The largest edible birds which stayed all winter were the grouse. The spruce grouse, or “fool hen” was good for a tidbit whenever seen, because any boy with a well-aimed pebble could knock him down. He had the unfortunate habit of sitting still in the spruce trees, relying on his feather camouflage, and showing no fear of man. In winter they feed on spruce needles and are easily seen. If a group were spotted in a tree, picking off the lowermost each time would not alert the others, and all might be taken.
Young ruffed grouse also act like “fool hens” but soon become practised in the art of swift disappearance among mixed aspen and conifer bush.
The sharp-tailed grouse or “prairie chicken” was numerous on the edges of natural parklands. He was not cooperative as a pot-bird, because he flew away rapidly when disturbed, and had a habit of burrowing under snow in winter. Indian boys perfected their archery by trying to get these birds.
In times of extreme shortage, the inner or cambium layer of aspen poplar could be stripped off, even in winter. It barely sustained life and was never a food of choice.
The nearest approach to a vegetable that we know the Indians ate locally was the root of the very handsome large-flowered thistle. In fact its correct name is Cirsium edule, the latter word meaning “edible”. It was boiled. It is hard to say what other plants were acceptable to the Indians, for their tastes were different from the white man’s.
One thing that was used in later years, at least, was birch syrup. Mr. George Robinson found the remains of a camp up the Smoky River, which had been abandoned long since, but the birch bark vessels for collecting sap were strewn around. The trees showed that they had cut a v-shaped flap in the bark. When this was bent down, it formed a natural drip-guide for the sap. The product was known to the fur traders, and was described in Hudson’s Bay Company’s Beaver Magazine as a palatable purple syrup. It may be that the Iroquois, who came down the Smoky from its headwaters, brought the technique from their original Ontario and Quebec homelands.