Bill Waiser

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