Link to Article: All Creatures (Oddly) Bright and Beautiful
Published in The White Bear Press, White Bear Lake, MN April 2019
A visit from a white-headed cardinal -- a genetic oddity -- raises questions about the varied ways in which humans attach importance to wild animals with rare white color mutations. The town of White bear Lake took its name from an Indian* legend about a white bear. Was the bear a genetic fluke or something more beyond the veil? What do bear biologists say were the possibilities? *(I was recently corrected by someone I called a Native American. "That's a miscategorization," he told me. Everyone born in the Americas, he said is a native American. "We call ourselves Indians.")
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Here are a few more pix I've since taken of the photo-shy white-headed female Northern Cardinal and her Significant Other.
All photos above by Ricka McNaughton.
These are low resolution images for web publication. If interested in higher resolution versions for print use feel free to contact me. I'm happy to share for credit only.
Breaking Down the White Bear Legend: Myth or Mutation?
The published story in the White Bear Press above included a bit of speculation about the nature of a white bear of local Dakota legend and what it may have been. The lovely town and lake of White Bear Lake, Minnesota, both take their names from the legend. The tale varies in the hands of different tellers going back to the early 1800's, ranging from Indian legend keepers to the chronicles of early white settlers in Minnesota. Mark Twain himself whipped up a short tale that veers colorfully from other accounts I read.
The legend seems much like some of the beautiful striated rocks you find in and around Minnesota waters. Each stone has the imprint of many forces of nature over time. Every layer holds a true origin story. But the rock isn't any one thing. And it has many burnishers.
These are the questions that intrigued me:
Was White Bear Lake's legendary white bear a real beast of yore? If so, how far back did "yore" go? Given that Minnesota has no native polar bear population, was the white bear a color mutation of a native black bear? Or was it a bear not born of this earth but, rather, an important spiritual figure to the Dakota which could take a number of forms?
Or...Over generations, did the story become a braiding of flesh and spirit?
Among the versions of the legend I read, some common threads speak of mortal combat between an Indian brave and a white bear living on an island in a local lake. The brave fights the bear for the sake of his true love - an important chief's daughter - but he has a noble goal, also, to bring about a renewed peace between warring tribal factions.
If the white bear was based on an actual local animal, there are a couple of rare genetic mutations possible for Minnesota, per bear biologists I spoke to for the states of Minnesota and Montana. Why Montana? Because Minnesota officials -- though extremely helpful otherwise -- had no photo examples, and Montana did. (I found some on a hunting site and tracked them back to that state.)
The rare albino black bear was one possible candidate for the legend.
It's a black bear with a white-appearing fur mutation, most easily distinguished by the lack of pigment showing in the eyes and nose areas, which makes those features appear pink. Albino black bears typically have poor eyesight, less resistance to the elements and shorter life spans. Nine years ago, such a bear had "gotten into some trouble" in a Montana town. (Photos below.) This usually means a bear had become too comfortable foraging in an area claimed by humans. It was lured into a specially-designed transport container and re-homed in a national park. I'm grateful to Montana's Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks for running down the info and photos.
Above: an albino black bear in Montana with an acquired taste for people's trash, was humanely captured and re-homed. Photo source: Derek Reich/Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks.
Another White Bear Lake legend candidate is the unusual white-phased black bear, which, notably, is not an albino.
It's born with white or creamy-"blonde" fur, which in maturity turns dark. Its eyes and nose have normal pigment. In 1997 a cream-colored bear soon to be named "Halo" wandered into the Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary near Orr, Minnesota. He became a beloved (and much commercialized) figure for a time but disappeared roughly a year later. According to the website americanbear.org, Halo was thought to be a genetically determined white-phase black bear. Rumors abound as to his fate. But after his disappearance, the State of Minnesota passed a law preventing the hunting of any white-phased black bears.
A sub-group of the white-phased black bear -- called the Kermode bear - exists on a few isolated islands off the coast of British Columbia. Indigenous populations there regard them as sacred animals. Roughly one in three cubs is born creamy white. Is it possible that a buried bit of Kermode DNA expressed itself in Halo? Or in the bear of the White Bear Lake legend?
As a newcomer, I've noticed that commercial signage around White Bear Lake tends to favor a more polar-bear-like physique. I wondered why. Possibly because the polar bear is the most recognizable depiction of a white bear for advertising purposes. IMaybe it's simply emblematic of this notoriously cold if not technically polar region. I wondered if, for the Dakota people, the polar bear might have mixed in as an archetype from elsewhere, borne down a slipstream of ancestral memory and ancient migratory routes?
I'm looking into this further. Meanwhile, you're welcome to set me straighton any of my speculations,
Follow-up note June 27, 2019 -- Due, I imagine, to the influx of so many other seasonal birds hogging the feeder now, combined with abundant food sources this time of year, I'd not seen my white-headed cardinal for some time - until today, when the sun first broke after a powerful thunderstorm had passed through. At least I think it was the same bird. She had noticeably less pronounced white about the head. Has she passed into a new color phase? Or might there be more than one of these unusually-pigmented birds locally?
Interested in another unusual bird I came to know? Skip to story:
Love on the Front Lawn
Against Many Odds, Non-native Ringneck Pheasants Strive to Thrive in Vermont.
This wild character, a regular visitor when I lived in Vermont, gave me a window on the boisterous and comical mating habits of his kind.