The Birdfeeder Experiment: Week 2 Report

The Birdfeeder Experiment: Week 2 Report

When I first installed my feeders I envisioned a setting not unlike Cheers with an “everyone knows your name” vibe and a set of regulars who were chummy with one another. In reality, I’ve opened the Mos Eisely Cantina on the wrong side of Tatooine (hint: it’s a Star Wars reference). My feeders have been taken over by a rough-and-tumble gang who communicate by brawling among themselves and intimidating any other species that dares stop by. I’m speaking, of course, of House Sparrows.

Those adorable little rotund-in-the-middle flyers had me fooled at first. They arrived cautiously, seemed uncertain about the new venue, and then hesitatingly sat down and ordered their first seeds. I eagerly welcomed them. But the more they visited, the more I wanted to know about who they were. And that’s when I learned their dark secret: the House Sparrow is a non-native species with a tendency towards taking over the nests of native birds.

The House Sparrows arriving

The Backstory

House Sparrows were introduced in Brooklyn, New York in 1853 (there was another group introduced two years earlier, but they did not survive). I had read initially that they were brought over by homesick Europeans who craved some familiarity in their new colony but have since dug deeper and found a classic story of pest-control gone awry. There are many write-ups recounting the arrival of House Sparrows in North America but one of the more readable (online) versions I’ve come across recently can be found here on the Hatching Cat blog.

The Predicament

House Sparrows have been called one of the most common animals in the world; since the nineteenth century, their population has been expanding exponentially. But they haven’t simply adapted well to the new environments they’ve been introduced to – they kicked the locals out. That’s right, our little House Sparrow has a nasty tendency of stealing the homes of Bluebirds, Tree swallows, Purple martins, Chickadees, and other native species. And by “stealing the homes of” I mean suffocating the eggs or kicking out the chicks of native species to settle their own nests.

So what is a new feeder host to do? I can’t quite turn a blind eye now that I know the habits of my most frequent customers, but I also don’t want to give up on the feeder experiment (my breakfast really does seem to taste better with my nose against my window, watching the feeder activity).

The (Ongoing) Search for Solutions

The online advice talks about putting out seeds that House Sparrows don’t like (there are some more drastic suggestions as well that I was not willing to consider – there are some people out there who really don’t like House Sparrows). Sunflowers are technically on the no-like list but I think that by providing the de-shelled version in hopes of making less mess at my feeder, I proved that they actually love sunflower seeds (my little troupe sucks down an entire feeder of seed per week).

My morning routine: boiling water water for coffee and mealworms.

Suet and mealworms (the other selections I currently have out) are also on the list of dislikes for House Sparrows. For the two weeks they’ve been out, they’ve seen very little action – I even tried soaking the mealworms in an attempt to make them plumper and more appetizing (there is nothing stranger to see in the morning than watching a woman who is an egg away from being vegan pouring hot water over a bowl of dried insects while she makes her morning coffee).

I was quite discouraged and had been planning to head to the store to try all new seeds – and then I had a mystery visitor. When I got home Friday night, the mealworms were missing – and not just a few, I mean ALL of them. I decided to delay my Week 2 Report and investigate over the weekend.

Saturday I filled the bowl, waiting as long as I could before heading out for the day and saw nothing. When I returned home that night: the mealworms were gone. Sunday, I repeated the process, again seeing nothing until the evidence of an empty bowl greeted me upon my return home in the evening. The suet was noticeable lower as well.

So somebody IS visiting despite the territory the House Sparrows have attempted to claim. I suspect it’s my resident Blue Jay – I’ve seen him hesitate by the feeder but he’s very skittish so he may be waiting until I leave for the day.

My feeder set up as it looks as the end of Week 2

Week 2 Lessons and Next Steps

The weekend has renewed my hope at attracting multiple species to my feeder – even if it’s only a gang of House Sparrows and a single Blue Jay at the moment. I do think I will hit up the store this week to investigate other options in seeds. For starters, if it is only the House Sparrows eating the seeds in the tube feeder, I don’t think they need the expensive sunflower hearts.

I don’t think any seed choice will fully discourage the House Sparrows (and I honestly do think they’re adorable to watch despite their more problematic relationships with other birds) but I don’t want to cater exclusively to their bellies either. I’ve been watching eBird spottings in my area to get a sense of who is in the neighbourhood and researching their favourite treats. I currently have an orange hanging out on the top of my feeder pole to see if that might draw anyone new in…




The Birdfeeder Experiment: Week 1 Report

Week1_Tube Feeder landing
The first visitors

The Birdfeeder Experiment: Week 1 Report

I’ve become increasingly captivated by birds since I began work at the Lakeshore Grounds Interpretive Centre. The opportunity to work with the local birding community has certainly been the major contributor to this transformation: their energy and excitement is undeniably contagious (for an example, read: Notes from a Morning at the Whimbrel Watch or visit the websites maintained by Friends of Sam Smith and CCFEW). I have found myself constantly on-the-lookout whenever I am outside and I have noticed that I am spending more and more time flipping through the field guide we have here at the Interpretive Centre (just how many little brown sparrows are there?!?). I even started tracking my sightings on an app….

A birdfeeder felt like a natural “next step.” The temperature is getting colder so a little extra support for the wintering birds seemed like a good idea + a feeder would provide me with some at-home viewings.

Sunday  – The Consultation

As a completely novice birder (“wannabe enthusiast” might be a more accurate title – I don’t think I’ve earned my “birder” wings quite yet) with no idea where to start, I knew I needed some advice. I reached out to Nancy Barrett. 

Nancy was one of the first birders/artists we had the privilege of working with here at the Interpretive Centre – we hosted Through A Lens, Brightly last winter and Nancy was a huge contributor to our current exhibit, Bird’s Eye View. She – like every birder I’ve met – is also incredibly generous with her knowledge.

The reply was long and detailed: Nancy talked about the research around backyard birdfeeders, safety concerns, types of feeders and seeds, and even the possibility of attracting predators. She also raised some pros-and-cons about putting a feeder on my balcony (I live in an apartment). It felt like a road map. After a little Google action to translate a few of the terms (ex. “nyjer” and “mealworms“) I headed off confidently to the store.

Monday – The Set-Up

My confidence quickly faded when I walked through the doors at the Urban Nature Store in Etobicoke. The list and notes I had written out suddenly seemed useless. After walking around aimlessly for a few moments and pondering whether I was in over my head, I was identified by the sales clerk as a shopper-in-need-of-assistance.

My in-store advisor listened to my plans and walked me through the options. Thankfully, the woman I spoke with even had balcony-located feeder experience and was able to help steer me past some potential hurdles.

I decided to install a pole (something I could easily attach to my railing) with some quick-connect hangers to hold out the feeders.

Yes, I said feeders. Plural.

Week1_Feeder set-up
My feeder set-up (the ribbons are because I had the irrational fear they would blow off in the wind…turns out they barely move even on the windiest day!)

I may have gotten a little over-excited after reading Nancy’s guidance. Rather than buying a single feeder, I came home with three. I opted for: 

  1. A small tube feeder with sunflower hearts. The style was enclosed to help keep the seed dry, but also large enough for medium-sized birds to access. The sunflower hearts were the more expensive seed choice but it was suggested that they would keep the mess down more so that I didn’t create a problem with discarded shells at my building.
  2. A suet cage with pre-made suet. With the temperatures dropping, this seemed like a natural choice. Also: there are 1001 recipes for homemade suet out there which seemed like a fun challenge for the coming months.
  3. A small glass bowl for mealworms. Nancy’s email had mentioned mealworms only in passing – more as something I could work towards. But my curiosity was instantly piqued and I couldn’t get them off my mind. When I saw the little baggy of dried mealworms hanging in the store, I knew they needed to come home with me. 

Tuesday & Wednesday – Nothing but Fly-Bys

The first two days I sat eagerly with my nose to the window while I ate my breakfast. There were plenty of birds in the trees behind our building: house sparrows, song sparrows, a cardinal, a couple of blue jays, and even a downy woodpecker – but none were interested in anything more than a fly-by at my feeders.

Week1_Interrogating Eyes
I felt like I was being sized-up by this little house sparrow who stared me down

Thursday – The First Clue!

I was out the door before 7am and home after 9pm so I missed out on any direct observations. But the birds left their first clue: the seed level in the tube feeder was distinctly lower when I got home than it had been when I left. I couldn’t see any difference with the suet or the mealworm levels but I knew that my first visitors had dropped in.

Friday – The First Landings!

Today was the day: it was an action-packed morning.The house sparrows arrived in groups of 3-5 and helped themselves both to sunflower hearts and suet while the blue jay proved that my tube feeder could support his weight without trouble. I was so excited that I was very nearly late for work (don’t worry Wanda, I said “nearly”)!

Week 1 Lessons and Next Steps

Week 1 of The Birdfeeder Experiment feels like a success: I learned a lot about different types of feeders and seeds + the birds have discovered the newest restaurant in the neighbourhood.

The most obvious Next Step is that I will need to refill my tube feeder this weekend. I don’t think I’ll clean it quite yet – but I’ll start investigating that process. Pulling myself away from the window so that I make it to work on time may actually be the biggest hurdle. Photographing a moving model against a busy background will also require some practice…

Week1_Suet landing
The quick movements of the birds have proven a challenge to my novice photography skills. But I do like a challenge!

Last call for Route 501

4.25x5 Route501 Final-1It’s always hard to wrap up an exhibit – and saying goodbye to the ink and wash collection by Sheila D’Atri-Karpis is no exception. If you haven’t “walked along” Route 501 yet, move quickly – the show wraps up on Saturday, November 4th at 2pm.

Route 501 is a wonderfully nostalgic collection inspired by the historic sites that run along Lake Shore Blvd West from Mimico through to New Toronto and out to the Long Branch Loop.

Adding to the memorable “feel” of the collection, Sheila’s story is inspiring in and of itself. An Etobicoke native, she first picked up a paintbrush in 2016 after a medical error left her unable to return to work. She honed her skills by watching YouTube videos and drawing inspiration from childhood memories of the landmarks that once spanned the Lakeshore communities.

I first came across Sheila’s work online – I stumbled upon her greeting cards last spring when looking for images of the former Almont Hotel (today, Humber’s Fashion Institute). A few months later, Wanda Buote (Principal of Humber’s Lakeshore campus) met Sheila at an event and emailed me excitedly the next day with an introduction. The rest, as they say, is history.

At our first meeting, Sheila took one look at our hallway space and decided it needed more texture. Before I knew it, we were installing tracks across 60′ of wall and interspersing nearly-transparent historic photos of south Etobicoke (Sheila’s “ghost photos”) between a collection of 25 original ink and wash paintings. The whole process was a family event, with her husband Frank, their kids, and neighbours all pitching in to make sure Route 501 captured Sheila’s vision.


With that many hands on-deck, I spent much of the install trying to convince Sheila to let me buy the newest addition to the collection: a beautiful painting of Cumberland House that she had completed only hours before we started the installation. She dodged my requests, insisting that she needed to spend some time with her latest work before she could consider parting with it. Little did I know that ulterior plans were already in motion: at the launch on August 30th Sheila gifted her Cumberland House painting to the Lakeshore Grounds Interpretive Centre (insert happy dance here).

To see the collection as a whole, make sure to drop down to visit us before Saturday, November 4th at 2pm. I assure you, it will be your most memorable ride along Route 501.

Location: Third floor of the Student Welcome and Resource Centre

Photo Credit: Frank Karpis

Keys to our Past film series now ONLINE

I am THRILLED to announce that the Keys to our Past film series is now available for viewing online!


Over the past few months, we have been working with the Research & Academics division at the Waypoint Centre for Mental Health Care to create a series of short films that highlight topics in the history of mental health care in Canada. Funded by a SSHRC Canada 150 grant, the aim of the project was to explore the ways in which mental health care is integral to the very fabric that makes up our country  (For more information about this collaboration, I invite you to read Unlocking the History of Mental Health Care in Canada by Sara Laux).

IMG_20171004_191233We held four events this week to premiere the series before it went live on YouTube: two in New Toronto (Etobicoke) on the site of the former Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital and two in Penetanguishene at the Waypoint Centre for Mental Health Care (coincidentally, the two locations share a long history. As one example: the forensic division that has been located in Penetanguishene since 1933 was originally planned for New Toronto – but the facility was opened in Penetanguishene instead  due to a political shuffle).

For a review of the evening event at Humber, I direct you to the Preserved Stories blog by Jaan Pill.


Why these topics?

The funding provided by SSHRC allowed for the hiring of two students to lead the project: Rachel Gerow who is pursing her Master’s in Counseling Psychology at Yorkville University and Gary Bold who is pursuing his Bachelors in Psychology at York University. It was their questions and curiosity during an initial brainstorming meeting that directed the project from what was originally intended as a series of 2-3 two-minute videos to the resulting series of 6 roughly 10-minute videos!

The selected topics developed naturally out of the conversations Rachel and Gary had with the team. The result is a series of introductory videos about different treatment modalities during different time periods, a discussion about the creation of the asylum system, an overview of the changes to the Not Criminally Responsible legislation, and a conversation about the pervasiveness of stigma.

Chalkboard cover images created for each film by Waypoint staff member, Nick West

What are the next steps in the project?

The topics represented in the series cannot represent all of Canada’s mental health history – they can’t even represent the full history of the topics they introduce! Our next steps therefore will be the creation of some additional resources to complement the films. We will be beginning with a collection of teaching guides to help answer questions raised by the content of the films and to direct viewers to additional sources. We are also developing a visual map of the artefacts that make up the film set!

As part of this process, we are seeking feedback from you – if you have questions, comments, or suggestions either about the existing content in the films or about related content, we want to hear from you. The supplementary resources will be enriched by the constructive feedback we receive from our viewers so please, don’t be shy! You can always contact the Interpretive Centre at or by calling 416-675-6622 ext. 3801.

The links to each video + the transcripts are available here


The sorry tale of the first and LAST time I read a sad book in public.

The following is my response to reading:

The Last of the Curlews (1955)

by Fred Bodsworth

Eskimo Curlew Illustration 1.jpg

The Eskimo Curlew, painted by John James Audubon. Frequently used as a cover image for the novel.

Charged with creating a reference inventory for the Interpretive Centre’s books one day, the cover of Fred Bodsworth’s book repeatedly caught my eye. I saved the book until last so I could read a few pages, just to satisfy my curiosity. My next hour and a half were quickly consumed (don’t tell Jennifer!) with reading The Last of the Curlews cover to cover. The concept of mass extinction is not uncommon for our area of Ontario, both the Eskimo Curlew and Passenger Pigeon had once been described as the most numerous birds in the world, with populations reported in the high millions.

Eskimo Curlew Photo 2.jpg
Eskimo Curlew on display at the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, Illinois, USA.

Bodsworth’s book takes a different angle on the topic by providing a fictional account of the last of the Eskimo Curlews and the search – in vain – for more of it’s species. The overall theme of the book predicts the extinction of the Curlew, a full decade before the final confirmed sighting in Canada in 1963. Akin to the Passenger Pigeon, the Eskimo Curlew was wantonly slaughtered for food across the Americas, with as many as two million killed per year in the 1940s-50s.

An interesting mix of omniscient narration, and a peek into the instinct-driven mind of our Curlew, kept me reading intently. The solo migration between the Arctic and Patagonia highlights the Curlew’s strength, speed, endurance, and remarkable drive for survival. As can be surmised from the title, the narrator and reader alike can infer the ultimate outcome for our Hero.

Eskimo Curlew Illustration; 3.jpg
A lone Eskimo Curlew, as painted by Archibald Thorburn 

This book was an enthralling awakening to the reality of our influence on nature and I found myself much more sympathetic to the smaller cousin of the Curlew, the Whimbrel – featured in the Interpretive Centre’s current exhibit, Bird’s Eye View – as well as a deeper understanding and respect for birds across the world. Moving forward, this book raises issues relevant in contemporary conservation efforts. While the Eskimo Curlew is widely believed to be extinct (more on this debate in a future post), there are still species we can support through collaborative efforts, mindfulness, and lifestyle changes. In conclusion, I leave you with a quote from the late Bodsworth:

“…Man is an inescapable part of all nature, that its welfare is his welfare, that to survive, he cannot continue acting and regarding himself as a spectator looking on from somewhere outside.”

        -Fred Bodsworth (2003) (RYELL, 2012)

fred photo
Fred Bodsworth (photo via Terry Smith)

Find yourself in need of a book to read, or interested in The Last of the Curlews? Drop by the Interpretive Centre during our opening hours, and cozy up in our space!

*Blankets and reading socks not included*

Stumble Upon Nature: There Are Riches All Around Us

Queen Ann’s Lace by Christian Fischer, CC BY-SA 3.0,

On Saturday, August 12th, 2017 a group of local nature enthusiasts joined Richard Aaron and the staff of the Lakeshore Grounds Interpretive Centre on a walk of Colonel Samuel Smith Park.

The weather was fine for a walk; not too cool and not too hot. Shady, though threatening to rain; it thankfully held off until after the tour.

There were over twenty of us, all told. The youngest was around four, and the age ranges in the group meant that our guide was asked quite a diversity of questions. Sometimes he was asked how to remove ticks, or tell the difference between two closely related plant species, and sometimes he was asked “what’s this?… what’s this?… what’s that?” including what kind of grass that was on the side of the path. I don’t think many adults would actually ask that question on a tour, we tend to take the grass for granted, and that was just one of the ways the young folks added a lot to the day.

But we did find lots of things other than grass on the walk: sidewalk mushrooms (relatives of the button and cremini mushrooms you buy at the store), Queen Anne’s lace (which is related to carrots and attracts bugs with a black spot in the centre of its flowers), and even a snake (likely a garter snake, but sadly squished on the road, so hard to identify).

The diversity and beauty of the birds of the park are justifiably one of its highlights, but it was lovely to get out and learn about some of the other creatures that call it home.

After all, it takes a whole ecology to hatch a single chick!


Echoes of Echoes in the Darkness

For several days in 1987 the buildings of the old Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital were turned into nursery schools, police stations, classrooms, and hospital spaces for the filming of the miniseries Echoes in the Darkness.

Our copy of the book was signed by the author, Joseph Wambaugh, and given to a Toronto location scout who now works as a counselor at Humber.

But before the series, and before the book, there was a story behind the story.


Wambaugh spent 14 years with the Los Angeles Police Department. His first novel was published in 1971, while he was still a police officer, but he soon turned to writing full time. He based Echoes in the Darkness on the real story of the sordid murder of Susan Reinert and her two children Karen and Michael in Pennsylvania in 1979.

Reinert, William Bradfield, and Jay Smith were all staff at the Upper Merion Area High School. Reinert and Bradfield worked in the English department and Smith was the principal of the school.

Bradfield was variously described as charismatic and cultured, or full of himself and egotistical by those who knew him. He was in a relationship with Reinert and was the sole beneficiary of her $730 000 in life insurance. When her body was found and her children went missing, he was considered the primary suspect, and was convicted of the murders in 1983.

In court, he claimed that it was Smith who had planned to kill Reinert.

A former colonel in the army reserve with a PhD from Temple University, Smith was seen as an erratic and antisocial person. He was already in prison in 1986 when he was later convicted of conspiring with Bradfield to kill the Reinerts. He was serving five years for robbing a Sears dressed as a security guard, and for several firearm and drug related offences.

The prosecution argued that Reinert had been drugged and murdered in Smith’s basement and he was sentenced to death by the electric chair.

In 1992 Smith was still on death row when an antique dealer, Mark Hughes, was hired to clean out John J. Holtz’s attic. Holtz, a police officer, had been the primary investigator in the Reinert case.

His attic contained an identical copy of a comb used as evidence in the trial, police notes that contradicted the testimony of the prosecution, and a letter from Wambaugh offering to pay Holtz’s partner Joe Van Nort $50 000 for information about the case before Smith had even been charged with it.

Hughes delivered the evidence to Smith’s defence attorney, believing it to be part of a police cover up. Because of the number of irregularities and conflicts of interest in the original trial Smith’s conviction was later overturned.

In a legal deposition given in the 90s, Wambaugh testified that he had a financial interest in Smith’s conviction, admitting:

“I didn’t think the book would work until something happened to Smith.”

Eventually Holtz admitted to accepting $50 000 from Wambaugh in return for Smith’s arrest.

Despite this, Wambaugh remains convinced of Smith’s guilt and of his own fair dealings in the case. Upon Smith’s death in 2009 he commented that:

“I do not celebrate the death of any man, but Satan does” and when later asked by The New York Times he reaffirmed this by saying that “A No. 1 draft pick has finally arrived.”