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Fauna Series No. 3







Faunal Position

Life Zones







Fauna of the National Parks — No. 3
Birds and Mammals of Mount McKinley National Park
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THE ANIMAL LIFE of Mount McKinley National Park is surpassed as a park attraction only by "Denali" itself.1 Inquiry among many of the visitors to this remote and primitive region has shown that, in many instances, the unique opportunity to see vast numbers of caribou, Dall sheep, grizzly bears, and Alaska ptarmigan, together with lesser numbers of such rare breeding birds as the wandering tattler and surfbird, has been one of their chief reasons for making the long journey north, since, as a group, all of the above-named species are not known to occur in any other national park.

Furthermore, because of its geographical position and the climatic conditions of the region, Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America, is often enveloped in clouds for weeks at a time during the summer or tourist season. Many visitors, thus denied even a glimpse of the mountain, become interested in the abundant animal life.

The basic and fundamental function of the national parks is the "preservation of outstanding works of nature for the inspiration, education, and enjoyment of this and future generation." As has been pointed out, the animal life of Mount McKinley National Park from this precept is peculiarly outstanding in importance.

The two greatest "animal" national parks in America are Mount McKinley and Yellowstone, and the former, because of its remote location, favorable climatic conditions, and large size, is the only park today that contains an adequate and abundant breeding stock both of wild game and of large carnivorous animals. Too, the natural association and interrelation of certain typical but vanishing examples of North American mammals, such as grizzly bear, wolverine, timber wolf, caribou, and Alaska mountain sheep, can probably be maintained by reason of the adequate room and the suitable forage conditions.

In recognition of the national and future importance of this outstanding assemblage of animal life, a detailed survey of the birds and mammals of Mount McKinley National Park was instituted and carried forward to completion through the cooperation of the National Park Service and the University of California.

Carrying out a field policy of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, University of California, a survey of the wild animal life of Mount McKinley National Park was begun by the late George M. Wright and myself during the spring and summer of 1926. The field investigations were made possible by the joint support and sponsorship of Annie M. Alexander, through the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology of the University of California, and John E. Thayer, of Lancaster, Mass. Previous to this visit, relatively little was published concerning the birds and small mammals of this region.

The late Charles Sheldon, noted naturalist and big game hunter of Washington, D. C., spent the latter part of July and the month of August 1906, about the northern base of Mount McKinley and in the vicinity of the headwaters of Toklat River. Mr. Sheldon, while occupied chiefly in hunting and in studying the habits of mountain sheep and other large game, also had an opportunity to collect specimens of certain of the smaller mammals found in the park. In 1907, Dr. Wilfred H. Osgood, now curator of zoology in the Field Museum of Natural History at Chicago, reported Mr. Sheldon's collections in the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, volume 20, pages 59-60. As a result of Mr. Sheldon's activities Dr. Osgood was able to report the presence of 23 different kinds of mammals in what is now the park.

In July 1907, Mr. Sheldon returned to the McKinley region and spent the winter of 1907-08 there. His headquarters were in a log cabin which be built on the main Toklat River about 2 miles below the point where the highway now crosses this stream. He remained there carrying on his hunting and collecting until the middle of June 1908. In The Auk, volume 26, number 1, January 1999, Mr. Sheldon published a List of Birds Observed on the Upper Toklat River near Mount McKinley, Alaska, 1907-8 in which he reports on 62 species of birds. Later publications indicate that about 30 species and geographic races of mammals were encountered by Mr. Sheldon in the McKinley region between 1906 and 1908.

The numerous references to (Sheldon, 1930) in this publication pertain to The Wilderness of Denali, an outstanding volume on the wildlife of the McKinley region published in 1930 by Mrs. Sheldon through Charles Scribner's Sons. The manuscript of the book was prepared by Mr. Sheldon from his Alaskan journals and after his death was edited by two of his friends, Dr. C. Hart Merriam and Dr. E. W. Nelson.

In 1923, O. J. Murie of the United States Bureau of Biological Survey spent several weeks in the Mount McKinley region studying caribou. His account of the discovery of the first-known nest of the wandering tattler, which he located there, was published in 1924 in The Auk, volume 41, pages 231-237.

In 1926, field work was carried on in the Mount McKinley region by Mr. Wright and myself from May 19 to July 30. Seventy-two days were spent in the field, during which time a distance of approximately 500 miles was traversed on foot, covering in considerable detail the regular routes traveled by visitors to the park. A bird's-eye view of the animal life as it would be seen by most visitors was gained at this time. As a result of these field investigations 86 kinds of birds and 25 kinds of mammals were identified as definitely occurring within the park boundaries. About 75 out of the total number of birds recorded are known to nest within the park. While in the field time and effort were about equally divided between (1) studying living birds and mammals in their native habitats, often with the aid of binoculars, (2) recording these life history data with camera and notebook, and (3) collecting amid preserving specimens for positive identification. As a result, 168 specimens of birds, 83 study-skins of mammals, 2 birds' nests, 4 sets of birds' eggs, 350 photographs, and 280 pages of notes were secured.

In May 1932, I started on my sixth expedition to Alaska, returning to Mount McKinley National Park to complete the study of animal life of the park that Mr. Wright and I had begun in 1926. I arrived at the park on May 15 and remained there until September 1, 1932. During the 110-day stay, I visited all of the localities where Mr. Wright and I had worked in 1926, as well as most of the localities that Charles Sheldon had visited in 1906-8. A fair comparison of the present and past status of the animal life of the region was thus obtained.

Dall sheep
A Record Dall Sheep

A careful study of the effects of predatory animals upon other species in the park was recorded by camera and in notebook, and by constantly watching for record specimens and judiciously collecting them, a new species of plant was discovered, and the known breeding ranges of certain birds were extended several hundred miles. On this expedition the known list of mammals of the McKinley region was brought up to 34 species, and the bird list was increased to 107 species.

In describing the different animals of time park the endeavor has been at all times to keep in mind the obvious fact that the living animal, in its natural environment, is the outstanding attraction. For this reason, the technical details and other characters which would be of interest chiefly to scientists or would be noticeable only when specimens were actually in hand, have been subordinated and special emphasis has been placed in recording both by pen and by camera the outstanding characters and identification marks of the living animals in the field.

In taking up the life histories of the various species or kinds of animals encountered in the park each species has been treated under two general headings: (1) The general appearance of time animal is given, stressing any specially developed items such as size, color, ears, tail, and horns which may be of particular interest; (2) the endeavor has been made to list diagnostic marks or characters which have been found to be most useful and reliable as "field marks" to assist in the identification of the living animal

For the field identification of the birds of the McKinley region, P. A. Taverner's Birds of Western Canada is most useful. Through the kind permission of Mr. Taverner frequent reference has been made to the book mn this publication.

In like manner, I am indebted to Dr. H. E. Anthony for permission to use information covering size, field marks, and range—particularly of small mammals—as given in his volume entitled "Field Book of North American Mammals."

It is regretted that there is no suitable single-volume botanical field book for the region. However, the National Park Service publications entitled "Plants of Glacier National Park", by Paul C. Standley, and "Plants of Rocky Mountain National Park", by Ruth E Ashton, are small and inexpensive field books which are helpful in a study of the flora of the McKinley region.

Grateful appreciation is hereby extended to former Director Horace M. Albright of the National Park Service, to Assistant Director H. C. Bryant and the late George M. Wright of the National Park Service, and to Superintendent Harry J. Liek and the other members of the staff at Mount McKinley National Park for their assistance and encouragement.

Advice regarding the field studies and invaluable aid in identifying specimens through access to the zoological collections of the University of California were given by Dr. Joseph Grinnell, Director of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. Much help was obtained by permission to use the Alaska collections of the United States National Museum and the Bureau of Biological Survey. Gratitude is expressed to Mr. and Mrs. M. C. Edmunds of the Alaska Road Commission for further valuable assistance and advice in this project, and special acknowledgment is due to Mr. and Mrs. John E. Anderson for their excellent work in noting the earliest arrival and latest departure dates of various species during spring and fall migrations at Wonder Lake in the Mount McKinley region.

Specimens of birds and mammals collected by Charles Sheldon in this region have been donated to the United States Bureau of Biological Survey collections. Specimens collected by Mr. Wright and myself are in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology of the University of California, and the Museum of Comparative Zoology of Harvard University. Specimens collected by me in 1932 are in the United States National Museum, the British Museum, and the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology.


August 1934.

1 Denali is the Indian name for McKinley.

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