice so as to cause them to fly. They then fall when hit in a more easily retrievable area. For example, people observe that waterfowl like to sun themselves on ice especially during warm afternoons.

Once the ice melts enough to allow hunting from boats, birds have been retrieved from the water as quickly as possible. If no boat is available to reach a bird near shore, rocks may be thrown at it to produce waves that cause it to float to shore or it may be snagged by a pole. Wounded birds, which may dive repeatedly, have normally been followed until they are recovered. In shallow water where boats are not able to travel, hunters have followed a bird on foot while splashing a pole to chase it towards other hunters that harvest it.

To lure birds closer, dead birds have been propped up with a stick on ice or left floating in the water. The decoys are not left long because they may be preyed upon. If eagles and other birds of prey attempt to take birds that hunters desire, the birds of prey are not shot. Ravens, which are considered scavengers, have been shot near harvested birds to frighten predators.

Regardless of the method used, hunters continue the tradition of being very careful to shoot where the bird can be recovered as easily as possible. They do this both for efficiency and to prevent waste. They also spend the necessary time to reclaim wounded birds and to prevent suffering. A hunter knows how to twist a wounded bird's neck so that the bird dies quickly.

Although men continue to be the primary hunters, the weapons and strategies described here have been used by both women and men who possess the capability.


Lime Village people have collected a variety of wild bird eggs for food. The most common kinds have included waterfowl, crane, gull, ptarmigan, grouse, and large shorebird eggs. Customarily waterfowl eggs have been gathered in greater numbers than eggs of other birds. Not only do these waterfowl produce relatively large eggs, but they are laid in great numbers in the spring when food may be very scarce. People explain that elders told them not to bother bird nests unless for food. An elder remembers that swan eggs were only harvested when other food was lacking. Some eggs such as loon and arctic tern eggs normally have not been harvested because of their strong taste. Among other possible reasons such as cultural taboos, small birds eggs have not been regularly gathered for food because of their size. All bird eggs may serve as emergency food.

Traditionally only a select number of females of each species have been harvested because they tend to be fatter than the males and thus more highly preferred for food. A second essential reason is that the development of the yolk within the female indicates that the females of that species will soon lay eggs and that hunting of the species should end for the spring and summer seasons. Ideally this check is made for each species. Harvested females are boiled and consumed with the undeveloped eggs. It was taboo for a first menstruating girl to eat undeveloped eggs.

Eggs have been gathered soon after they have been laid. People have not normally eaten embryo-developed eggs. Because an eggs outer appearance apparently does not indicate the stage of embryo development, the practice of observing growth within the female bird is necessary for judging appropriate egg harvesting times.

People have often found eggs by watching the flight of birds to and from their nest. They may remember the location of nests from past years or may accidentally find them. The eggs from only a limited number of each species are taken so as not to deplete the eggs of any one species. Some people say to take all the eggs from a nest of some species because the parent(s) will not return if the nest has been touched. If the eggs are taken early in the nesting season, certain species may make another nest.

Traditionally people have boiled eggs or fried them on hot rocks. Eggs have apparently not been preserved for later use.


Lesson 1

What is a Bird?

Lesson 2


Lesson 3

Identifying Local Birds

Lesson 4

Bird Habits and Habitat

Lesson 5

Seasons and Migration

Lesson 6

Birds as Food

Lesson 7

Other Traditional Uses of Birds

Lesson 8

Traditional Stories and Beliefs about Birds


Whouy Sze Kuinalth
"Teaching Our Many Grandchildren"
Tauhna Cauyalitahtug
(To Make a Drum)
Math Story Problems
St. Lawrence Island Rain Parka Winds and Weather Willow
Driftwood Snowshoes Moose
Plants of the Tundra Animal Classification for Yup'ik Region Rabbit Snaring
The Right Tool for the Job
Fishing Tools and Technology
Blackfish Family Tree
Medicinal Plants of the Kodiak Alutiiq Archipelago Beaver in Interior Alaska Digging and Preparing Spruce Roots
Moose in Interior Alaska Birds Around the Village Dog Salmon


Handbook for Culturally Responsive Science Curriculum by Sidney Stephens
Excerpt: "The information and insights contained in this document will be of interest to anyone involved in bringing local knowledge to bear in school curriculum. Drawing upon the efforts of many people over a period of several years, Sidney Stephens has managed to distill and synthesize the critical ingredients for making the teaching of science relevant and meaningful in culturally adaptable ways."



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Last modified August 14, 2006