The Birdfeeder Experiment: Time has Flown by

The Birdfeeder Experiment: Week 5

Somehow 5 weeks have flown by (ah, bird humour) since I first started on my balcony Birdfeeder Experiment. The experience has been incredible so far and each day only brings new visitors. The secret seems to be – from the perspective of this very novice birder – all in the seed.

Pair of Downy Woodpeckers
My Downy Woodpecker couple sharing breakfast this morning during the snowfall

My initial set-up involved attaching a pole to my balcony from which I hung a small tube feeder filled with sunflower hearts, a suet cage, and a dish of mealworms. The result was that I became the number one hang-out for the House Sparrows in my neighbourhood (read more about that particular dilemma here).

To vary my customer base, I began experimenting with the type of feed I was providing: I soaked the mealworms to make them juicier and put out fresh oranges. About mid-way through Week 4 I made a visit to Wild Birds Unlimited in Etobicoke and explained my predicament. We explored a number of different options and in the end I decided to put out some peanuts in the shell and to try out a new feeder: the so-called “dinner bell.”

Dinner bell feeder with Black Capped Chickadee
The Black-capped Chickadees are among the new arrivals at my feeders

The dinner bell feeder is possibly the ugliest feeder I have ever seen – it looks a bit like I’ve hung Tupperware. But it has proven to be both incredibly popular with a variety of species and practical. The design includes a dome to protect the seed from the elements and a tray underneath to catch the fallen seed. In the centre is a cylinder of mixed seed that attracts both perching and clinging birds + keeps the mess down to a minimum.

I was incredibly skeptical about the design but I decided that one cannot judge a bird feeder on its appearance. Since installing the new dinner bell, I have seen 11 different species on the feeder itself and another 2 in the trees in my backyard – the majority of which I have never seen in my yard before!

White-breasted Nuthatch
The White-breasted Nuthatch was confused by the peanuts but loved the Dinner Bell feeder

From my humble beginnings serving an exclusive clientele of House Sparrows, I am now regularly spotting the following species at my feeders:

  1. Downy Woodpecker (I have been adopted by a family of 3 who visit daily)
  2. Red-bellied Woodpecker
  3. White-breasted Nuthatch (they came as a pair for the first time this week)
  4. Northern Cardinal
  5. Black-capped Chickadee
  6. Blue Jay (although he comes from the peanuts)
  7. American Robin
  8. Song Sparrow
  9. American Tree Sparrow
  10. House Sparrow
  11. European Starlings (more than I can count – they’re a horrible nuisance)
My very poor proof of the Cooper’s Hawk eyeing my feeders

I have also seen a Mourning Dove hanging out in the trees as well as what seemed to be a Cooper’s Hawk (which caused me quite literally to fall of the couch when I looked up and saw him…. gave the other birds a bird of a shock too…)

How to Birds find Feeders?

The question that has grabbed my attention of late is: How are all these birds finding my feeder? I’m still new to my neighbourhood but I have spent the better part of the past 6 months sitting out on my balcony and at least half of the birds that are regularly frequenting my feeders have never appeared in my yard before.

I initially assumed that it must have something to do with the smell of the seed – that they could pick up the scent from a certain distance off. Turns out that there is a debate over whether or not birds really smell or taste at all (read more here) and that the consensus seems to be that they find new feeders largely by sight.

Birds have impressive visual range, seeing more colour variation than our human eyes permit – but I am amazed that this is also their main resource for locating new sources of food (i.e., my new feeders). A few resources also point out that sound (such as running water in a bird bath) may also play a role but this isn’t a feature on my balcony (yet).

Downy Woodpecker
One of my regular Downy Woodpeckers

Next Steps

I’ll provide another update in the new year but for the moment, I think I am going to move towards some consistency. My current feed variety (mixed seed in a cylinder, suet, mealworms, and whole peanuts) is successfully attracting a wide range of species so I think I’ve found a nice balance for the local birds in my neighbourhood. I do need to figure out a way to handle the mob of European Starlings that arrives most mornings (I have never witnessed a more disruptive group of birds ever – I take back everything I ever said about the House Sparrows).

One Last Note as we Head into the Holidays

I learned while visiting Wild Birds Unlimited of a Scandinavian tradition that some of you may want to try out this season: spreading some birdseed on your doorstep on Christmas morning is thought to bring good luck for the coming year. Certainly worth a try – at the very least, our feathered neighbours will appreciate it!

Happy Holidays and all the best for 2018.




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


From the Curator: the flock is starting to assemble

IMG_6365June has been an incredibly busy month – and yet also a wonderfully enjoyable one. We’ve been working on our next exhibit – Bird’s Eye View – that is set to launch on Wednesday, July 5 at 6pm (you’re all invited).

For the exhibit we’re looking at the rich bird life of Colonel Samuel Smith Park through the ways in which humans have been actively supporting different species. I find it hard to pick my favourite part: we’ve just installed a beautiful rainbow collage of the different species that are attracted to the dogwoods planted by the TRCA and community volunteers, we’re putting the final edits on a short documentary about the dedicated members of the Whimbrel Watch, today we constructed a new nesting box for the tree swallow section… and the list goes on (I can’t reveal everything pre-launch!)

IMG_6394.JPGOne of my favourite parts of working at the Interpretive Centre is the amount of hand-on construction and design that we do with each project we tackle. But the best part for me so far with Bird’s Eye View has been the new partnerships we’ve formed. Working with both Humber and community partners alike on this project through every stage – from conception to install – has made for a rich experience. We are located in community filled with creative minds who have been incredibly generous with their ideas, their time, and even their personal collections. So really, the part of the exhibit that I am truly excited to unveil on July 5th are the products of these relationships.

IMG_6398.JPGOnce Bird’s Eye View launches next week I will be sharing a few of the stories and more behind-the-scenes photos of how this exhibit has been truly collaborative in nature. In the meantime, be sure to mark your calendars for the launch event next week!

Launch of Bird’s Eye View

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Start: 6pm; remarks and artists’ reflections at 6:30pm. Light refreshments will be provided.

2 Colonel Samuel Smith Park Drive

The pain of getting what you wished for

Sometimes when things finally turn out the way you’ve been hoping, it causes a few problems. This past weekend the Lakeshore Grounds Interpretive Centre again participated in Doors Open Toronto, running our historic tunnel tours alongside a series of other incredible venues. Based on last year’s popularity, we decided to run tours on both Saturday and Sunday to accommodate more people. We re-wrote the tour script to keep it fresh, trained new volunteer guides, and developed a new game for kids.

When registration began slowly, I became anxious that the tunnels had lost their appeal. The tours eventually filled and I felt a sense of relief. Then last week we were included on Now Toronto’s Best Doors Open Events for 2017 and Urban Toronto’s Top Building Picks for this Weekend. I started fielding phone calls and emails and decided to extend the size of the tour groups to accommodate more people.

Tour group inside the tunnels (photo credit: Sean Murdoch)

Before the first tour had even started on Saturday morning, the crowds were double the number that had registered. We extended the sizes of the tours as best we could and squeezed in an extra tour for the afternoon. But the numbers kept coming and we couldn’t keep up.

Saturday evening my team sat down to brainstorm how to handle Day 2 more smoothly. We checked every list over, discussed how much further we could stretch the size of the tours while still maintaining safety, and added three extra tours to the schedule for the walk-ins.

Curatorial Assistant Ben Mitchell with tour group outside the loading dock doors in the tunnels (photo credit: Sean Murdoch)

By the end of the weekend we took 1,057 people through the historic tunnel system but unfortunately still had to turn people away. The number is small compared to many sites that participate in Doors Open Toronto, but an incredible feat for us: in all of 2016 we only took a total of 1,788 people through the tunnels so this two-day number is a record for us!

Our feet are sore, our throats are raw, but we’re thrilled – and humbled – by the response. But as Anne Jones wrote to the Editor of the Toronto Star yesterday: we left some people disappointed and we have a lot of work ahead of us to meet this new demand.

Some of the questions we’ll need to explore are:

  • Why didn’t people know about registration this year? What was different from last year?
  • How can we accommodate more people while still maintaining safety in the tunnels and a quality tour?
  • What’s the best way to leave room for walk-ins and day-of registrations?

On the grand scheme of things, the popularity is what I’ve been wishing for all year. Now that it’s here, the true challenge will be to hang on to it – keep things fresh, anticipate the hurdles better, and make sure everyone gets a chance to see what they came for.

*A personal request: If you know Anne Jones or your family was among those we couldn’t get onto a tour this weekend, send me an email and I’ll arrange a tour for you: As an historian of psychology by training, I never want to discourage an interest in our mental health history!

Volunteer Guide, Jennifer Leonard, with group inside one of the tunnel’s branches (photo credit: Sean Murdoch)
Curator Jennifer Bazar with group on the steps of the newly re-opened Administration Building of the former Mimico Asylum (photo credit: Sean Murdoch)