The Fauna of Eastern Massachusetts: Forms Brought in and Expelled by Civilization

By Joel A. Allen,
Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University

The changes in the fauna of the region immediately surrounding Boston, wrought by civilization, are merely such as would be expected to occur in the transformation of a forest wilderness into a thickly populated district, namely, the extirpation of all the larger indigenous mammals and birds, the partial extinction of many others, and the great reduction in numbers of nearly all forms of animal life, both terrestrial and aquatic, as well as the introduction of various domesticated species and those universal pests of civilization the house rats and mice. The only other introduced species of importance are the European house-sparrow and a few species of noxious insects. As there is nothing peculiar in the changes in question, it seems best to devote the few pages allotted to this subject to a presentation of data bearing upon the character of the fauna as it was when the country was first settled by Europeans, these data being derived from the narratives of Wood, Morton, Higginson, Josselyn, and other early writers.


William Wood, in his New Englands Prospect, first published in 1634, thus begins his quaint enumeration of the animals occurring in the neighborhood of Boston: —

“The kingly Lyon, and the strong arm’d Beare,
The large lim’d Mooses, with the tripping Deare,
Quill darting Porcupines and Rackcoones be,
Castell’d in the hollow of an aged tree. . . .”

“Concerning Lyons,” a point of some interest in the present connection, he adds, “I will not say that I ever saw any my selfe, but some affirme that they have seene a Lyon at Cape Anne, which is not above six leagus from Boston: some likewise being lost in woods, have heard such terrible roarings, as have made them much agast; which must either be Devills or Lyons; there being no other creatures which use to roare saving Beares, which have not such a terrible kinde of roaring: besides, Plimouth men have traded for Lyons skinnes in former times.” [1]Wood, ed. of 1636, pp. 16, 17 To the above respecting “Lyons” may be added the following from an anonymous account of New Englands Plantation, published in 1630, and attributed to Francis Higginson: “For Beasts there are some Beares, and they say some Lyons also; for they have been seen at Cape Anne. … I have seen the Skins of all these Beasts since I came to this Plantation excepting Lyons.” These and other early allusions to “Lyons ” at Cape Ann, Plymouth, and elsewhere in southern New England, doubtless relate to the catamount or panther (the Felis concolor of naturalists), which formerly ranged from near the northern boundary of the United States throughout the continent, but which long since disappeared from nearly the whole Atlantic slope north of Virginia.

Lynxes were quite common, and bears rather numerous, the latter being hunted for their oil and flesh, which were esteemed “not bad commodities.” Wolves roamed in large packs, and were very destructive to sheep, swine, and calves. As early as 1630 the Court of Massachusetts ordered rewards for their destruction. The wolves appear to have been unable or unwilling to leap fences in pursuit of cattle, a trait the settlers soon learned to profit by, as shown by the following from Wood, who, in describing the plantation of Saugus, refers to the “necke of land called Nahant,” and adds: “In this necke is store of good ground, fit for the Plow; but for the present it is onely used for to put young cattle in, and weather-goates, and Swine, to secure them from the Woolves: a few posts and rayles from the lower water-markes to the shore, keepes out the Wolves, and keepes in the cattle.” [2]Ibid. p 32. He alludes to the same practice in his account of Boston, the situation of which, he says, “is very pleasant, being a Peninsula, hem’d in on the South-side with the Bay of Roxberry, on the North-side with Charles-river, the Marshes on the backe-side, being not halfe a quarter of a mile over; so that a little fencing will secure their Cattle from the Woolves.” [3]Ibid. p. 35. Foxes were also so numerous as to be a great annoyance, bounties being early offered for their destruction. Lewis states that the authorities of Lynn paid, between the years 1698 and 1722, for the destruction of four hundred and twenty-eight foxes killed in “the Lynn woods and on Nahant,” the reward being two shillings for each fox.

Among animals long since extirpated from Massachusetts is the “Jaccal ” mentioned by Josselyn, [4]New Englands Rarities, p. 22. who describes it as “ordinarily less than Foxes, of the colour of a gray Rabbet, and do not scent nothing near so strong as a Fox.” This account points unquestionably to the Virginian or gray fox (Urocyon cinereo-argentatus), which during the last hundred years has receded southward and westward with great rapidity.

In respect to the larger game animals, there appears to be no evidence of the presence of the elk or wapiti deer (Cervus canadensis) in eastern Massachusetts within historic times, although it occupied the country not far to the westward. There are, however, distinct references to the occurrence of the moose (Alces malchis ) at Lynn and elsewhere northward and westward within forty miles of Boston. It was sometimes referred to under the name “elk,” as in the following, from Morton’s New English Canaan, [5]Page 74. published in 1637, but the accompanying descriptions render clear the identity of the species. “First, therefore,” says Morton, “I will speake of the Elke, which the Salvages call a Mose: it is a very large Deare, with a very faire head, and a broade palme, like the palme of a fallow Deares horn, but much bigger, and is 6. foote wide betweene the tipps, which grow curbing downwards: Hee is of the biggnesse of a great horse. There have bin of them, seene that has bin 18. handfulls highe: hee hath a bunch of haire under his jawes. . . Wood [6]Page 18. says: “There be not many of these in Massachusetts bay, but forty miles to the Northeast there be great store of them.”

The common deer (Cariacus virginianus) was, from its abundance, by far the most important of the larger native animals, and for many years afforded a ready supply of animal food. Morton states that ” an hundred have bin found at the spring of the yeare, within the compasse of a mile,” [7]New English Canaan, p. 75. and other writers refer to their numbers in similar terms. With the exception of a small remnant still existing in Plymouth and Barnstable Counties, thanks to stringent legislative protection, the species became long since extirpated throughout nearly the whole of southern New England.

Among other mammals that have entirely disappeared are the beaver, the marten, and the porcupine. The otter and the raccoon are nearly extinct, and nearly all the smaller species occur in greatly reduced numbers, including the muskrat, mink, weasels, shrews, moles, squirrels, and the various species of field-mice. The marine mammals have declined equally with the land species. There are many allusions to the abundance, in early times, of seals, whales, and the smaller cetaceans. One writer, in speaking of Massachusetts Bay, says, “for it is well knowne that it equalizeth Groin-land for Whales and Grampuses.” It is a matter of history that a profitable whale-fishery was at one time carried on in the Bay itself, the whales being pursued at first in open boats from the shore.


The Great Auk
The Great Auk

The great auk and the Labrador duck are believed to have become everywhere extinct, especially the former, and five or six other species long since disappeared from southern New England. All the larger species, and many of the shore-birds, have greatly decreased, as have likewise most of the smaller forest-birds. The few that haunt cultivated grounds have doubtless nearly maintained their former abundance, and in some instances have possibly increased in numbers. Prominent among those formerly abundant, but which now occur only at long intervals as stragglers from the remote interior, are swans and cranes. Respecting the former, Morton has left us the following: ” And first of the Swanne, because shee is the biggest of all the fowles of that Country. There are of them in Merrimack River, and in other parts of the country, greate store at the seasons of the yeare. The flesh is not much desired of the inhabitants, but the skinnes may be accompted a commodity, fitt for divers uses, both for fethers and quiles.” Of ” Cranes,” he says, ” there are greate store.. . . These sometimes eate our corne, and doe pay for their presumption well enough; and serveth there in powther, with turnips to supply the place of pow-thered beefe, and is a goodly bird in a dishe, and no discommodity.” [8]New English Canaan, p. 67. The crane was probably the brown crane (Grus canadensis), while the swans embraced both of the American species.

The wild Turkey is well known to have been formerly abundant. Wood speaks of there sometimes being “forty, three-score, and an hundred of aflocke,” while Morton alludes to a “thousand” seen in one day. According to Josselyn, they began early to decline. After alluding to their former abundance, he says, writing in 1672, “but this was thirty years since, the English and the Indian having now so destroyed the breed, so that’s is very rare to meet with a Turkie in the Woods; but some of the English bring up great store of the wild kind, which remain about their Houses as tame as ours in England [9]New Englands Rarities, p. 9. The complete extirpation of the wild stock appears to have occurred at an early date.

The pinnated grouse (Cupidonia cupido) likewise soon disappeared. The few which still remain on Martha’s Vineyard are believed to be a remnant of the original stock, but this is rendered doubtful by the fact that birds introduced from the West have been at different times turned out on this or neighboring islands.

The former presence of the great auk (Alca impennis) along the coast of Massachusetts is not only attested by history but by the occurrence of its bones in the Indian shell-heaps at Ipswich and neighboring points. It seems to have existed in the vicinity of Boston till near the close of the seventeenth century, but probably did not survive to a much later date. The earliest reference to it as a bird of our coast is contained in Archer’s Relation of Captame Gosnols Voyage to the North part of Virginia, made in 1602, in which “Pengwins ” are mentioned as found on the New England coast in latitude 43°. The account further states that “near Gilbert’s Point,” in latitude 41° 40′, “by the ships side we there killed Pengwins.” In Rosier’s account of a Virginian Voyage made An. 1605 by Captaine George Waymonth, in the Arch-angell, ” Penguins ” are enumerated among the birds met with, in all probability near Nantucket Shoals. As the bird here called ” Penguins ” is not described in the accounts above cited, the following, from Captain Richard Whitbourne’s Relation of Newfoundland, may be of interest: “These Penguins are as bigge as Geese, and flie not, for they have but a little short wing, and they multiply so infinitely vpon a certaine flat Hand, that men drive them from thence vpon a boord into their Boates by hundreds at a time; as if God had made the innocencie of so poore a creature to become such an admirable instrument for the sus-tentation of man.” [10]Purchas his Pilgrims, iv. pp. 1885, 1886. From Josselyn’s account of the “Wobble,” which is evidently the same bird, it may be inferred that it was not uncommon on the coast of Massachusetts Bay as late as 1672. He says: “The Wobble, an ill shaped Fowl, having no long Feathers in their Pinions, which is the reason they cannot fly, not much unlike a Penguin; they are in the Spring very fat, or rather oyly, but pull’d and garbidg’d, and laid to the Fire to roast, they yield not one drop.” [11]New Englands Rarities, p. 11.

The abundance of water-fowl and shore-birds seems worthy of brief notice. Morton describes three kinds of geese, and says: “There is of them great abundance. I have had often 1000. before the mouth of my gunne . . . the fethers of the Geese that I have killed in a short time, have paid for all the powther and shott, I have spent in a yeare, and I have fed my doggs with as fatt Geese there as I have ever fed upon my selfe in England.” Of ducks he mentions three kinds, besides “Widggens,” and two sorts of teal, and refers to its being a “noted Custome” at his house “to have every mans Duck upon a trencher.” He speaks of the smaller shore-birds under the general term “Sanderling,” and says they were “easie to come by, because I went but a stepp or to for them: I have killed betweene foure and five dozen at a shoot which would loade me home.” [12]New English Canaan, pp. 67-69.

Wood observes, “Such is the simplicity of the smaller sorts of these birds [which he calls ‘Humilities or Simplicities,’] that one may drive them on a heape like so many sheepe, and seeing a fit time shoot them; the living seeing the dead, settle themselves on the same place againe, amongst which the Fowler discharges againe. I my selfe have killed twelve score at two shootes.” [13]New Englands Prospect, pp. 26, 27.

No bird appears to have been more numerous in early times throughout the whole Atlantic slope than was the wild pigeon. The early historians of the region here in question speak of flocks containing “millions of millions,” having seemingly, as Josselyn expresses it, “neither beginning nor ending,” and “so thick” as to obscure the sun. Other writers speak of their passing in such immense clouds as to hide the sun for hours together.


The antipathy to snakes, which so generally impels their destruction at every opportunity, has left few of these in comparison with their former numbers. The rattlesnake, the only dangerous species, found now only at few localities, was formerly much more generally dispersed. The draining of ponds and marshy lands has greatly circumscribed the haunts of frogs, salamanders, and tortoises, which at many localities have become nearly extirpated.


A few quotations respecting some of the more important kinds of edible fish will show to how great a degree our streams and coast waters have been depopulated. Respecting the codfish, the bass, and the mackerel, Morton speaks as follows: “The Coast aboundeth with such multitudes of Codd, that the inhabitants of New England doe dunge their grounds with Codd; and it is a commodity better than the golden mines of the Spanish Indies. . . . The Basse is an excellent Fish. . . . There are such multitudes, that I have seene stopped into the river [Merrimack] close adjoyning to my howse with a sand at one tide, so many as will loade a ship of a 100. Tonnes. Other places have greater quantities in so much, as wagers have bin layed, that one should not throw a stone in the water, but that hee should hit a fish. I my selfe, at a turning of the tyde, have seene such multitudes passe out of a pound, that it seemed to mee, that one might goe over their backs drishod. . . . The Mackarels are the baite for the Basse, and these have bin chased into the shallow waters, where so many thousands have shott themselves ashore with the surfe of the Sea, that whole hogges-heads have bin taken up on the Sands; and for length they excell any of other parts: they have bin measured 18. and 19. inches in length, and seaven in breadth: and are taken … in very greate quantities all alonge the Coaste.” [14]New English Canaan, pp. 86-88.

Wood says, “. . . shoales of Basse have driven up shoales of Macrill from one end of the sandie Beach to another [referring to Lynn Beach]; which the inhabitants have gathered up in wheele-barrowes.” Fligginson, in speaking of “a Fish called a Basse,” states that the fishermen used to take more of them in their nets than they could “hale to land, and for want of Boats and Men they are constrained to let a many goe after they have taken them, and yet sometimes they fill two Boats at a time with them.”

Other kinds of fish appear to have been correspondingly abundant. “There is a Fish, (by some called shadds, by some allizes),” says Morton, “that at the spring of the yeare, passe up the rivers to spaune in the ponds; and are taken in such multitudes in every river, that hath a pond at the end, that the Inhabitants doung their ground with them. You may see in one towneship a hundred acres together, set with these Fish, every acre taking 1000. of them.” Wood records that “In two Tydes they have gotten one hundred thousand of those Fishes” (referring to shad and alewives) “in a Wayre to catch Fish,” built just below the falls of Charles River. Among other abundant species are mentioned halibut and flounders. Respecting the latter, Morton says “They (at flowing water) do almost come ashore, so that one may stepp but halfe a foote deepe and prick them up on the sands.”

I find no distinct allusion to the bluefish, but it is well known to have been for a long time of periodical occurrence in Massachusetts Bay. A century ago it was abundant about Nantucket and to some distance northward; later, it disappeared for about fifty years, and then again became more or less abundant, even in Massachusetts Bay. Their reappearance, says Mr. N. E. Atwood, has caused “the rapid diminution of the mackerel during the spawning-season, and the tenfold increase of the lobster, the young of which were devoured by the mackerel.” [15]Proc. Post. Soc. Nat. Hist., xii. p. 403


There are, as would naturally be expected, few available data for a comparison of the present invertebrate fauna with that of two hundred and fifty years ago, and these relate mainly to a few of the edible “shell-fish.” From the accounts left us by the authors already so frequently quoted, it appears that the lobster has declined greatly in numbers and in size. In the quaint language of the times, they are said to have been “infinite in store in all parts of the land, and very excellent, and to have sometimes attained a weight of sixteen to twenty-five pounds. They appear to have been an important source of food to the Indians, as Morton [16]New English Canaan, p. 90. says, ” . . . the Salvages will meete 500, or 1000. at a place where Lobsters come in with the tyde, to eate, and save dried for store, abiding in that place, feasting and sporting a moneth or 6. weekes together.”

Oysters were found in “greate store” “in the entrance of all Rivers,” and of large size. Wood says the oyster-banks in Charles River doe barre out the bigger ships.” He thus describes the oysters: “The Oisters be great ones in forme of a shoo home, some be a foote long, these breede on certaine bankes that are bare every Spring tide. This fish without the shell is so big that it must admit of a division before you can well get it into your mouth.” From some not well-known cause the oysters died out so long ago along most parts of the Massachusetts coast that some recent authorities have doubted whether they were ever indigenous here, those now cultivated having been introduced from other points.

Of clams (“Clames,” “Clammes,” or “Clamps,” as they were variously designated), it is said “there is no want, every shore is full.” Besides their ordinary uses they were esteemed “a great commoditie for the feeding of Swine, both in Winter and Summer; for being once used to those places, they will repaire to them as duely every ebbe, as if they were driven to them by keepers.” Swine were doubtless instrumental in eradicating clams and mussels at the points they visited, since it is well-known that, at localities in the West where they are allowed to run at large, they quickly destroy the fresh-water mussels in all the streams where in seasons of drought they can gain access to these animals. The use of clams for fish-bait has also tended greatly to their decrease. At many points along the coast of Massachusetts Bay they have become wholly exterminated, since a comparatively recent date, over areas embracing hundreds of acres in extent. Their extinction, however, seems not in all cases to have been the result of human agency, but is known, in some instances, to have been caused by exposure of the tracts they inhabited to extreme cold during very low tides.

The changes in respect to insect-life have unquestionably been great, some species having decreased while others have become more numerous. Many obnoxious species have been fortuitously introduced from other countries, while some have reached us by migration from distant parts of the West. Of the latter, the Colorado potato-beetle is the best-known example, which has recently reached the Atlantic coast by a gradual migration from the Great Plains, and which at present constitutes the most dreaded foe with which the farmer has to contend. In early times, as is well-known, the locusts, or “grasshoppers,” occasionally appeared in such numbers as to commit serious depredations.


Winsor, Justin. “The memorial history of Boston : including Suffolk County, Massachusetts, 1630-1880,” 4 vols. Boston : Ticknor, 1880-81.


1Wood, ed. of 1636, pp. 16, 17
2Ibid. p 32.
3Ibid. p. 35.
4New Englands Rarities, p. 22.
5Page 74.
6Page 18.
7New English Canaan, p. 75.
8New English Canaan, p. 67.
9New Englands Rarities, p. 9.
10Purchas his Pilgrims, iv. pp. 1885, 1886.
11New Englands Rarities, p. 11.
12New English Canaan, pp. 67-69.
13New Englands Prospect, pp. 26, 27.
14New English Canaan, pp. 86-88.
15Proc. Post. Soc. Nat. Hist., xii. p. 403
16New English Canaan, p. 90.

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