Category Archives: Non-human Neighbours

my open-window policy

This isn't my house, no, but you get the idea

I have been thinking, lately, about weeding my driveway.

It is paved, yes; and apparently the impermeability of asphalt has been vastly overstated, as there are weeds growing through the cracks all over the bloody thing. Oddly, I don’t want to weed it. I like it. All of those supposedly fragile bits of green cracking their way right up through our technological magnificence. Take that! they say. Ha! Some Masters of the Universe you turned out to be.

I have been thinking about raccoons, too.

We have no garage; therefore, the garbage is kept outside; therefore, raccoons eat it. This does not philosophically bother me. After all, simply by putting something in the garbage, I’ve declared it to be a useless thing of no further value to anyone, and as such, I’d rather it find a good home in the warm belly of a living creature than sit, unrotting, in a landfill for 500 years. That this places me outside of mainstream North American opinion I am well aware. I don’t like the mess, but honestly, how can I complain? We came in, chopped their homes to the ground, and now we expect them to slink away quietly like friendly and cooperative wildlife and make a home for themselves somewhere we don’t have to be inconvenienced by the needs we prevent them otherwise from filling. I say, if our occupied human communities showed this grit … actually, when our occupied human communities show this grit, we call them terrorists and blow them up. In any case, my sympathies are firmly with the raccoons.

Which doesn’t mean I enjoy scraping rotting food off of the patio stones once a week, so I caved eventually and found a heavy rock to place on the lid. The raccoons, clever devils, chewed a hole near the bottom of the plastic garbage can and spilled it all over the patio stones anyway.

Frances says that raccoons are “messy little composers” and that if she were a raccoon, she would do the considerate thing and take away what she’d like to eat in a garbage bag, and eat it neatly after climbing through the crack in the front steps where we suspect the raccoons hide out in poor weather. That would be very much like a Frances-raccoon, but it’s not like the actual raccoons, who make a mess.

I admire them. They’ve made a life for themselves in hostile surroundings, and proven to be clever and much tougher than we are.

My home was never going to be separate from nature anyway. There’s bugs in the walls, eh? Ants, spiders, millipedes. Let them stay. Why not? There’s air–air’s nature, right?–there’s water, and water’s definitely nature, even chlorinated and filtered. There’s Frances’s little pots of half-starved seedlings on the windowsill. There’s the wood beams in the walls–that’s nature–the steel posts–nature too. Gypsum, concrete, cotton; nature, nature, nature. And, of course, there are the warm animal bodies themselves: two guinea pigs, two primates. And apparently a couple of raccoons eating silently under the front steps.

I am a sorry excuse for a suburbanite. I like my civilization happily permeable, hopelessly intermixed with nature–because the suburbs are nature, just mangled to within a bare millimetre of their lives. I like to think of the human nature of my little home and the non-human nature of its surroundings knotted together like the warp and woof of a woven fabric.

I’m not going to keep non-human nature out of ‘my space’ no matter how hard I try, so why not welcome it in?

babies are always cute

Cute!

On the way home from Frances’s school last Monday–a walk which is by the way all of five minutes and 1 1/2 blocks long–she stopped, suddenly. “Mummy, look!”

I looked, and saw four baby skunks gamboling on the neighbour’s lawn, composed of equal parts grass and clover.

Four cuter little fluffballs you never have seen. Each was the size of a small kitten, fluffy black and white fur bristling out all over, scampering and digging in the dirt. Smaller than squirrels, cuter than chipmunks. Who knew?

According to the Hinterland Who’s Who, skunks are normally born in March or April, so these little guys might be as much as two months old–the typical time for weaning. Where was Mum? No idea. We didn’t see a peep of her.

We saw one particularly tiny baby skunk whose fur was mostly black, with a white tip on his bushy black tail. “The runts are always the cutest,” said Frances, and I had to agree. For the fifteen or twenty minutes we sat and admired them, other neighbours joined and left as well, taking their own pictures and reminiscing about the baby skunks they’d known and loved as pets. It’s one of the things we love about Dundas: not only are we surrounded by natural areas and not only does wildlife commonly live in the town, but most of the people are there because they also value these things. Everyone wanted to stop and love the baby skunks.

Frances, of course, wanted to adopt one.

At the same time, though, I wondered how this would have been seen here, even a hundred years ago, these little baby skunks on the lawn. I have to think it would have been a much more common sight. Imagine, a hundred years ago, flocks of birds that covered the sky, vast forests, wildlife everywhere of every kind and description–would they have noticed our baby skunks, and if they had, would they have stopped and stared? Would have sat down to watch them? Would it have been even remotely remarkable?

How much have we lost?

Nearby Nature: wildlife vet

Frances wants to be a wildlife vet when she grows up.

Until recently, it was just plain vet, from her lifelong fascination with animals of all kinds. You can imagine how excited she was when I told her that “wildlife vet” is a real job, not just some pie-in-the-sky fantasy she dreamed up.

On the weekend, she got to practice when a baby bird got itself tangled up in our thorny rosebush.

A cluster of little girls gathered at my back as I carefully cut out the rose branches keeping the little bird pinned, and carried it out to freedom, where it promptly began hopping towards the road. “Oh no, little bird,” I said, heading it off and picking it up. “Should we take it into the backyard, where it will be safe?”

“Yes!” chorused the girls.

I put it down on a rock in the back garden–where I took the picture–and then, probably panicking at the aggressively nurturing group of girls surrounding it, it hopped right into the poppy garden, and we didn’t see it again. Its almost-mothers, bereft to a one, spent a few hours carefully listening, calling, peeking through the poppy stems, and reading through my bird field guide in hopes of luring it out and caring for it again. What disappointed them most, I believe, was that the bird wasn’t properly injured and they couldn’t tuck it into a homemade nest and coo over it for a couple of weeks. (Lucky bird.)

But it’s cute, eh? And, as Frances joyfully reminded all of her friends and her father for at least 24 hours, she got to be a wildlife vet!

~~~~~

Outdoor adventures have changed from Frances’s early years, as our skull walk also demonstrated. The world is a big, exciting place to be explored, and at the same time a big, terrifying place to be protected from. When she was a baby or toddler or even kindergartener, we’d say, “Look!” and she’d look. Often at what we pointed to–the mountain range, the cactus, the elephant, the big tree with the oddly shaped branches–but just as often she’d look at the squirrel or seagull or pebble or something else closer to hand and more accessible. Looking seemed perfectly satisfactory. Now she explores and interacts; nature is something to put in her hands, wrestle with, clamber over. It’s a wonderful phase, though somewhat exhausting.

After spending last weekend with The Nature Principle, I’ve spent this week reading through the first half of Wild Play: Parenting Adventures in the Great Outdoors, by David Sobel (he of ecophobia fame). He discusses the different phases of children’s adventures outdoors quite extensively. Unlike my other kids-and-nature books, it’s more memoir and less manual. I expect to like the second half as much as I liked the first–in which case, you can expect to see a glowing review here in the next few weeks.

Near IS the New Far (or: I Told You So)

bloodroot

I became very afraid last weekend about the potential apocalypse. There I was, going about my regular business, when I saw this giant yellow flaming ball in the sky. Then I remembered that it was something called the sun, and usually heralded a good day to spend outside. I obliged.

Mostly this consisted of yard work–lawn mowing, hedge trimming, and weed pulling–speaking of which, do not, for the love of god, plant a garden of ground-climbing roses. They grow like weeds, take over the lawn and the sidewalk, and it is impossible to weed them without skinning your forearms. I’ve decided more or less officially to let half of the backyard grow in wild and leave it unmowed, and claim this is for the good of the neighbourhood birds and rabbits. You can judge the honestly of this claim for yourself. At any rate, it does make my life a bit easier.

But mostly–Dear Readers, I went to the forest. And it was green! There were things growing. Pretty things, just like spring had actually begun and winter was really truly over. Just in time for summer, in fact, as June starts this week, but whatever. There were trout lilies, trilliums, and the Royal Botanical Gardens’ magnolia glade in full bloom. Yellow warblers and red-winged blackbirds, green and leopard and tree frogs, cacophonies of spring peepers at dusk.

It was, in every way, perfect, except that Frances was at her Dad’s house all weekend so I didn’t get to see her geeking out over all the cool frogs.

It was also, in every way, a perfect illustration of the central thesis of Richard Louv’s recent The Nature Principle, which extends the argument of his prior Last Child in the Woods to society at large, and about time. His point? That you, your longevity, your mood, your relationships, your physical strength, your family, your neighbourhood, your community, the world at large, and the non-human world as well, all stand to benefit from a reconnection between us and our green kin and neighbours. An important book that deserves to be widely read and will almost certainly be ignored in favour of Apple’s latest profit statements, it made me dizzyingly happy. I read it in snippets between long stretches outside and felt both smugly self-righteous and determined to spend that much more time outdoors. Even in winter (perish the thought) since apparently winter walks provide just as much benefit as summer walks do, only people don’t enjoy them as much.

Bummer. I’ve lost my excuse to stay inside in January.

At any rate: on the assumption that any readers of my little blog are likely to be pro-green and well-disposed to the occasional out-of-doors afternoon, pick it up. You will have to imagine how it thrilled me to see and read “Near is the New Far,” seeing as it’s only what I’ve been saying to anyone who will listen for the past ten years, which isn’t many people, except now I can add “and Richard Louv agrees with me, so there!”

~~~~~

I want to write more here, and soon, and not just because Louv filled my head with a lot of green ideas, either. I miss it. But between coordinating field visits for frog-counting and debating the merits of various methods of ensuring soil visibility for archaeological surveys, writing Natural Heritage pieces for Heritage Toronto, raising a daughter, maintaining a house, reading, sewing, running, and sleeping a couple times a week, this has been the one thing that gets dropped. That should change, soon.

If you see me here again in June, then it has changed. Otherwise, not so much.

Mother’s Day Skull Walk

Ah, Mother’s Day. A leisurely sleep-in, to be woken at a civilized hour by an adorable jammie-clad child bearing a pancake breakfast on a tray, with Dad clearing up heroically in the kitchen. Then, flowers! A much-cherished homemade gift from the adorable, small child, mis-spellings intact. According to the television commercials, a meal later on at a restaurant is also de rigeur, and maybe jewelery, and certainly no housework.

I did get much-cherished homemade gifts from the adorable small child, all low on capital outlay but high on capital thoughts. And a very nice boy did stop in with flowers in the afternoon. We even bought KFC for dinner and ate it on paper plates so I would neither have to eat nor clean (I acknowledge that it’s not the most environmentally ethical thing but, you know what? It’s one day a year).

On the other hand there was laundry and groceries and skulls.

Umm, yes. Skulls.

Why yes, this IS a dead animal after it's been thoroughly cleared out by carnivores, scavengers and insects

It happened like this: Frances and I wanted to see if we could find frogs and tadpoles in a very large pond near our house, and one of Frances’s little friends decided to come along. Frances and I wore our rainboots and the friend wore mudshoes and I had my camera and off we went.

We got to the pond all right, but once there found the water too silty and dark to see if anything was in it. No frogs along the shore. Some fish jumping in the water. Lots of red-winged blackbirds, some robins, a hawk of some kind, and a lot of walking around the pond hoping for frogs and tadpoles. And then, what’s this? Teeth and an eye socket coming out of the ground?

“Hey Frances,” I said. “Come and see!”

Wouldn’t you know it, but these two seven-year-old girls thought a buried skull was THE MOST COOL THING EVER and demanded that I dig it out and clean it off. (Done.) And of course we had to put it in my backpack so we could bring it home. (Done.) Then since Frances had one her friend had to have one too–and after much scouting about, we’d found a bunch of leg bones, a duck skull (bill attached) and foot, and a couple of carnivore skulls of some kind, one of which was fairly putrid and still attached to whatever it used to be, half-buried in muck. The friend got her skull, though–a different one–and I got to be the cool mom who goes for a nature walk with the neighbourhood kids and brings them back a bunch of dead animals for their parents to pretend to be impressed with.

I’ve been told a bit of peroxide will clean ’em up right pretty. In the meantime, I wouldn’t trade my Mother’s Day for any other, even if it did include less relaxation and more body parts than advertised.

New Neighbours

And how often do you suppose this happened in Toronto?

fawn near Dundas Valley Conservation Area

Just hanging out on the path near the local park along with mom and a few aunts. They might be skittish, but they’re not at all afraid of humans.

dinnertime

As you can see.

Beautiful, aren’t they?

However, I am once again disappointed in my fellow humans, many of whom were running or cycling through in groups and somehow failed to notice the large herbivores on the paths directly in front of them. Talk about your invisible gorillas. If you just open your eyes and pay attention, there is always something worth seeing.

Childhood should involve catching frogs

In this case, green frogs and cricket frogs, with a net.

I took this at the pond where the Newtonbrook Creek trail meets up with the main East Don Parkland path. Juvenile frogs stick their wee heads out of the water like slightly oversized bubbles by the dozens. In one shot taken Saturday afternoon, I counted twenty frogs. Twenty!

Course now I can’t find them all again. See how many you count.

look at them all!

These are green frogs, identified by the double ridge down their backs, the pale green to dark greenish-brown colouring with spots, bands on the legs, bright green mouth, and mating call that sounds like someone badly plucking an out-of-tune banjo. Males have eardrums bigger than their eyes, like this one:

In which you can also see my reflection.

If you want to see green frogs galore, go right now to that pond and stare. At first all you will see is murky water with bubbles and algae and plants floating on top. Keep staring, and soon you will see that some of those little bubbles and plants have a pair of small golden eyes.

The big ones can’t be missed.

We also saw this lovely brownsnake, which might not a word you personally would apply to the brownsnake, but it was small and slithered in exactly the way a snake should. Brownsnakes, apparently, live in large numbers in suburban and even urban habitats, but are reclusive and quite small (this one was about 20″ long) so they are very rarely seen. This one certainly did not appreciate being photographed; several times it lunged at the camera lens, baring its teeth. Poor thing.

I am hip-deep in wind farm studies and the last of the packing, or I would offer you some more science to go with the photography. Consider this (another) IOU.

in lieu of an actual post, please accept this damselfly

I am so, so, so close to being done my Theory of Everything post. But–well, close isn’t done.

In the meantime–hey, look! Pretty.

It’s a bluet. These are the ones that beat their wings so fast they look like tiny blue wands being waved by invisible elfin sorcerors. Closely related to dragonflies, but capable of folding their wings when at rest and with eyes on either side of their head instead of joining in the middle.

four-spotted skimmer

Seen at the pond near Newtonbrook Creek where it meets up with the East Don River, last weekend, posing nicely for the camera. It would swoop away, put on an aerial show over the water, then swoop back and patiently bask on a twig while I took photos–in some cases, from less than an inch away. I am easily pleased, so I thought this was pretty exciting.

Apparently, this perching behaviour means it was likely a male.

What I loved about it, besides its unnatural cooperation, was the jewel-like colour and sheen of the amber mid-section and the delicate traceries on the irredescent wings, and if you’re thinking that’s a lot of high-fallutin’ language for a bug, well, I don’t care. It’s beautiful.

The four-spotted skimmer is the state insect of Alaska. I didn’t know that states had insects, but there you go.

It’s a common dragonfly in Ontario, and lives near ponds and slow-moving streams. Since they don’t tolerate polluted water well, dragonflies are a good indicator of a healthy wetland. They’re carnivorous and eat other insects, particularly mosquitoes.

This page from the Ottawa Field Naturalists’ Club and the Fletcher Wildlife Garden has too much cool information about dragonflies for words, such as:

  • dragonflies enjoy 360-degree vision
  • they have survived nearly unchanged for over 300,000,000 years–before dinosaurs evolved.
  • they can fly forwards and backwards and mate in mid-air by forming heart-shaped flying wheels.

Apparently dragonflies have not been a cool topic of science research for the past few decades because Google Scholar had almost nothing to tell me about them. Poo, I say. Clearly I will have to get myself a field guide or a research book or two to answer questions such as, how did their development evolve? That long slog in the pond eating everything that comes by, only to wander out on dry land and split in half to emerge as a flying insect. Where did that come from?

Not that it matters, I suppose, considering how beautiful they are, and given that they seem likely to last another 300,000,000 million years, outliving by far whatever disasters we may throw at the planet in our own short tenure.

Song Sparrows

No, it’s not the most dramatic or exciting bird. It’s not endangered, it doesn’t have an exciting life history, and climate change may make it a more frequent visitor for those of us on the northern boundaries of its wintering range. But it is adorable and it does have a lovely song, which you can listen to at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology site.

Pretty, no?

This one is trolling for dates down at the pond near Newtonbrook Creek in the East Don Parkland. He let me get pretty close before heading into the underbrush.

The song sparrow varies quite a bit in appearance and size across its considerable range, but remains brown and streaky with a whitish underside and often a brown mark in the centre of its chest. Its song, too, varies from place to place, and can be used to distinguish not only identity but also family (since the songs are learned, and adult song sparrows tend to nest where they learned their songs as chicks). Male song sparrows recognize the songs of their neighbours and sing differently to birds they know than birds they don’t. They like to eat weed seeds and insects, so be glad if you’ve got some around–they’re eating what you want to get rid of.

Male song sparrows vary their response to other male song sparrows depending on their intent: early in the season, when they are trying to establish and defend a territory, they will respond to another male with the identical song (“type match”), but later in the season when they’re feeling a bit more confident they will instead reply with a different song shared by the neighbouring sparrow (“repertoire matching”). That’s pretty sophisticated behaviour for a passerine. Not to mention a much more pleasing way of dealing with territoriality than the horn-honking and fist-shaking common to our species. Apparently the female song sparrows agree; they prefer male song sparrows with larger repertoires, and not for any shallow status-seeking reasons, oh no: male song sparrows with larger repertoires are able to communicate better with their neighbours!

And they say we can learn nothing from the animals.

~~~~~

My heartfelt apologies to any dedicated ornithologists in the audience for my blatant anthropomorphism. The temptation was too great.