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!

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!


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

Notes from a Morning at the Whimbrel Watch

Thanks to an introduction from Terry Smith at Friends of Sam Smith, I had the opportunity this morning to attend the annual Whimbrel Watch out at Whimbrel Point in Colonel Samuel Smith Park. My primary aim was to work with the Humber Arboretum to interview Tim McCarthy and Wayne Renaud for the upcoming exhibit at the Interpretive Centre (oops! spoiler alert!) but as a first-time attendee of the Whimbrel Watch I thought it might be fun to share my notes from the experience:

4:00am – My alarm sounds and I fumble around in a daze. At this stage in my morning consciousness I’m not sure I could identify a “bird” let alone a whimbrel. Even the simplest morning tasks seem more complicated and I am silently grateful that I will be a cup of coffee deep before I meet up with the group.

4:30am – I head out to the car. The first thought that strikes me is that in the pitch black the street is alive with bird songs. Their volume is surprising against the silence from the houses. Before I have a chance to think much further about this early morning chorus, I become aware of a light rain and focus instead on wishing away the clouds.


5:15am – I am wandering into Colonel Samuel Smith Park. Sunrise will not officially take place for another half an hour but there is more than enough light in which to navigate the paths in the park. I expected an eerie, lonely walk through the dark but am instead surrounded by lit paths, dog walkers, and birders armed with large scopes. I had no idea there was such activity at this hour!

5:30am – My first view of Whimbrel Point as I approach reveals that I am not the first to arrive. My nervous and shy “hellos” are greeted with warmth and welcome. Wayne Renaud – one of the men I have come to interview – is among the group. It becomes immediately obvious that he is just seeping with knowledge about birding. He’s also much more prepared than I am for the day’s event: layers of fleece, a toque and mitts, and a bag filled with snacks to take him through the day – only his sunburnt (or perhaps wind burnt?) cheeks show any sign that the weather may pose a challenge.

5:45am – A crowd is starting to gather. Tim McCarthy – the second man I have come to interview – is easy to spot when he arrives. Dressed in shorts despite the chilly breeze, he wears a collection of feathers in his cap and a stuffed whimbrel pokes out of his backpack. He announces to the group that he has received an early morning email from his contacts in Virginia and the news is not good: the storms are still raging in the U.S. and no whimbrels were spotted leaving overnight.

6:15am – Despite the bad weather to the south, the first flock appears overhead. The sighting stops the conversation dead and a wave of binoculars and camera lenses point in unison towards the birds. Counts are shared with the group – around 35 in this flock – as Tim records the time and weather details on his clipboard.


Wayne and Tim spend the next few hours sharing stories of their own entries into birding, how they became involved in the Whimbrel Watch, and why the annual count is important for the conservation of the at-risk species. By the level of energy the two exude you would think this was Day 1 of the Whimbrel Watch – in fact, the two men have been out daily since the 19th.

9:30am – The excitement with the appearance of the first flock has waned and the numbers of birders out at Whimbrel Point has begun to shrink. A momentary thrill comes when another flock is sighted – but the mood quiets quickly as the group determines it is the same flock as earlier, still making the rounds. Today is shaping up to be a quiet one for the Watch.


11:00am – I am starting to fade. The early morning wake-up has distorted my stomach’s idea of when lunch should arrive and the cold has now seeped in through my bones. The conversation over the morning has been fascinating – a collection of first-timers and experts alike have generously shared tips, suggestions, and a wealth of stories. A school group visiting the area approaches to learn about the whimbrels and I use their arrival as an excuse to seek out food and warmth.

11:30am – I arrive back at the Interpretive Centre with my cheeks burning red from the morning wind exposure. The whimbrels failed to turn out but their dedicated watchers have made the experience worth every moment. I feel committed to the full experience now and make plans to return this weekend for another attempt to spot the flocks.


Want to experience the Whimbrel Watch for yourself? Join the group out at Whimbrel Point anytime between now and the end of the month (or stop by during this Saturday’s Spring Bird Festival!). Every knowledge level is welcomed but be warned – the passion of these birders is contagious and you may return home only to find yourself shopping for a pair of binoculars online…