Sticky tongues and feather nose-plugs: Interview with a Downy Woodpecker

The Downy Woodpecker is the smallest woodpecker in Canada. Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar. Downy Woodpecker. CC.

The Downy Woodpecker is the smallest woodpecker in Canada. Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar. Downy Woodpecker. CC.

Me: Hey there, can I speak with you for a moment?

Downy woodpecker: Aaah! You scared me with your super-loud voice. I spend my time listening to insects crawling around in wood, remember?

Me: Sorry, I’ll whisper instead.

D: Much appreciated.

M: How do you get the bugs out of the tree once you find them?

D: I have a long, sticky, barbed tongue, kind of like a chameleon. After I drill a hole in a tree, I’ll shoot my tongue inside to scoop up the insects. When I’m not using it my tongue sits nestled around the back of my head between the skull and skin.

M: That’s kind of weird. Do you get headaches from hammering trees all day?

D: Nope. We have thick skulls and neck muscles to keep our brains, such as they are, un-addled.

M: I see that you’re currently drilling holes in thin, tiny branches. Wouldn’t you be better off looking on the trunk, where most of the other woodpeckers hang out?

D: Why would I follow the crowd? As the smallest of the 13 woodpecker species in Canada, I can find food where no one else can. I can make holes in branches less than 10cm in circumference, which gives me a lot more options than birds with bigger beaks and gangly bodies. Small is beautiful, if you ask me.

M: Maybe so, but small also means more things can eat you.

D: Touché. Small birds of prey like hawks and Kestrels are our main enemies. They like to snag us while we’re flying, but if we’re on a tree we’re usually safe. If something scary comes along we’ll use the branch as a shield, darting to the other side like squirrels do.

M: Aren’t you damaging the trees by making all those holes?

D: Maybe a little bit, but we’re also eating the pesky insects that damage the tree’s insides. Wood boring beetles that kill trees? We got those. We also eat insects that spread diseases like Dutch elm disease. Anyway, we don’t usually drill holes in perfectly healthy trees. We prefer diseased, dying or rotting trees.

M: Why are you called the “Downy” woodpecker? Were you named after the toilet paper?

D: Why would you even think that? Downy refers to the beautiful strip of soft white feathers down my back. They set off the little red pompom on my head wonderfully, don’t you think?

M: Um, sure. How’s the winter treating you so far? You don’t migrate, right?

D: That’s correct. We’re found all over Canada except in the far North. If there isn’t enough food in our northern Alberta and Ontario range we’ll move south, but generally we stay put.

M: Do you have a good stash of food to keep you through the winter?

D: Stashing food? Please. That’s just lazy. Unlike some birds like chickadees, we don’t hide food. There’s tons of sleepy insects hiding under tree bark to keep us full all winter.

M: Are insects the only thing you eat?

D: They’re about three quarters of our diet, but I won’t say no to fruit.

M: What’s in store for this spring?

D: Oh, it makes my head hurt just thinking about it.

M: Why’s that?

D: I’m responsible for hollowing out the nest each year. That’s two to three weeks with my head stuck in a 20-30cm hole in a tree. Thank goodness I have feathers over my nostrils to keep out the sawdust. Otherwise I’d be sneezing for months!

M: I want to sneeze just thinking about it. Does your wife help make the nest too?

D: Not really. She claims she’s ‘protecting our territory’ while I have my head in the tree. Her job is to chase other woodpeckers away from our prime nesting site. I say she’s just trying to avoid the grunt work. Sometimes she has the nerve to change her mind about the nest mid-drill, and guess who has to start another hole!

M: That does sound trying.

D: Tell me about it! I’ll drill non-stop for 20 minutes at a time, throwing the lose chips over my shoulder. I’m so tired at the end of the day that I usually sleep in the unfinished nest.

M: Does your mate join you for some cuddling?

D: Oh no. She needs her own space. Even when it isn’t breeding season, we have our own sleeping holes. Anyways, she snores, so I prefer sleeping alone.

M: What’s it like when the babies show up?

D: We’ll take turn guarding the doorway of the nest. The opening is so narrow that most predators like squirrels can’t get into it, but snakes are more than happy to sneak in and snatch a baby. Our chisel-like beaks are pretty good at making them change their minds.

Thankfully, the kids grow up fast, by 17-18 days they’re full grown. Then they crawl up the cavity wall and peek out. At this point they are eating so much that we have to bring them meals every three minutes. Eventually my wife and I get fed up and start bringing less food. This encourages them to lean out of the nest wondering where the heck we are with the next grub, and often they fall out and fly.

M: Why do you bang on metal lamp posts and wood siding? There’s no insects in there, you know!

D: We’re not looking for food, we’re communicating. Why waste your voice when you can bang on things? We hammer our beaks on hollow structures like tree stumps, stop signs, drainpipes or chimneys. We usually do it in early spring, to attract a mate and protect territory. This kind of drumming is more annoying to people than damaging to your infrastructure.

M: What can people do if they don’t like you drumming on their house?

D: Well, if they want to scare us away, we’re not a fan of mirrors, reflective tape or streamers.

M: Thanks for the advice, and see you again soon.

D: You certainly will! As one of the most common birds in Eastern North America, our population has only increased in the last twenty years.


Interview with a black-billed magpie

Photo by Rhonda. There's more to this noisy scavenger than meets the eye. Black-billed Magpie. CC.

There’s more to this noisy scavenger than meets the eye. Photo by Rhonda. Black-billed Magpie. CC.

When I lived in Calgary, I saw black-billed magpies on a daily basis. Now that I live in Ontario, I miss these noisy, flashy birds. While I was home for Christmas I took the time to interview a female magpie.

Amelia: Hello, nice to see you again!

Magpie: The pleasure’s all mine, I’m sure.

A: How’s the winter so far? Any trouble finding food?

M: Please darling, I’m a scavenger. I always find food.

A: Yes, about that. Did you make holes in our garbage bags?

M: What do you expect when you throw out perfectly good food? We learned a long time ago that humans are great sources of food. For thousands of years we followed the aboriginal people who hunted the plains bison, and ate their leftovers. But then some Europeans decided “hey, let’s shoot all the bison.”

A: Yah, not one of Canada’s proudest moments.

M: Not good for the bison, and not good for us. Magpies and bison were pals. We would sit on their backs and eat all the bloodsucking ticks they couldn’t reach. It was a win-win relationship.

A: Wait, you eat ticks? I thought you just ate dead animals and garbage.

M: Sweetie, I’ll eat just about anything. Some call me a scavenger, but I prefer opportunist. If there’s something on the ground, I’ll eat it. Seeds and fruit? I’m there. Worms or other bugs? I’ll slurp that up. Rotting meat? You betcha. Hey, if scavengers like us didn’t clean things up, we’d be knee deep in rotting stuff. You may think we’re gross, but we do an important job.

A: I guess so. But I’ve heard you also eat eggs and baby birds. That’s mean!

M: Okay, so I occasionally snack on baby birds. But it’s a rarity. Why would I want to waste energy killing something when I could eat something that’s already dead? Domestic cats kill far more baby birds than we do, and you still cuddle with them.

Baby magpies are prime food for cats. It's up to the parents to protect them. Photo by Philippe Henry. Baby Black-billed Magpie. CC.

Baby magpies are prime food for cats. It’s up to the parents to protect them. Photo by Philippe Henry. Baby Black-billed Magpie. CC.

A: You have a point there. I’ve also heard that farmers don’t like you. Why is that?

M: Geez, peck out the eyes of one calf, and you’re branded for life! Farms are awesome places for food. Sure, we’ve gobbled up some grain, maybe eaten a few young chickens. But we’re also pest control. We love to eat crop pests like grasshoppers. We also eat the ticks off the back of their cows. Unfortunately some ranchers spray their cows with pesticides to keep the ticks away. Pesticides do nasty things to us.

A: I’ve also heard that people don’t like you because you steal shiny things, like engagement rings. Is that true?

M: Not a word of it! All we want is your garbage. Earlier this year, ecologist Dr. Toni Shephard peeked in our nests and didn’t find anything shiny there. She also put shiny objects next to food, to see if we would run off with them. We only touched them twice in 64 trials. So no, we are not thieves.

A: I’m glad we cleared that up. How come I don’t see you in Ontario?

M: It’s not part of our range, darling. We prefer the plains and prairies. You can find us from the Yukon all the way to western Manitoba. We don’t migrate, that’s for weaklings.

A: If you don’t migrate, how do you survive the cold?

M: We gang up. In the winter we hang out in large groups and forage for food together. I’m a social butterfly, really. If you see one magpie, there are likely others close by. We like to roost in pine trees, which keeps us safe from the wind and predators.

A: What kind of predators do you look out for?

M: Lots of things, hawks, owls and coyotes. Crows, ravens, raccoons, and cats will also eat my eggs and babies. If I let them, that is.

A: How do you protect your chicks from all this murder and mayhem?

M: It’s all in the nest. I build a little mud cup to hold the eggs, and my mate surrounds it with a scaffolding of branches. This keeps out unwanted visitors. The whole construction is around 50cm tall and 70cm wide, and takes us five to seven weeks to build.

Photo by Bryant Olsen. Magpies working on a nest. CC.

Photo by Bryant Olsen. Magpies working on a nest. CC.

A: Wow, that’s quite an investment!

M: Yep. Most nests will last a good four years. Even so, we build a new nest every year.

A: Why not use the old one?

M: Because someone usually steals it! Usually squirrels and other birds. That’s the price of building a solid nest, I guess.

A: I have another question. Why do you harass my poor cat?

M: Because she’s a predator! Over time we’ve found that offence is the best defense. If I see a predator like a hawk or coyote, I’ll call my friends and they’ll help me drive it away.

A: I guess that makes sense. Life can be dangerous for a magpie.

M: You bet! I only expect to live about two years. Males do a bit better with 3.5.

A: Gosh. I’m sorry, I didn’t realize.

M: Don’t worry your head about it. When I die, a huge crowd of magpies will perch around me, and call loudly to each other before flying off silently.

A: Yes, I’ve heard about that. Scientists don’t know why you gather around dead magpies. Care to share?

M: Nope. Magpie secret.

A: Fair enough. Okay, one more question. Why is your tail so long? It’s longer than the rest of your body.

M: Well, because it looks divine! More importantly, we use it as a rudder to make quick twists and turns in the air. We can’t fly very fast, so quick maneuvers are the only we can avoid being caught by a hawk or owl.

Magpies use their long tails like a rudder. Photo by Chuck Roberts. Black-billed Magpie. CC.

Magpies use their long tails like a rudder. Photo by Chuck Roberts. Black-billed Magpie. CC.

A: Makes sense. Thanks for speaking with me.

M: Anytime, darling. Just keep leaving those garbage bags out.



Devlin, Hannah. Aug 16, 2014. Experiment takes the shine off thieving magpie myth. The United Kingdom Times, p 20.

Interview with a Black-capped chickadee

Black-capped chickadees live in winter gangs with strict pecking orders. Photo by Amelia Buchanan, CC.

Black-capped chickadees live in winter gangs with strict pecking orders. Photo by Amelia Buchanan, CC.

Amelia: Hey there, do you have time to chat?

Black-capped chickadee: Can’t stop…must…cache seeds!

A: I happen to have some sunflower seeds right here.

C: Well, when you put it like that…

A: What did you mean by caching seeds?

C: Caching just means hiding food to find and eat later. For example, squirrels cache nuts. I’m not eating the seeds that I grab from your hand. I’m actually hiding them in little holes or under tree bark. I’ll come back and get them later this winter.

A: Do you remember where you put them?

C: Of course I do! I can remember where I hid thousands of seeds. I’m not some silly squirrel, after all.

A: Wow! That’s amazing.

C: Well, I’m pretty motivated. I have to survive -40 C Canadian winters, after all.

A: That’s right! How do you do that without central heating and hot chocolate?

C: With difficulty. I puff out my feathers. This traps warm air next to my body, like your long underwear does. I also sleep away the winter nights in cozy burrows in rotten logs. At night I’ll drop my body temperature 10-12 degrees Celsius to save energy. It’s called regulated hypothermia.

A: Brr, I get chilly when my thermostat goes down 2 degrees!

C: That’s because you’re a weak human. Grow some feathers.

A: Whoa, that was uncalled for! I am generously sharing my sunflower seeds with you, after all.

C: Sorry. I tend to get aggressive in the winter. It’s the only way to survive in our gang.

A: Wait. There are chickadee gangs?

C: Yep. You could call them flocks, but gang sounds cooler.

A: I guess so. So how many birds in your gang?

C: This winter we have five. Two mated pairs from last year and one baby. We also have a few nuthatches and woodpeckers , but the hierarchy doesn’t apply to them.

A: Why would other birds join your winter gangs? Are chickadees really that cool?

C: Of course we are! We know this patch of forest like the back of our wing. Sometimes migrating birds will hang out with us because we know where the food is and they don’t. Just because we’re aggressive doesn’t mean we can’t be helpful.

A: Why are you so aggressive?

C: The gang runs on a strict pecking order. If you’re the meanest you eat first and have the safest nesting places. The meanest chickadee is the most dominant. Generally males and older birds are the most dominant.

A: Okay. Where do you stand in this pecking order?

C: I’m the most dominant male, of course! I keep everyone else in line. In the spring I’ll pair up with the dominant female. Since we’re well fed from being mean all winter, our babies will have a better chance of surviving.

A: Are you looking forward to spring?

C: To be honest, not really. Raising babies is exhausting. Did you know we feed those buggers 6-14 times every hour? It’s ridiculous if you ask me.

A: How many chicks do you usually have?

C: My mate will lay 5-7 eggs. If they’re not eaten by snakes, weasels or even squirrels and chipmunks, we’ll have that many nestlings to feed and change.

A: What do you mean by change? They don’t wear diapers, do they?

C: We have to clean their poop out of the nest. Believe me, they produce a lot.

A: Ah. Do you feed them seeds?

C: Nope. About 80-90% of our summer diet is insects. Insect eggs, insect larvae, insect adults, we eat it all! We’re natural pest control for the forest trees. In the winter 50% of our winter diet is still insects.

A: Wow, I can’t imagine finding insects in winter.

C: I know, I’m pretty amazing. Not to mention cute.

A: Yep, and that’s why people feed you in the winter. You have it pretty good.

C: Yep. Thanks for the sunflower seeds! I’m off to put a juvenile in his place.


Crimson chanteuse: Interview with a Northern Cardinal

Female Northern Cardinals are one of the few female birds in North America that sing. Photo by William Klos, Northern Cardinal (Female) CC.

Female Northern Cardinals are one of the few female birds in North America that sing. Photo by William Klos, Northern Cardinal (Female) CC.

When I moved to Ottawa from Calgary, Northern Cardinals were one of my favorite birds to discover! I mean, they’re brightly coloured, they sing beautifully, what’s not to love?

Even though Northern Cardinals are around all year, I only notice them in the winter and spring. Their red plumage is easy to spot against white snow or an icy blue sky. In the spring, their whistling song is one of the first things I hear in the morning (other than my alarm clock and the buzz of the refrigerator). I was lucky enough to find a female sitting on her nest this morning and decided to ask her some burning questions.

A: I love to hear male cardinals sing in the spring! Why do they do it?

C: Hey now, the men can’t take all the credit! I sing too!

A: Really? Isn’t that unusual for songbirds?

C: That’s right, we’re one of the only songstress birds in North America, and we’re proud of it!

A: I can see that. Okay, so why do you sing? Are you trying to attract a mate, or guard a territory like the males

C: Goodness no! Our songs are much more subtle than the guys’. I often borrow phrases of my husband’s song and add my own flavour. That way he knows it’s me.

A: Where is your favorite place to sing? In the shower?

C: Um, no. I don’t take showers. I sing quietly on my nest. After all, I don’t want to attract every predator within 20 metres.

A: Okay, so why do you sing?

C: A lady can have her secrets, can’t she? Maybe I’m saying “I’m hungry” or “I’m full” or “There’s a predator nearby” or “The kids are driving me crazy!” or even “Where is that grasshopper pizza I ordered?” Let’s just say that I’m telling my husband to bring me food, or not bring me food. If that handsome red guy came by every minute, he might lead a predator right to our nest. Singing to him can cut down on unneeded trips.

A: So your husband brings you food? That sounds like a great system. I wouldn’t say no to breakfast in bed every day.

C: He is quite sweet. But let me tell you, when the babies are demanding food every few minutes, he gets quite a work-out! He only brings me food when I’m nesting in the spring and summer. In the fall and winter I go back to getting my own food.

A: What kind of food does your husband bring back to the nest? You mentioned grasshopper pizza?

C: I was joking, but if you know a joint that makes grasshopper pizza let me know. He brings me seeds, fruit, and berries. My favorite are the sunflower seeds you fill your birdfeeders with. Mm-mm! When we have babies in the nest he’ll bring them lots of insects, like beetles, flies, centipedes, butterflies and crickets. They also like spiders. It must be all those legs.

A: Ugh, that’s an unpleasant image! It seems to me like your husband is doing all the work. I mean he defends the territory and brings home the bacon while you sit on a nest all day.

C: I resent that! Sitting on a nest is not as easy as it looks. I’m protecting my kids from becoming a predator’s snack. And let me tell you, there are lots of animals that love to snack on young birds. It’s a stressful job. The babies in 4 out of every 5 nests don’t survive to adulthood.

A: That’s awful!

C: Yes it is, but we move on and try harder next year. Every spring I go house-hunting with my husband, scoping out good nest sites in tangled vines or bushes. We like to nest close to the ground, but unfortunately that makes it easy for predators to get at the nest.
I work really hard on that nest. Each one is a 4-layered feat of engineering! I bend twigs into a circle, then add a layer of leaves, a layer of grapevine bark and then finish it off with some cozy grass and pine needles. Each nest takes 3-9 days to build! And for the next batch of eggs, I do it all over again. If conditions are good,
I’ll build two nests a year.

A: Okay, so it sounds like you’re working hard too, and work is pretty equally distributed between you and your husband. But there’s something that doesn’t make sense to me. If you’re on the nest all the time, how do predators ever get at your babies?

C: Well, I’m not on the nest every second of the day…

A: I feel like there’s something you’re not telling me. Want to get it off your chest?

C: Okay, fine, I’ll tell you! I’m having an affair with the next door neighbor! He’s just so….red!

A: Okay, that explains it. Does your husband know?

C: I’m sure he suspects it. At any given time a tenth to a third of chicks in my nest are not his, and he can tell. Anyway, he cheats on me too. Everybody does.

A: But you’re still a couple?

C: Yep, we’re completely devoted to each other. I’m the only female he feeds and takes care of. We drift apart in the winter, but usually get back together in the spring. That sweet song of his gets me every time.

A: Do most couples mate for life?

C: Goodness no! About 1 in 5 relationships won’t last the winter.

A: Speaking of winter, how do you like the cold here? I always seem to see you frolicking in the snow.

C: I hate it. I’m not frolicking, I’m desperately trying to stay warm! But we like the neighborhood, and there’s plenty of food here so there’s no point in migrating.

My ancestors were tropical birds who came to Canada from the US in the 1800s. They were following Europeans who were cutting down forests, creating the open bushy spaces that we love. We love living in backyards and parks and forest edges, so our numbers have only been growing as the numbers of humans living here grows.

What a hunk! Photo by Flyn Kynd, Northern Cardinal, CC.

What a hunk! Photo by Flyn Kynd, Northern Cardinal, CC.

A: Very interesting! One last question. Why are cardinals red?

C: Because we eat red berries. Duh. Just like flamingos get pink from eating shrimp, we get red from eating berries. Any bird you see that is red, orange or yellow is eating something that colour. We can’t make those pigments by ourselves.

A: Fascinating! Thank you so much. Best of luck with those eggs!

C: Thanks! My pleasure.


8 things I didn’t know about native bees

Bees come in a rainbow of colours. Check out this shiny green sweat bee. Photo by Jim McCulloch, CC. Sweat bee on coral vine flower.

Bees come in a rainbow of colours. Check out this shiny green sweat bee. Photo by Jim McCulloch, CC. Sweat bee on coral vine flower.

I have a confession to make; I’m an insect geek.

And when it comes to social insects like bees and ants I’m even geekier than usual.

So when I learned that the Learning Garden at the University of Ottawa was holding a free workshop on insect identification, I jumped at the chance to learn more.

One of the coolest things we learned was how to tell the difference between flies and bees. You would think this would be easy, right? Bees are fuzzy with yellow and black stripes. Flies are black and shiny.

In fact, it isn’t that simple! Many of the native bee species in Canada look like tiny flies. Also, many fly species are camouflaged to look like bees so predators won’t mess with them. So how do you tell them apart? Well, look at the antennae. In most cases, flies have short, stubby antennae and bees have long, languorous ones.

Armed with this information, we stepped out into the University’s learning garden to find some insects. Now that I knew what I was looking for, I was amazed to see how many bees there were! They came in all shapes and sizes, from 2mm to 2cm. They also came in an exciting palette of colours, from black to grey to bright green! Even cooler, all these bees were native to Canada!

I first learned about native bees while writing an essay on the possible causes of the major honey bee deaths in North America. I learned that these unsung-heros do a great job of pollinating farmers crops for free! It’s sad that we aren’t taught more about them in school. So I did some reading, and here’s what I found out.

1. Everything you’ve been told about bees is a lie

Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. It’s more like ‘everything you’ve been told about bees only applies to honey bees’.

Out of 19,000 bee species worldwide, most museums, science centres, schools and documentaries only talk about one: the European Honey bee. You know, the queen with thousands of female workers, the yellow and black-striped workers bringing back nectar and pollen to feed the larvae, the waggle dance to communicate where flowers are located. You’ve heard it all before.

And there’s a good reason to talk about them. European honey bees are commercially valuable. They were domesticated a long time ago to produce honey and pollinate crops. Without pollination, we wouldn’t have fruits like apples, tomatoes, cherries, pumpkins, strawberries or blueberries. In fact, we need pollinators for 1 out of every 3 mouthfuls of food we eat!

The European honeybee is so essential to agriculture that European settlers brought them to Canada. The European Honey bee is now a mainstay of the Canadian economy. However, there were bees in Canada already, around 730 species to be exact! And even though we don’t talk about them very much, they’re still here! For some crops, like blueberries, native bees are even better pollinators than honey bees.

2. They came from underground

Bees weren’t always cute and cuddly pollen-eaters. They used to eat meat! Yep, bees evolved from predatory digger wasps, which still exist today.

Why this drastic change from munching on other insects to sipping nectar? Well, it had everything to do with the arrival of flowering plants. Believe it or not, flowers didn’t exist until the Cretaceous period (1465-65 million years ago). This means that dinosaurs pre-date flowers. Can you imagine a world without flowers? Weird, huh? The evolution of flowers created a whole new food source, and bees, wasps, butterflies and moths evolved to eat it up. Maybe sipping nectar was easier than catching live prey!

3. All by myself…

Considering that honey bees are the poster child of the social insect, I was surprised to learn that most native bees in North America not social at all. They live by themselves, and are called solitary bees. Each female builds her own nest, lays her own eggs, and collects all her own pollen and nectar. Who needs hundreds of sisters when you can be independent?

What does a solitary bee’s life cycle look like? A female finds a male to mate with, then digs or finds a burrow to lay eggs in. She collects a huge ball of nectar and pollen, then lays an egg on top of it. When the egg hatches, the larvae feeds on the pollen, and in the fall becomes an adult. The adults hibernate through the winter to emerge in the spring.

4. Hives? No thanks.

Bee exiting a burrow. Photo by Rob Cruikshank, CC

Bee exiting a burrow. Photo by Rob Cruikshank, CC

Most solitary bees don’t live in fancy hives, but in holes in the ground. Yep, kind of like hobbits. 90% of native bee species lay their eggs in burrows in the ground.

Osima bees have by far the cutest homes. They like to nest in tiny spaces including snail shells, keyholes and even locks!

5. Busy bee? No, lazy bee.

Some bee species trick someone else into doing all the work for them. They lay their eggs in the nests of other bees, and avoid the work of collecting pollen and making a nest. This behaviour is called cleptoparastisitm. So much for busy bees!

6. Bumbling around

The fuzzy Bumble bee is indigenous to Canada. It’s the only bee that sticks around to feed its growing larvae. All other native bees hightail it out of there once the eggs are laid. In the wild, bumble bees also nest in the ground, but usually let someone else do the work. Holes in trees or abandoned rodent dens make a cozy nest. However, domesticated honey bees are managed using hives.

7. Picky, picky

Some Canadian bees are picky eaters. They only collect nectar and pollen from one kind of flower. They aren’t doing this to be difficult. They’re doing it because they have evolved to be perfectly suited to that flower. For example, the bee Melissodes desponsa only visits thistles. Ecologists call picky eaters ‘specialists’. Most Canadian bees are ‘generalists’ which means they can get food from many different kinds of flowers.

8. The extinction factor

Because of their sensitivity to environmental factors, some bee species are prone to extinction. This is especially true for specialists that only feed on one type of flower. If the flower disappears, they are in trouble. And it’s not just climate change that is causing their food to disappear. Many of the flowers we grow in our gardens come from Europe, and most native bees can’t use them for food.In addition, chemical pesticides meant for pesky insect will also kill bees.

Okay, enough doom and gloom. What can you do to help native bees? You can give them food by planting native wildflowers, or by waiting to mow those pesky ‘weeds’ until after they have flowered. You can give them places to live, by leaving bare patches of ground in your garden. You can even install woodblocks with holes drilled into them. These are called trap-nests, and will attract bees that like to live in pre-existing holes.

Want to learn more? Check out this user-friendly field guide to native pollinators by the David Suzuki Foundation. The photos are incredible!

Click to access Pollinator_Guide_5pg.pdf

Oh, and I’ve also decided to open up my blog to comments. If you have comments, questions or suggestions for a post, feel free to post them!

Also, if you haven’t checked out my Art page, you might like it.


Click to access Recommendations%20for%20Conservation%20of%20Pollinators%20on%20FarmlandFinal_DSC.pdf

Nuts to you! Interview with a Grey Squirrel

Yes, they raid our bird feeders, but how can you resist this face? Photo by Peter G. Trimming. “If you think I’m cute, can I have a peanut?” CC.

Yes, they raid our bird feeders, but how can you resist this face? Photo by Peter G. Trimming. “If you think I’m cute, can I have a peanut?” CC.

In backyards across the country, wars are being waged. Wars between people who install birdfeeders and the squirrels that raid them.

I grew up in this warzone. More often than not there was a fat, black squirrel in our Calgary birdfeeder instead of joyful little chickadees. After months of effort, Dad finally surrendered to the furry invaders. He started leaving piles of seeds on the patio just for the squirrels, with the hopes that they would forget the birdfeeder. They didn’t.

Today, I come face to face with my long-time adversary, the Eastern Grey Squirrel.

A: Why do you raid birdfeeders? Aren’t you ashamed of stealing food from birds?!

S: Whoa lady, calm down! I know you’ve had some bad history with squirrels, but that doesn’t make us all evil rodents.

When it comes to food, we’re opportunists. Being able to eat lots of different things is what makes us so successful. In nature, there is no ‘bird food’ and ‘squirrel food’. It’s about who gets to the food first.

A: Okay, I guess home-owners shouldn’t expect only birds to show up at their feeders. In Calgary, I heard that you were an invasive species. Is that true?

S: We prefer ‘introduced’. It’s you humans who introduced us to Calgary! We originally only lived in the hardwood forests of Eastern Canada. A few hundred years ago you humans decided to put us in places we’d never been before, like Western Canada, South Africa and the U.K. And, being opportunists, we thrived!

A: You sure did! Did you run into problems with the species that already lived there?

S: We’re often competing with red squirrels over food and territory. Despite their small size, they are vicious! We usually give them what they want to avoid a scuffle.

A: You don’t strike me as non-violent. I often see you chasing each other through the trees!

S: It’s true that we chase each other a lot. We work hard to protect our territory from invaders. However, it’s all bluffing and posturing. Unlike the red squirrels, we rarely come to blows.

A: Speaking of colours, what’s the difference between a grey squirrel and a black squirrel?

S: Grrr, we get this question all the time! We’re the same species! Get it right!

A: Sorry, that’s obviously a sore spot. Speaking of sore spots, I notice that the end of your tail is missing! What happened?

S: Oh, that. A hawk grabbed me in mid-leap last week. Thankfully she only got the last vertebrae of my tail. I can shed those tail bones easily when those kind of things happen.

A: Whoa, like those lizards that lose their tails! Can you re-grow that tail bone?

S: No.

A: Oh. That sucks. What is your tail for, anyways? It’s almost as long as the rest of your body!

S: My tail is good for lots of things! I use it to distract predators, communicate with my peers, and keep myself stable while jumping through the trees. It’s also a perfect blanket for cold nights.

A: Tell me more about how you communicate. You’re certainly very vocal! For years I thought I was hearing bird calls when it was actually squirrels.

S: It’s true, we have a large range of sounds. Many are alarm calls, to warn other squirrels about a predator, and to let the predator know that we’ve seen them. We even combine tail signals with sound signal to let others know if the predator is on the ground and in the air.

A: I guess you spend most of your time in trees?

S: Yes indeed! Not only do we get food from trees, but we also make our nests in them.

A: Squirrels make nests? What do they look like?

S: My favorite nest are inside tree trunks. An old wood-pecker hole works wonderfully. However, when I can’t find one, I’ll build my own nest high in the branches out of twigs and leaves.

A: I know you eat nuts and seeds, but what else do you eat?

S: It really depends on the time of year. In the spring, we love eating buds off the trees. In the summer, we pig out on fruit, like berries, apples and winged maple seeds. In the fall, it’s all about the nuts! If I’m really hungry, I may snack on insects, caterpillars, or even bird nestlings.

A: That is quite a variety of foods. Do you hibernate during the winter?

S: Not at all! That’s why we keep busy in the fall hiding nuts and seeds to get us through the winter.

A: Do you remember where you buried all those nuts?

S: No! We’re talking about thousands of nuts here! My memory isn’t that good. I use my nose to find them.

A: Do you find every nut you bury?

S: Of course not! I’ll find maybe 85% of them. The rest are found by other animals, or grow into new trees.

A: I guess we’re well into the summer breeding season right now. How do you go about finding a mate?

S: It’s actually a lot of fun. I’ll climb to the top of a tree and start a homing call to attract all the males in the area. Once a group of males has assembled, they will argue amongst themselves to find out who is dominant. It’s a lot of posturing and testosterone, as you could expect.

A: Then what happens?

S: Well, then I lead them in a wild chase through the trees! When I know which one I want, then I’ll let him mate with me. As long as he can keep up!

A: Does he help raise the babies?

S: Nope. I’m on my own. But it isn’t too bad. In 12 weeks they’re independent adults. And just so you know, my last litter had both grey and black kittens!

A: Kittens?

S: Baby squirrels.

A: That’s adorable!

S: So we’re not just birdseed thieves anymore?

A: Definitely not! Thanks for talking with me.

S: My pleasure.


Interview with a Canada Goose

Canada Geese have very strong family bonds. Photo by Shankar s. December 2012. Geese in the pool. CC.

Canada Geese have very strong family bonds. Photo by Shankar s. December 2012. Geese in the pool. CC.

My post on Red-winged blackbirds received a lot of positive feedback. However, someone did comment that the male blackbird I interviewed seemed sexist. My response was that this bird was an individual, and not representative of his entire species. He also happened to be the head of a harem.

To even things out, I promised that next I would interview a male bird that mates for life. So I chose the noble, the beautiful, the faithful- Canada Goose!

A: Thanks for taking time to talk to me today.

G: No problem, but I can’t stay long. I need to get back to the wife and kids. We had five little ones this spring, and they’re getting to the rambunctious toddler stage!

A: Five kids! Sounds like a handful!

G: They’re certainly hard to keep in line. When we walk down to the river my wife goes first, followed by the kids, and then I bring up the rear. Without fail, one of the kids will veer off the path into the bushes. My job is make sure she stays with the rest of us. There are a lot of predators out there that would like to snack on a baby goose.

A: What predators do you have to watch out for?

G: I’ve seen foxes, coyotes, gulls, ravens and even bears hanging around my nest. Pet dogs also make me nervous.

A: Yikes! What do you do in those situations?

G: My wife sits on the nest and shields the babies with her body, and I’ll try to lure the predator away from the nest. I’ll hiss, open my mouth, and open my wings to make myself look bigger. If that doesn’t work, then I’ll hit them with my wings. They may look light, but they’re strong enough to do some damage. This usually convinces the predator to look for dinner elsewhere.

A: How brave of you! Aren’t you worried about getting eaten yourself?

G: Not really. It takes a lot to kill an adult goose, and there aren’t many predators big enough to take us down. Once you survive childhood, you’re pretty much guaranteed to live for at least 10 years. With all those predators around, childhood is pretty rough. I expect only half of my kids will survive the summer.

A: Interesting. You seem like a very proud father. Are there more babies on the way?

G: Not this year. My wife lays eggs once a year in the early spring. We start early so our babies have time to grow strong enough for the fall migration. We only want what’s best for them.

A: How do you choose where to put the nest?

G: My wife is the one in charge of that. She’s very nostalgic, and every spring we come back to the same place where she was born. If we can successfully raise children there, we’ll keep coming back to that spot. If none of our chicks survive we’ll try a different spot.

A: And who makes the nest?

G: My wife does. She chooses a flat spot so she can see predators coming from a long ways away. She’ll make the nest out of grasses and line it with her own down.

A: Who is in charge of sitting on the eggs?

G: That’s my wife’s job. She sits on them for 25-28 days before they hatch. She’s a wonderful mother. She will only leave them to drink, feed or bathe, and then she’s right back on the nest. I’ll take over for her when she’s away. I love keeping them warm and hearing their soft peeps through the shells.

A: Wait, your babies communicate while they’re still in the egg?

G: Yep, pretty amazing right? It happens close to the time they’re ready to hatch.

A: It seems to me like your wife is doing most of the work! What’s your job in this partnership?

G: How dare you! I’m on guard duty. I stand by faithfully as she sits on the nest, protecting her and our eggs from predators. It’s a very noble calling.

A: Okay. What happens when the eggs hatch?

G: Goslings are ready to take on the world! They are born with their eyes open, and in two days they are swimming, foraging and diving right beside us! They grow up so fast. Even though they like to think they’re independent, they still run back to the nest and under mom’s feathers whenever it is cold, rainy or windy out. It’s quite adorable. They spend a lot of time eating and sleeping, and don’t leave the nest until they are 42-50 days old. Even then they’ll stick to us like glue for the rest of the year, even during migration.

A: Tell me more about migration. Canada Geese are famous for flying in a V shape. Why do you do that?

G: Well, we often migrate in family groups. Migration is no picnic, and we can fly over 1000 km in a single day. The V shape helps us save energy. The leader creates an air current and we all follow in his wake. The leader is usually an older, more experienced goose. It’s tiring to be the leader, so we’ll take turns doing it. The V shape also makes it easy for the group to change direction and speed very quickly, to avoid a passing airplane, for example.

A : I’m sure many of our readers have seen you on golf courses, parks and bike paths. Some people complain that you make a mess with your poop, and ravage perfectly manicured lawns. What do you have to say about this?

G: Yeesh, you humans! You’re never happy. In the early 1900s, the Giant Canada Goose of Southern Manitoba was almost extinct because you hunted us and ate our eggs. You decided that you wanted to save the geese, so you bred us in captivity and released us into places we had never lived before, like BC, Quebec and the Maritime provinces. You protected us with the Migratory Bird Convention, so people need a license to harm us or our eggs. Then you created perfect, open habitats for us, just full of our favorite food; short grass! Now you complain that there are too many of us. Well, you have no-one to blame but yourselves.

A: I guess you’re right. That conservation plan worked a little too well. Why do you like urban areas so much?

G: No predators, lawns everywhere, humans don’t shoot us, what’s not to love?

A: I guess, but can’t you poop somewhere else? It makes the bike paths hazardous.

G: Listen, we’d move if we could, but we can’t. During the summer we can’t fly for 6-8 weeks. This is because we’re moulting, losing our flight feathers and growing new ones. Growing feathers takes a lot of energy, so we need a lot of food. I can easily eat 4 lbs of grass a day and excrete 2 lbs of poop when I’m moulting. I’m sorry we’re making a mess of your lawn, but there’s nothing we can do about it.

A: Well, it makes sense when you put it that way. I imagine not being able to fly is frustrating.

G: It’s not so bad. We can still swim. We spend half of our time in the water anyway, and do most of our feeding on land. And we’re with our family and friends, so life is good.

A: One last question. Is it true that Canada geese mate for life?

G: Of course it’s true, what are you suggesting? One couple we know just celebrated their 20th anniversary!

A: Okay, okay no offense meant! How did you meet your wife?

G: I met my wife when I was 2 years old. I knew instantly that she was ‘the one’ because she was the same size as me. I think you humans call that ‘assortative mating’. We wanted to have kids, but we waited until we had been together a few years before we finally did. I didn’t want to be like my brother, who cheated on his wife while she was incubating their eggs. They were young and foolish, and they ended up breaking up. It usually takes 2-3 years for a strong pair bond to form between a male and a female. It’s uncommon for a couple to start a family before that 2 year mark.

A: Thanks so much for talking with me! Say hi to the wife and kids for me.

G: Will do!


Wearing his heart on his sleeve: Interview with a Red-winged Blackbird

I'm not just a pair of  red shoulders! A red-winged blackbird sitting pretty. Photo by Jordan Walmsley. CC.

I’m not just a pair of red shoulders! A red-winged blackbird sitting pretty. Photo by Jordan Walmsley. CC.

If you’ve ever gone near a river in the summer, you’re probably well acquainted with the call of the red-winged blackbird. As a prairie girl who grew up in Calgary seeing very few of these showy birds, I love hearing them whenever I walk along a Ottawa waterway.

However, just like my friend the robin, my knowledge of red-winged blackbirds is limited to:

1) Males have red shoulders
2) Females are brown and less showy than the males
3) Males will aggressively chase other birds and animals out of their territory

The last time I interviewed a bird I talked to a female robin, so to give a fair chance to both sexes I asked a male redwing about being an urban blackbird.

A: I’ve heard you’re one of the most common birds in North America. How does this make you feel?

B: Sweetheart, just because we’re common doesn’t mean we aren’t special. It takes a special bird to be successful in both Alaska and Cuba. Anyways, there is a price to being one of the most abundant birds on the continent.

A: A price? What do you mean?

B: Because there are so many of us we aren’t protected by endangered species laws. It also means that humans don’t feel so bad when they kill us. The majority of blackbird deaths are caused by humans.

A: Why would humans want kill you? You’re so pretty and harmless.

B: You would think so, but in Canada you only see us during the spring and summer when we’re having babies. The other half of the year we go south to relax and refuel. We hang out in huge swarms, sometimes even welcoming other species into our group. We fly around searching for food, and where do we find the most food? In fields of rice, corn and sunflower seeds.

A: Oh. I imagine the farmers who own these fields aren’t happy to see you?

B: You’re right on the money, doll. We can eat 1-2% of a farmer’s crop. For sunflowers, it can be up to 25%. But what can we do? A bird’s got to eat, and there’s all this lovely food sitting there!

A: Are seeds the only thing you eat?

B: No, we have a balanced diet of fruit, insects, spiders and snails. In fact, we often help farmers by eating the insect pests off their crops.

A: What do farmers do when they find you in their field?

B: Some try to chase us away with air canons, loud music, recordings of our alarm calls, and even with remote-controlled airplanes! Others will remove the cattails and bulrushes from the edges of their fields, because those are our favorite spots to hang out and removing them makes us less likely to visit.

A: But some farmers kill you?

B: Yes. Some shoot us or scatter poisoned seeds. The worst is when they spray their crops with surfactants. When our feathers touch these chemicals they can’t keep us warm or dry anymore, and we die from exposure. I’ve seen a few of my friends go this way. It’s not a pretty sight.

A: That’s awful, but I can understand why farmers would want to protect their livelihood. They need to feed their families too.

B: I agree, but obviously I prefer non-lethal methods.

A: Okay, on to something more cheerful! Tell me what happens when you come back to Canada in the spring.

B: It’s actually quite stressful. You have to understand that during the breeding season it’s all about territory. A female doesn’t care about how beautiful you look or how sweetly you swing. All she cares about is finding a safe place where she can hide her nest and raise her chicks. If she likes your territory, she stays. Therefore, the males with the best territories get the best females.

A: Sounds like cut-throat competition! What does an ideal territory look like?

B: Females really like cattails, marshes, and wet shrub lands. Because you humans keep draining wetlands, these ideal places are getting harder to find. We often settle for urban parks and river banks.

A: All of those habitats include water. Why do females like water so much?

B: You have to understand that many animals like eating our eggs and baby birds. I’ve had to chase many raccoons and crows away from my nests, and I don’t always get there in time. If a female builds her grass nest above the water, it’s harder for predators to get at it. So water in the habitat means a greater chance that our babies will survive.

A: Isn’t that dangerous, having babies above the water like that? What if they fell in?

B: Our chicks can swim short distances, so falling out of the nest isn’t a problem.

A: Wow! Can you still swim?

B: No, I lost the ability when I become an adult.

A: Let’s talk about becoming an adult. When did that happen for you?

B: It takes a long time! I was three years old when I finally got my red epaulets. Before that I was a fairly dull teenaged bird with little chance of winning a territory from the older males. I just hung around with my bachelor friends all summer, dreaming of the day when I would have a harem of my own!

A: Excuse me, did you say a harem?

B: Yes ma ’me! We can have 5 to 15 females nesting on our territory at once. We’re definitely not the mate-for-life type.

Protecting that many nests takes a lot of work, I’ll tell you! But when you see those little faces blinking at the sky for the first time, it’s all worth it! Even when the little faces have a strong resemblance to your ugly neighbor.

A: What? Are you implying that your females cheat on you?

B: It’s pretty common knowledge that 25- 50% of the chicks I raise are not my own. Women are pretty good at getting what they want. Like I said, they’re with me for my territory, not necessarily for my genes.

A: That was awkward. Okay, one last question. What’s the deal with your red shoulders? Are they just there to look pretty?

B: How dare you! My red epaulets are state-of-the art signalling devices that I use to defend my territory and my honour. I can grow or shrink them depending on the occasion. You can see this very clearly in this video by The Music of Nature:

For example, if my male neighbor enters my territory, I’ll hunch my shoulders and show as much red as I can, to show him how beautiful I am and that he shouldn’t mess with me. I also show my shoulders when I’m wooing my ladies. However, if I’m feeding peacefully with the boys I will hide my red shoulders so no fights break out.

A: Wow, that’s very interesting. Well, thanks for taking time to talk to me.

B: It was my pleasure. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a territory and a harem to defend.


The secret life of American Robins

Robins eat more than just worms! Photo by Dendroica cerulea, CC

Robins eat more than just worms! Photo by Dendroica cerulea, CC


As the weather warms, I’ve been seeing dozens of robins hopping along my lawn. Even though I’ve grown up around robins my whole life, I realized that didn’t know much about them. In fact, I think I only knew three things:

1) They have a red breast
2) They eat worms
3) They lay blue eggs

This would never do. I decided to learn more about the American Robin. I asked one the female robins in the vicinity to tell me about her life, straight from the bird’s beak, so to speak.

Me: Tell me about your childhood.

Merle: There’s not much to tell. I was born in a nest with two other siblings. I was constantly hungry. I needed food every 15 minutes from sunrise to sunset. I certainly ran my parents ragged!

Me: Tell me more about your siblings.

Merle: Well, neither of them survived to adulthood. One was eaten by a crow and the other was eaten a few days later by a squirrel. It was sad at the time, but you get used to it, considering that only about 20% of chicks ever become adults. I was one of the lucky ones. There are lots of animals out there that love to sink their teeth into a robin. Circle of life and all that.

Me: When did you leave the nest?

Merle: About two weeks after I hatched. At that point my parents started getting babies on the brain. They kicked me out so they could lay a new batch of eggs in my nest. They were big into recycling. It did take Mom 5 days to build that nest, after all.

Me: Sounds rough! 14 days is pretty young, isn’t it?

Merle: I guess. I could fly, so that was a start. My parents were pretty good about bringing me food for an additional four weeks after I officially left the nest. Then I was really on my own.

Me: Did it get lonely?

Merle: Not really. I joined a huge roost with a bunch of other robins. We would hang out, forage and sleep together. I spent most of the fall and winter with them, eating berries and dried fruit hanging from bushes.

Me: Wait a minute, I thought robins only ate worms?

Merle: Where would we get worms in the winter? We eat fruit in the winter. I’ve even seen my friends drunk if they’ve eaten too many honeysuckle berries! For the record, during the spring and summer I generally eat insects, earthworms and snails in the morning and fruit in the afternoon.

Me: But I never see robins in the winter! Where are you hiding?

Merle: Well we aren’t hopping along your lawns, that’s for sure. Sometimes we migrate, but if there is still food in our breeding area we stick around. We hang out in large groups in trees, barns, or under bridges. Once spring comes males start staking out their territory and courting females. That’s when you start to see us again.

Me: Why does your behaviour change so drastically in the spring?

Merle: Breeding requires a lot of energy. A pair’s territory is basically a pantry where they can constantly collect food to feed their growing family. It’s the male’s job to defend this territory, flying at intruders to scare them away or dive-bombing them if necessary.

Me: Why do robins sometimes run into my window?

Merle: If it’s a male, they may see their reflection as an intruder and try to scare them away. Usually they are a bit stunned after hitting a window, but recover quickly. If you want to prevent it from happening, there are many ways you can make your windows visible to birds. Check them out at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s website.

Me: If the males defend the territory, what are your breeding responsibilities?

Merle: It is my job to find a good location for the nest, usually in a tree branch, light fixture or gutter. I also build the nest, pushing grass into cup shape using the wrist of one of my wings. Then I reinforce it with twigs and mud. I may have two to three clutches of eggs in this nest in one year, if there’s enough food available.

Me: Last question, what is your favorite thing to sing?

Merle: Goodness, females don’t sing! Only the males do that, to attract us during mating season. The crooners get you every time.

There you have it, straight from the bird herself! Hopefully you’ll see the robins in the park a little differently now. And speaking of parks, free guided neighborhood tours are taking place all around the world next weekend on May 3 and 4. Called Jane’s Walks after urbanist Jane Jacobs, they are a great way to see your community from a different perspective. Find one in your city  Hope to see you out there!


Cornell Lab of Ornithology. American Robin.

Encyclopedia Britannica. robin.

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Living With Wildlife: Robins.


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