Bill Waiser

Monthly Archives: October 2016

The great bufflehead crash

It was the night that it rained ducks … thousands of them.

For more than four hours on Monday, Nov. 4, 1940, ducks fell from the heavens in east-central Saskatchewan. People living in Foam Lake, Elfros and Sheho were startled by the repeated thud of something hitting their homes and hurried outside to find the ground littered with the dead, the maimed, and the stunned.

Looking up into the fog, they watched helplessly as out-of-control, fluttering projectiles continued to drop well past midnight.

The local paper made light of the incident, suggesting that duck graced dinner tables for the next week. And there were probably jokes making the rounds — that shouting “duck” now had a whole new meaning in the Icelandic communities.

But it was an unnerving experience, compounded by the dark days of the Second World War when the Allies seemed to be on the ropes.

Had the ducks been poisoned? Did the carnage have anything to do with the nearby air training base at Dafoe? And why had the rain of ducks been confined to a forty-kilometre stretch of land east of the Quill Lakes?

Locals reached for the most logical explanation and concluded that the ducks — in this case, the bufflehead — had become disoriented in the fog and headed for the lights of Foam Lake, thinking that it was a shimmering lake.

The incident was quickly overshadowed by the war, and all but forgotten in the intervening years — until Kerry Finley came along.

Kerry is from Luseland, Saskatchewan. He likes to say that he grew up near the apex of the Palliser triangle and came to know the land and its rhythms from his wanderings, often with his dad.

Kerry worked as a biologist in the Arctic in the 1970s and 1980s — he became an expert on the bowhead whale in Baffin Bay — before settling in Sidney, British Columbia. The nearby Shoal Harbour Migratory Bird Sanctuary was home to the bufflehead, a duck that he encountered during his childhood and at other stages in his career. Kerry made the bird his new focus of study.

The bufflehead is a small, diving sea duck that breeds in tree cavities in Canada’s boreal forest and spends the winter along coastal waters. Also known as the spirit duck, the male is black and white with an iridescent head. Its name derives from its rather unusual bulbous head — a combination of the words buffalo and head, for bufflehead.

The duck is one of the last migrants to leave its breeding grounds. In fact, in preparation for the flight, it feeds so voraciously that it gains about 25 per cent in body weight. No wonder its nickname is “butterball.”

The bufflehead is also a punctual migrant, arriving at its wintering grounds at the same time every year. For Sidney, B.C., that is usually Oct. 15, known locally as All Buffleheads Day. To get there, the ducks fly at a cruising altitude of 1.5 kilometres at a speed of 65 kilometres per hour, sometimes 100 km/hour with the prevailing winds. (And that’s without goggles.)

In reading about the bufflehead, Kerry came across a brief mention of the November 1940 crash in the scientific literature. Intrigued by the seemingly unprecedented event, he set out to interview anyone who was there at the time or remembered stories about the incident.

More than half a century later, some still maintained that it had something to do with the war. Most people, though, repeated the standard explanation — that the fog that night had caused the birds to fly towards the lights of Foam Lake.

But Kerry was skeptical because the buffleheads also fell over the countryside and rural electrification was more than a decade away.

That’s when he started to connect a series of weather events across North America in response to giant meanders in high altitude winds (atmospheric Rossby waves), accompanied by cold air. Less than five days after the bufflehead crash, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge began to sway and collapse (check out the video footage online). And a week later, on Nov. 11, a fierce blizzard struck the American Midwest, leaving more than 100 casualties in its wake.

What probably happened is that the bufflehead encountered heavy fog coming off the warm Quill Lakes, followed by a blast of cold Arctic air that caused the wet birds to hurtle by the thousands from the night sky.

The weather — and not the war — conspired against the bufflehead.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. 

Photo: A male bufflehead duck in flight at the Shoal Harbour Migratory Bird Sanctuary.
Photo Credit: Suzanne Huot

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Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers

Waiser wins Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction

Saskatchewan author and historian Bill Waiser has been named the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905.

“From its first page, Bill Waiser’s A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905 surprises the reader with its reconsideration of Canada. In a sweeping blend of narrative, historical detail, and compelling images, Waiser refocuses the country’s story by putting Indigenous peoples and environmental concerns in the foreground.” – From the Jury Statement on the Canada Council for the Arts website.

A peer assessment committee selects the winners. This year marks the 80th anniversary of the Governor General’s Literary Awards.

Governor General David Johnston will present this year’s winners with their awards at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on November 30.

A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905 is available through McNally Robinson Booksellers.


Howdy McPhail photographer

Road to modernization paved with good intentions

In a spoof of a favourite song, comedian Groucho Marx once mockingly asked, “How’re you gonna keep ’em down on the farm … after they’ve seen the farm?”

Keeping them on the farm certainly applied to Saskatchewan in the mid-20th century. People began leaving the countryside in the late 1930s, a trend that picked up momentum after the Second World War.

Ninety-three of 422 Saskatchewan farm families, who had participated in a federal survey in 1942, were no longer farming when the team returned to do a follow-up interview five years later. To put this population decline into perspective, during the 10-year period from 1941 to 1951, when the total provincial population sagged 7.2 percent (minus 64,000), the rural farm population fell an astonishing 22.4 percent (minus 115,000).

What often gets overlooked in the statistics, though, is that the province remained essentially a rural place. Seven of every ten Saskatchewan citizens still lived in a rural setting in 1951.

CCF Premier Tommy Douglas wanted to do something about the rural exodus — secure the future of rural Saskatchewan and slow down the pace of rural depopulation. But how should the province be taken down the road to modernization? Or, in today’s terminology, how should the government bring about “transformational change”?

As Al Johnson, the former deputy finance minister, commented years later, the premier regarded all the past studies of rural issues as “parts of a single puzzle, and he wished to see them put together.”

To secure this broad perspective, the CCF government established a Royal Commission on Agriculture and Rural Life in October 1952. For the next year, the commission sponsored 80 community forums and nearly 60 public hearings, as well as surveyed hundreds of rural residents.

The commission issued a series of 14 reports between March 1955 and April 1957. Many of its findings dealt with the twin issues of distance and isolation and possible solutions. What made the commission so historically important, though, was that it provided a comprehensive snapshot of a society undergoing fundamental change and the many problems and challenges associated with that change.

The royal commission’s recommendations were supposed to provide a blueprint for action. But Douglas could not wait and the CCF government went ahead with its own plans to improve rural services and provide a degree of stability.

The government constructed a province-wide system of all-weather grid roads — more than 13,000 miles by 1964. It also laid the groundwork for natural gas use throughout the province when it assigned responsibility for distribution to the Saskatchewan Power Corporation.

The government’s most ambitious revitalization activity was to bring electricity to 50,000 farms and all towns and villages by 1958, two years earlier than scheduled.

Saskatchewan Government Telephones, in the meantime, expanded and upgraded the provincial system through the 1950s, as well as started work on a microwave system to be tied into the national network.

The 1960 Family Farm Improvement Program also provided financial assistance to farm families and towns and villages to install sewage and water systems. At the start of the 1950s, only one in five farm homes had running water, let alone a bathroom.

Rural leaders pushed back, however, when it came to the reorganization of Rural Municipalities (RMs) into larger units. The government tried to defuse the issue by appointing a special committee to find some acceptable compromise, but despite years of study, it was forced to shelve the idea in 1962 in the face of continuing local opposition.

The CCF’s inability to replace the RM system might not appear to have been much of a failure when measured against all that the Douglas government had done to improve the quality of life in rural Saskatchewan. But better services, even at levels enjoyed by urban residents, could not halt rural decline.

The rate of rural population loss in the 1950s might not have been as great as during the 1940s, but people were still leaving the farm, especially adolescents. High school, radio, movies, even all-weather roads, introduced young people to another world beyond the farm and what they were missing.

And parents knew that their children, especially girls, would leave the farm. Ask a Saskatchewan woman what she got for high school graduation, and the answer is usually … luggage.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. 

Photo:The Douglas government wanted to modernize rural Saskatchewan and slow the pace of rural decline.
Photo Credit: Howdy McPhail

Questions or comments?

Email Bill at

Follow Bill on Twitter @billwaiser

Bill Waiser’s latest book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905, is now available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers. The book is shortlisted for the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Awards in the non-fiction category.