Apologies in advance for the rather emotional blog post to follow.
I had planned a rather more joyful one about all the local crow babies, including two belonging to Marvin and Mavis. I have hundreds of photos, and posts will be coming soon, but this morning I am upset.
Every morning, when I’m out walking the dog in the early hours, I see cats in the neighbourhood. Many of them are clearly in hunting mode.
Early today I watched in horror as a cat about half a block ahead of us clawed excitedly at a baby bird on the sidewalk as the fledgling fought to get away. Although I am not one of nature’s runners, I pelted, with Geordie, towards the cat, yelling like a maniac. The cat kept right on toying with the bird until we were a foot away, when it backed off a very short distance. The bird (a juvenile starling, I think) hobbled off into a nearby grapevine. The cat stayed close, waiting for us to leave so he could finish his mission. I stayed there and called Phillip to come from home with a box and towel. The bird clearly had a broken wing, so I tried to capture him for delivery to Wildlife Rescue, but failed, and the bird flapped off into a dense brush area. I spent a long time looking for him, but eventually had to give up, feeling by now that I’d made the poor bird’s fate even worse than if I’d just let the cat get it in the first place. I’m feeling very sad and guilty about that.
But I also feel angry.
It’s upsetting when an eagle gets a baby crow, or a crow snatches a baby robin, but I know they’re just doing it to feed themselves and their family. A cat killing a bird is not a legitimate part of this circle of life and death. A cat will not cleanly kill a bird to eat it — it will maximize the entertainment by playing with it first. The cat is not hungry. It’s a pet, fed and pampered at home and is out killing wildlife recreationally.
I know this sounds hard, but it’s the truth.
I love cats. Cats are wonderful, and anyone who knows me knows I adore our cat, Edgar.
Many cat owners contend that their particular pet is too gentle, too lazy, or too old to be a hunter of birds. You may tell yourself that, but I present our aforementioned genteel Edgar as proof to the contrary. Although he’s an indoor cat, Edgar is allowed onto our back deck, under supervision, where he usually lays in the sun, keeping out of trouble except for the occasional verbal exchange with the crows.
One day, however, he accidentally got left out there for a couple of hours by himself and by the time we figured out where he was, I found him sitting, looking pleased with himself, beside a beautiful, but very dead, juvenile yellow warbler. Clearly the baby bird had landed near him on the deck and nature just kicked in. Not Edgar’s fault. Mine for leaving him out there and allowing it to happen.
Thirty years ago we had another cat; Elvis. At that point, we hadn’t realized the perils for both cat and wildlife, and allowed him to be an outdoor cat. Some vivid memories of Elvis: the time he brought a live pigeon into the house when I was home alone with a newborn and a two year old; the time he got sliced open by a raccoon and cost us several mortgage payments to have him sewn up again; the sad day we found him dead in a neighbour’s garden, having drunk anti-freeze that someone allowed to drain into the gutter.
Elvis lived outdoors, and to my regret, probably killed hundreds of birds, as well as suffering through, and finally dying from, his neighbourhood adventures. I will never have an outdoor cat again.
This Spring, with many of us forced to stay close to home and contemplate an uncertain future, one of the great consolations has been watching our local birds. We’ve taken comfort in observing them going about their natural seasonal business, even as the human world turned on its axis.
Baby bushtit feeding time
The incredibly constructed bushtit nest — moss, leaves, lichen and spider webs for stretchiness.
The nesting season timing has meant that — some of us for the first time in our lives — have closely observed the hope and the drama inherent in the process; the careful strategy of site selection, the tireless work of collecting twigs, followed by soft materials for a cosy lining. In a somewhat quieter world, we’ve been better able to hear the fierce and beautiful territorial songs. “Stay away from this tree! This tree is my tree! I am a fearsome warrior house finch! Trespassers beware!”
Nesting and fledgling young is a brave and precarious avian mission every year. There’s so much that can go wrong: stolen eggs; fallen hatchlings; predators; window strikes by novice flyers. We cheer to ourselves when we see the clumsy fledglings finally out of the nest and begging for food, experiencing that small vicarious thrill of victory over circumstance that makes the day a little brighter.
And, what can we do for them, in return for the joy they bring to us?
Well, surely here in Canada our birds are at least protected during nesting season by our Migratory Birds Act?
And certainly, Vancouver (Greenest City 2020 with its very own Bird Strategy must be especially diligent in this area?
Naively, I’d have thought so until one week ago today — when a work crew arrived and felled most of the Notre Dame poplars at the height of nesting season. We knew the trees were destined to go at some time, since the City gave permission for Notre Dame School’s artificial turf facility and tree removal last year, but it honestly never occurred to me that they would come for the trees at peak nesting time.
Apparently we love our birds in Vancouver, as long as they don’t get in the way. Even during nesting season.
Confused White Crowned Sparrow at Notre Dame, June 12
But cut them they did, the very day after I posted my last blog post arguing against it. Today most of the Notre Dame poplars are now stumps.
While I’m still in shock, I’m thinking of ways to move forward with what I’ve learned over this last week and a bit.
My goals now are:
to share what I learned through this process in case it can help others in the future
to have the remaining ten poplar trees left alone until nesting season is over.
According to the Migratory Bird Act of 1994, it seems as if most birds in Canada are protected from disturbance during nesting season.
That’s what the Act says. That’s what I thought was the law, and judging by the many people who commented on my blog and my social media last week, that’s what most Canadians think. But, apparently, we’re all wrong!
Last week offered a master class on how developers and construction crew routinely get around the Act … with a little help from City Hall. If you’d like to see a timeline and some pictures of how things unfolded here last week, see Chainsaw Timeline.
So that was last week. This week, I’m trying to look forward.
1. Going Forward — Big Picture
What did I learn since last week? Well, obviously the first thing was — I shouldn’t be so naive and optimistic about the legal protections offered to Canadian wildlife.
Second, at least now I know that the best government department to contact in this situation is the enforcement branch of Environment Canada, as they are ultimately responsible for enforcing the migratory bird convention act. However, you do have to go through the national number — 1-800-668-6767 — to reach someone.
Robin on some tree debris, June 14.
I finally did get in touch with an actual Wildlife Canada enforcement officer to report the situation, although not until most of the trees were down. He said his department would look into the matter and I’m waiting to hear back from him.
I also made contact with the President of the Wild Bird Trust of British Columbia, which oversees the Maplewood Flats Bird Sanctuary in North Vancouver. He wrote the following powerful letter on our behalf, sent it to various people and Vancouver City Hall, and kindly gave me permission to reprint it here.
The Wild Bird Trust of BC is seriously concerned with the removal of mature trees in the height of nesting season which surround the Notre Dame high school in East Vancouver.
Given the serious optics of skimming past or minimizing contravention of the Migratory Bird Convention Act (1994) we would like to understand how only a nominal pair of nests was identified in this significant urban green space. Given the Greenest City objectives and the COV’s commitment to transparency (as well as in support of food faith and building and repairing trusting relationships in communities) information concerning the trees removal should be made immediately available to the Notre Dame Neighbours Committee. Such information would be a scientific report provided by Notre Dame’s contracted biologist which was used by the City to green light mature poplar trees being removed at the height of nesting season. The Wild Bird Trust of BC is also interested to review the report submitted to the City.
We are concerned that local residents organizing to protect nesting birds would be required by the City to pursue an FOI to access a biologists report which was sent to the City to justify the actions. Treating this information as confidential is totally against the spirit of transparency, and the Greenest City objectives of promoting citizen engagement with its principles.
It is our request that no further trees be removed until the report is made public, outside of any FOI process, and that the City not approve the removal of mature trees in nesting season without (at the very least) providing transparency in decision making.
President, Wild Bird Trust of BC
I’ve spent a lot of time this week looking into the whole issue of how trees and birds are protected (or not) during nesting season. I’ve spoken to a lot of experts in the subject and learned quite a bit. For example, my intuitive mistrust of the whole “nest count” concept, as outlined in the last blog post, is backed up in the Government of Canada’s own Guidelines to Reducing Risks to Migratory Birds. Nest counts, which the school letter seemed to indicate were being employed, are not considered best practice in all cases, although, we can’t actually know exactly what methodology was used, as the report is being kept hidden from public view, pending our Freedom of Information request.
A term I’d never heard before is “incidental take.” This, it turns out, is what has happened here and it’s a hot topic amongst biologists, environmentalists, government of various levels and industry and real estate stake holders.
A hundred years ago, on August 16, 1916, the Migratory Birds Convention was signed by Canada and the USA. The Convention was implemented in Canada by the Migratory Birds Convention Act (the MBCA). In 1980, a clause was added to the regulations under the MBCA which prohibits the destruction, disturbance, or take of nests and eggs. This prohibition – often referred to as “incidental take’ – applies even if the activity which causes the harm is not directed at the nest or egg and is otherwise legal. In the period after 1980 the prohibition was largely overlooked in economic practices and by regulators, and incidental take was widespread. However, in recent years there has been an increase in awareness (and enforcement) of the prohibitions, and consequent requirements to address it in Environmental Protection Plans and Environmental Assessment Certificate requirements.
It seems that there are a lot of inconsistencies and grey areas between what is laid out in the federal protections for birds and what happens closer to reality. When the Vancouver City Arborist receives a biologist’s all clear, it seems that’s all that’s needed to get a permit and start those chainsaws. It seems to me, and others, that there are many problems with this system: convenient for builders; fatal for birds.
So, if birds have been a source of joy and comfort for you in these trying times, you might want return the favour by dropping your local, provincial or federal representatives a quick line on this topic.
Journalists who have written stories about our increased love for birds during the pandemic might want to follow up on this thread.
2. Save the Remaining Poplars
Just one of the surviving poplars. Imagine trying to visually determine how many nests are in one of these, let alone a row of 23.
Ten trees were left as a buffer around the white crowned sparrow nest the biologist reported seeing. I am convinced there were nests scattered throughout the whole stand of trees and that they all should have been left.
It was tragic to see birds of various species examining the logged tree area in the days after the cutting.
Juvenile House finches on the construction fence the day after the trees were removed.
Even these ten poplars are not safe until the end of nesting season — only reprieved until June 23 when the biologist will return for another nest assessment. If they’re declared “nest free” the City will issue yet another cut permit and they’ll be down later that day or the next.
Even if the young sparrows in the current nests have fledged, many species of local birds make a second nest in a single season. I’m already seeing white crowned sparrows only feet from the poplars collecting material for that second nest.
White Crowned Sparrow with Nest Lining
I am therefore asking Notre Dame School and the City of Vancouver to release the initial biologist’s report to the public and leave these ten remaining trees to fulfil their role as a nest site for one last season. Given that it’s really impossible to see who’s living up there, the birds deserve the benefit of the doubt this time.
How You Can Help
If you’d like to get in touch with your City Representatives — either on the BIG PICTURE matter of issuing cutting permits in nesting season and how nests are counted, or the SMALL PICTURE issue of saving the ten surviving poplars for a few more weeks, here is their contact information.
A slow healing foot and a clunky cast means: no running errands, no snowshoeing, no major home or studio projects, no trips, no February studio sale, not even very many crow walks around the neighbourhood.
But what there is, waiting for me every day, is the garden. And in the garden, the birds. I’ve discovered that between those two things, there’s more than enough to keep me occupied.
For one thing, I joined Project FeederWatch, run by Cornell University and Birds Canada, and started spending time each week counting the birds in the garden and sending the information to help track North American bird populations. Given that recent statistics have shown a terrible decline over the past few decades, it’s important to gather these numbers.
I’ve discovered already that there are two things that will clear a garden of birds in seconds. The first is a hawk in the neighbourhood; the second is a human being out there to count birds. They normally fly around me with not a care in the world, but as soon as I settle in with my FeederWatch App, it’s as if a pterodactyl has cast an ominous shadow. Still, I managed, over two days this week, to monitor 12 difference species in our small space.
Orange Crowned Warbler
While it seems at times that the wider world is going mad, we are lucky enough to have few square feet of our own in which to try and make a small difference. I’m researching how I can make our garden an even better refuge for birds than it is now. More native plants, a brush pile, more water sources … John Marzluff, bird scientist and author of Subirdia, recently appeared on the Joe Gardner podcast, chatting about bird population decline and ways in which gardeners can help.
Creatively, I’ve been working on a new series of portraits, all from bird photographs taken in our small garden. While I do like to travel and see birds, somehow it seems to me more miraculous when they make their way here, like feathered messengers.
So far, in the 2020 collection, I’m working on chickadees (black capped and chestnut backed), an orange crowed warbler, northern flicker, varied thrush, Steller’s jay, Anna’s hummingbird, spotted towhee, brown creeper and starling.
Chestnut Backed Chickadee
Black Capped Chickadee
Some of these images are works in process. My years old libraries of photographs of flowers, leaves, ancient walls, vintage fabric, lichen, cracked stone, forest landscapes and family letters are used like colours in a painter’s palette. Sometimes I think an image is done, but the next day something doesn’t look right and I start again.
Although I’m confined to home and garden, I feel as if I’m travelling as I go through decades of images looking for just the right scrap of texture or colour. It may be a suggestion of a lupin or a grass shadow. Ancient walls from a church in Wales appear in many of these new images. The barkcloth curtain on our back door which frames my daily view of the garden is usually in there somewhere.
As I work, they layers of the images remind me of people I’ve know, letters I’ve written and received, places I’ve lived, books I’ve read and music I’ve listened to. All of these things come together in how I see the world, so it seems appropriate that they should be part of my work. The bird portraits are my explanation of what the natural world means to me, now — and all of those memories are part of it.
Pretty much every day is a bird expo around here, in its own little way.
Mavis, positively piebald in her molting magnificence.
But last week I had the great privilege of being part of the Bird and Nature Expo at the Vancouver Convention Centre. It was an event that combined, for the first time, three important gatherings:
the 27th meeting of the International Ornithological Congress (IOC)
the first Vancouver International Bird Festival
the 8th Annual Artists For Conservation Festival
At my booth with Rue the Kenku (member of a mythical bird race) and Rob Butler, Chair of the Vancouver International Bird Festival.
The IOC is the oldest and most prestigious meeting of bird scientists, having started in 1884 in Vienna, Austria. They meet every four years, and this was the very first time the event took place on the Pacific Coast.
The Vancouver International Bird Festival is an expansion of the successful Vancouver Bird Weeks that have been enjoyed in the city since 2013. The event included talks, walks, tours and community art celebrating and spreading the love of birds. All of it came together in the Nature and Bird Expo.
Artists For Conservation (AFC) is an important group of artists dedicated to supporting the environment through their beautiful work. A highlight of the Nature and Bird Expo was their stunning Silent Skies mural — a hundred foot long mosaic in which many AFC artists collaborated to depict 678 endangered bird species.
So, having explained the nuts and bolts of what was going on, let me tell you a bit about the atmosphere.
As someone who spends a lot of solitary work time — thinking about, writing about, looking at, and photographing birds, there was something quite euphoric about being in a room with hundreds of people who are similarly obsessed. Many of the people I spoke to were scientists, rather than artists, but there is no divide between disciplines when it comes to sheer bird enthusiasm.
At the back of the huge space in which the Expo was held was an area where scientists who weren’t presenting their abstracts in a bigger venue could pin up a poster about their research and have half an hour or so to present it to anyone interested. That area was like a beehive, buzzing with ideas being shared, vibrating with energy.
I met bird scientists from Russia, Korea, South Africa, China, Columbia, Japan, Germany, France, the UK, all parts of Canada and the United States. One thing they had in common was — if you asked them what their area of research was, they positively lit up. I’m pretty sure the percentage of people who love their jobs was way above the general average.
The Expo showcased organizations that work with birds, rescue birds, rehab birds, publish books about birds, sell binoculars and cameras, the better to watch and photograph birds, and equipment to track birds. Really, you name it, if it had to do with birds, it was there. On Saturday, there was a kids’ bird feeder building workshop, paper bird puppets were made and the place was full of children working on various bird-related projects.
Wide-eyed Boobook Owl — native to Australia, but abandoned in Canada and rescued by OWL — an orphaned wildlife rescue association, specializing in raptors since 1985. Mr. Boobook was at the Expo with OWL to meet and greet the public during the week.
Handsome Harris Hawk, brought to the Expo by The Raptors, a group of biologists dedicated to educating the public about birds of prey, working to conserve them, and to using falconry as a natural method of wildlife management.
And the bird-inspired art was, well … inspiring.
My neighbour was jewellery Joanna Lovett Sterling who makes gorgeous jewellery with thoughtful bird-sparked stories. I’m not sure how it’s possible that we both live in Vancouver and hadn’t met until then, we have so much in common. We did a a lot of laughing over the five days we were there.
In the wider art world, there were breath-taking bird paintings, drawings and sculptures and even intricately carved bird eggs.
Birds on Parade
I was sorry to have missed the Bird Parade that opened the event. We had visitors from the UK and we couldn’t quite coordinate things to get downtown in time — but we did manage to get to the Still Creek Roost that night, so they did witness a bird parade of a different sort.
Happily, some of the stilt walkers came by the Expo later in the week and I did meet the American Crow.
One of the really interesting things about last week’s event was the variety of ways in which people shared their love of all things avian. Two costume artists (one from Seattle, the other from New York) were some of the most dynamic.
You can read more about the amazing work of H. “Rah” Esdaile (@rah-bop) and Jennifer Miller (@nambroth) on the IOC web site at Artist Showcase (scroll down to Bird Costumes.) The costumes they made were spectacularly detailed, and their movements stunningly bird-like. Their presence brought an electric energy and everyone was thrilled to have their photograph taken with them. It was as if “Bird Elvis” was in the building!
Costumes by Jennifer Miller, with Jennifer and her husband Brian as a bearded vulture (Lammergeier) and a endangered Philippine eagle. Note excited people in the back, reviewing photos taken with the bird people.
Bird artist, Sarah Hammond, surrounded by giant birds.
Rue, member of the mythical Kenku bird race. Of course, she had many corvid qualities, so I was particularly star struck!
Some of the amazing detail in Rah-Bop’s amazing costume design — Rue’s belt of mysterious collected treasures.
One last amazing detail in Rue’s costume. The eyes can close to allow a great range of bird expressions!
Finally, for those of you who were worried about the small, confused Expo attendee shown below, (many people wondered about his fate after I posted him on Instagram and Twitter) rest easy. His story has a happy ending. He did not run into the Harris Hawk, but was reunited with the pigeon delegation in the great outdoors.
Well, the Expo, Congress and Festivals are over now, but my head is full of great memories and happy thoughts about the wonderful people I met. I feel as if the world is a better place, just knowing they’re all out there doing their various bird-focused work.
Back now, to my owl small Nature and Bird Expo. A new one each day when I take my morning walk around the neighbourhood.