Category Archives: Non-human Neighbours

Hallelujah

trout lilies in bloom
trout lilies in bloom

I am alive, I swear it. For proof I offer photographs of trout lilies taken on a recent walk, which would be difficult to do if I were posting from beyond the grave.

Those of you who know me will know how inordinately happy I was to find these, and in profusion too, all over the floor of a local woodlot. To me, the blooming of the first trout lilies is the best and surest sign that spring is really here; plus, they’re pretty.

Trout lilies fascinate me. They can propogate either reproductively or through runners. For the first two years, all a new trout lily does is grow a root; in the third year, a single small brown-and-green splotchy leaf will appear aboveground.

trout lilies in progress
trout lilies in progress

A couple years after that, it’ll manage to grow two leaves; around year seven or eight, the trout lily will produce its gorgeous yellow flower. Even in the best sites, only about 35% of trout lilies will be of flowering age at any given time. All of which is to say that while there is nothing illegal about picking trout lilies, it’s not a spectacular idea since it won’t be replaced for at least seven years.

Rumour has it that trout lilies have emetic properties and were used by First Nations as a contraceptive. They are also, apparently, edible–but for god’s sake, please don’t.

flowering trout lily, April 2009
flowering trout lily, April 2009

They grow thickest and soonest at the base of substantial tree trunks because the microclimate is a bit warmer, so if you’re hunting for trout lily, look at the base of old trees (or on gentle sun-facing slopes). Trout lilies like moist, relatively open hardwood forests with plenty of leaf litter; they’ll bloom in the GTA from about mid-April through part of May (so if you want to see them, get out there in the next two or three weeks). Because they are so fragile–taking so long to grow and having such specific site requirements–they are easily out-competed in more open environments by tougher and more vigorous annual flowers. In the shade of deciduous trees and on ground perpetually carpeted by decomposing leaves, they can grow and flower–but only until the trees bud and leaf, at which point the shade kills them off.

They look so fragile and delicate, but it is that very fragility which enables them to thrive in environments where stronger plants can’t grow.

~~~~~

I wasn’t able to find any art or folklore related to the trout lily, but if any of you know of some, let me know and I’ll add it. Otherwise, I’ll keep looking.

April is the cruelest month (but it has butterflies)

Mourning Cloak
Mourning Cloak

Or will be, at any rate: I may have over-committed myself. I have a couple of book reviews and a post about Horton Hears a Who in the works, but they’re going to take more than five minutes to get up–so–in the meantime, here is another harbinger of spring: the Mourning Cloak butterfly.

Mourning Cloaks have a broad range which includes the GTA, and are one of the few butterflies that overwinter: they find a crack of bark or other warm spot and enter a state of cryogenic suspension when winter begins, then thaw and return to life in the spring. Because of this, they are one of our longer-lived species, living nine to ten months on average. Unlike many other butterflies, they don’t feed from flowers but from tree sap, rotting fruit and mud puddles–nice, eh?–one reason it is able to survive the winter and emerge in early spring, before anything is blooming.

Besides sleeping through most of the winter, it can also estivate (hibernate) during summer hot spells, so you may not see mourning cloaks around during the hottest season.

They were all over the path by Newtonbrook Creek last Friday; this one kept divebombing my camera as I tried to take its picture.

Robin Red-Breast

458px-american_robinIn one native folktale, Robin and Chickadee chased Bear through the heavens (as stars), armed with bows and arrows. Robin struck the killing shot, and was spattered with Bear’s blood. He managed to shake off most of it; only his breast remained red. The rest of it was cast into the red autumn leaves of the maple tree.

But fall is a whole six months off right now, mercifully, and we have summer and spring first, as heralded by Robin’s bear-blood spattered chest.

Robins are, if you can believe it, not actually robins. Early settlers to North American thought they looked like English robins and so gave them the name, but the American robin is actually a thrush. They eat small insects, nuts and berries, and are one of the first birds to return to their northern ranges and begin breeding in the spring. Sometimes, a female robin will build and incubate a second nest of eggs while the first nest is still maturing; in those cases, the father will take over the duties of the first nest until they become independent.

Last week I saw my first red-breasted robin of spring; in a couple of weeks the nesting will begin, and then I’ll keep my eyes open for the first fragile pale blue shell fragments. In the meantime, robins have been a theme of North American poets and storytellers since the settlers first landed, like Emily Dickinson’s poem 348:

I dreaded that first Robin, so,
But He is mastered, now,
I’m some accustomed to Him grown,
He hurts a little, though

I thought if I could only live
Till that first Shout got by
Not all Pianos in the Woods
Had power to mangle me

I dared not meet the Daffodils
For fear their Yellow Gown
Would pierce me with a fashion
So foreign to my own

I wished the Grass would hurry
So when ’twas time to see
He’d be too tall, the tallest one
Could stretch to look at me

I could not bear the Bees should come,
I wished they’d stay away
In those dim countries where they go,
What word had they, for me?

They’re here, though; not a creature failed
No Blossom stayed away
In gentle deference to me
The Queen of Calvary

Each one salutes me, as he goes,
And I, my childish Plumes,
Lift, in bereaved acknowledgement
Of their unthinking Drums

According to Elizabeth Kolbert’s book Field Notes from a Catastrophe, in the last few years, thanks to climate change, robins have started migrating far enough north to encounter native populations who have never seen them before, and have no name for it. Robin might once have chased Bear through the skies, but he is now wandering a little too far from home.

Poor Coyotl's all played out

Pennsylvania Game Commission photo
Billie Cromwelll, Pennsylvania Game Commission photo

On Wednesday, Frances and I went shopping for a new pair of spring pyjamas, in the course of which we naturally found a lovely new spring dress and a matching pair of spring shoes; we were heading home on the 401 when, out the right-hand passenger window, I saw something well-camoflauged loping along the side of the highway. “Frances, look! A coyote!”

“Awwww,” she said. “Isn’t it cute?”

As it happens, I do think coyotes are cute–even beautiful–with their bushy tails, large alert ears, thick pelts and fearless strides. There aren’t many predators you will find scoping out the offerings on Canada’s busiest highway, in full view of thousands of humans. It also has a terrible reputation, thanks largely to its habit of preying on livestock animals, and cemented in popular imagination with Wile E. Coyote’s relentless and bumbling pursuit of the Roadrunner; but this has shifted somewhat in recent years with farmers’ recognition of the role coyotes play in rodent and pest control.

Coyotes, along with squirrels, raccoons and rodents, have benefited enormously from human development of North America: they are one of the few species whose range is expanding. As an animal of edge habitats (where, say, field meets forest, or forest meets stream), the fragmentation of Canada’s vast forests proved a bonanza. That, along with the elimination of wolves from much of the continent (who are among coyotes’ top competitors for prey) may explain why I found one so comfortably strolling through the urban heart of the province. Coyotes are smart, bold, persistent predators who use their signature calls to communicate with each other and who like to play; they’ve got more in common with Fido than you might want to know.

Many previously despised wildlife species are enjoying a resurgence of respect today, probably because, in the midst of the sixth great extinction event on earth and one caused entirely by human activity, it is becoming so rare and so removed from our daily experience. So coyotes aren’t alone in having escaped from the ranks of “vicious pest,” but their rise to the status of “culture hero” may be unique. Coyote-the-Trickster, a god of the first nations similar to Scandinavia’s Loki or the Pan of the ancient world, is an enormously popular character in urban fantasy, and since fantasy itself is one of our time’s most popular genres you might be more familiar with his fantastic rather than his environmental incarnations. (See Charles de Lint’s Someplace to be Flying for a Canadian example–or just read it because it’s a good book.) Even Wile E. Coyote is argued to be a manifestation of the old Trickster myth in spoof form.

Coyote

by Charles de Lint

Coyote’s

all used up now,

some say.

His mystery has

been diminished

by too much attention:

a hundred times a hundred

times a hundred times over

he’s sold as a memory

to tourists—

snout pointing moonward,

howl in throat;

his image has become

quick shorthand

to the apperception

of Trickster as myth

and every would-be shaman,

born of book

or new age guru,

is on a first name basis with him.

~~~~~

(read the rest at the link)

Poor Coyote, destined to be a blank form on which humans project whatever they want whether good or bad. Trickster God to vicious pest to literary icon with barely a rest at mammal in between.

Black Squirrels

black squirrel
I haven’t been posting much lately, and I have no excuse except for my daughter’s pneumonia and a really wicked cold for me. Whew. I think they’re finally both over or on the way out, so let’s see if I can write something fascinating before the next bout sets in:

Of all the wild critters universally beloved by children, the one you have the greatest chance of seeing in the winter time is the squirrel. They run, they play, they chatter, they stand adorably on their hind paws with their front paws held in front of their bellies like small furry beggars. They’re small and easily won over with a couple of peanuts. They’re also, like chickadees, a lot tougher than they look, remaining active and outdoors throughout a Canadian winter. This might have something to do with all that black fur.

Until I met (via the internet) folks from various parts of the western and southern States, it never occurred to me that black squirrels might be unusual. Around here I’d say nine out of every ten squirrels are black and most of the remaining ones are grey; both belong to the same species, the Eastern Grey Squirrel.* So our black squirrels are actually grey squirrels, but they’re considered a significant enough variation to have their own name: melanized grey squirrels. Black squirrels are most common in the northern parts of their range, basically throughout eastern and central Canada. Why the black fur? While no one knows for sure, in the 1970s scientists were able to show that black squirrels conserved significantly more heat in the wintertime than grey squirrels did.

Unlike larger mammals, they don’t need large patches of undisturbed habitat and they are, patently, not afraid of people (or at least not for long–studies demonstrate that a squirrel’s response to the approach of humans will depend on the amount of human activity in that neighbourhood); they flourish in city parks and backyards. Squirrels also lie, which might help them survive their larger primate neighbours: when in the presence of conspecifics (relatives and other squirrels) or humans digging around in their food-hiding spots, squirrels dig and fill holes without food in them to frustrate any attempts at finding their food caches. Not bad for an animal with a brain smaller than a pea. And thanks to all the nuts they find, bury and then forget about, they plant a lot of trees.

Squirrels are also the subject of one of my favourite poems, by Canadian poet Ann Carson in her book Men in the Off Hours:

New Rule

A New Year’s white morning of hard new ice.
High on the frozen branches I saw a squirrel jump and skid.
Is this scary? he seemed to say and glanced

down at me, clutching his branch as it bobbed
in stiff recoil–or is it just that everything sounds wrong today?
The branches

clinked.
He wiped his small cold lips with one hand.
Do you fear the same things as

I fear? I countered, looking up.
His empire of branches slid against the air.
The night of hooks?

The man blade left open on the stair?
Not enough spin on it, said my true love
when he left in our fifth year.

The squirrel bounced down a branch
and caught a peg of tears.
The way to hold on is

afterwords
so
clear.

~~~~~

*If you’re interested in grey squirrels, there’s a wealth of information available at this link, and anyone looking for information on any wildlife species in Canada should make the Hinterland Who’s Who their first stop.

References:

Cooper, Christopher A, Allison J. Neff, David P. Poon & Gregory R. Smith. “Behavioral Responses of Eastern Gray Squirrels in Suburban Habitats Differing in Human Activity Levels.” Northeastern Naturalist, 15(4): 619-625.

Innes, S. and D.M. Lavigne. “Comparative energetics of coat colour polymorphs in the eastern grey squirrel, Sciurus carolinensis.” Canadian Journal of Zoology (57): 585-592.

Steele, Michael A et al. “Cache protection strategies of a scatter-hoarding rodent: do tree squirrels engage in behavrioural deception?” Animal Behaviour, 2008 (75): 705-714.

Chickadee-dee-dee

dsc_00120001-21

As it turns out, the friendly suggestion of emailing so-and-so for directions was less of a friendly suggestion and more of a base requirement, which makes me wonder why the directions weren’t just included with the volunteer package. In any case, we got to the right address at what I thought was the right time only to find that we were distinctly not in the right place, and had no idea what to do about it.

Instead of participating in an official bird count, therefore, we walked through the winter woods and counted a few birds on our own. And it was lovely. Cold. Very cold. But lovely. Heaps of pristine white snow crossed by those livid blue shadows you only get in winter. I’ll have to ask all my questions next year, along with the new one: Why on earth would you not include full directions with the volunteer package?

~~~~~

The one bird we heard most was the black-capped chickadee*, that improbably tiny ball of hollow bones and fluff. Chickadees are a species of titmouse, meaning a small bird, and are utterly unprepossessing: grey, black, brown, white. No impressive crests, no fan-shaped tails, no glorious songs. Not as famous as Raven or Coyote in native folklore. One Cherokee legend has it nick-named the Truth Teller for helping a tribe kill Spearfinger, a monster who would in the guise of a grandmother or favourite aunt slay children to eat their livers, but even its stories are not impressive enough to have made a mark on our modern consciousness. Only 12-15 cm (4-6″) from the tip of its bill to the tip of its tail.

But it will live outdoors through a Canadian winter.

It’s emblematic of a lot of the less-showy Canadian wildlife. It’s small. It doesn’t look like much; it’s hard to turn it into an award-winning photograph for National Geographic Magazine. It looks fragile enough to be knocked out by a toothpick. But it survives.

For that alone, if nothing else, it would be my favourite bird. I also happen to think it’s adorable.

~~~~~

* Truth-telling, in honour of the chickadee: I am pretty sure that’s what we heard. I’m not an expert on birds by any means, but I think the call was the chickadee-dee-dee for which the bird was named. Finding one for a positive id on the top of a 20-40 ft dense evergreen was too much for Frances’s binoculars, however.