The truth about Chimney Birds

At our house, we have a fireplace in the family room. Often, we will be startled by the loud sound of cawing that sounds like it comes from behind the grate. As we were not entirely sure what they were at the time, we named our frequent visitors “Chimney Birds.” Though we never saw them there, we always pictured them standing on top of the chimney, wings cupped around their beaks, leaning into the chimney and calling down to us.

Here is the sound (Note: The human is my 2 year old. Hey! You try getting a good recording with a toddler in the room!):

However, it was easy to find out that our Chimney Birds were:

American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos)

(Today’s species of the week!)


American Crows are entirely black, large and are sturdily built. They are 40-50 cm in height and have a wingspan of 1m. They look like this:



American Crows thrive around people, as well as in fields or woods. They are abundant all over the USA, as well as Canada (but mostly in the summer). They travel in flocks, are aggressive and scavenge for food. They are often seen eating roadkill, but carrion actually makes a small percentage of their diet. They eat a vast array of foods, from seeds, nuts and berries, to insects, eggs and fish.

One night we awoke in the early hours of the morning (2:00 or so), to loud cawing, and an eerie orange light from the moon outside. We looked out the window and all the rooftops in the neighbourhood were blanketed in black crows. It was one of the creepiest things I have ever seen. It was just like something out of a horror movie.

American Crows will always be Chimney Birds to me (and possibly to my poor misled children).



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Bad things come in big packages: The real costs of Costco

“Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” – Edward Abbey

I am going to write something somewhat off topic here. It has little directly to do with children and nature, and everything to do with community health. I hope you won’t mind my political rant, but this is very much on my mind lately.

If you are familiar with Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, you may remember Arthur Dent lying down in front of a bulldozer that is preparing to tear down his house. Later we learn that a group of aliens (the Vogons) has been preparing to tear down the earth to make way for an intergalactic superhighway. It makes the bulldozer fight seem rather futile. Nonetheless, I have been having an Arthur Dent experience for the past little while. Sometimes, we just have to do what we can.

I’m not a radical environmentalist. I drive a car. I live in a suburban house. I typically shop in supermarkets, and don’t always buy organic produce. I fully admit I could do better. However, when I found out that a Costco is trying to bulldoze its way into my neighbourhood (with a planned opening in less than 8 months), I felt the need to (metaphorically) lie down in its path.

My planning education and my personal interests have focused a great deal on what makes for a safe, healthy and sustainable community. There is a widely accepted conclusion in this field that big box stores are harmful, economically, environmentally and socially. However, I have been informed by a few different sources, that my community “wants” a Costco. While no one has been able to give me any real data to back up this assertion, and no public consultation was done, it appears to be the general consensus of local politicians. This scares me.

Thankfully, other problems have cropped up. These problems don’t require a basic knowledge of sustainability, local economics or healthy communities. These problems come down to traffic congestion. Traffic-wise, the proposed location is ludicrous. And THIS is what the decision will hinge on. Forget local economy; forget active transportation; forget safety hazards; forget environmental impacts. We must worry exclusively about how to get our cars quickly from point A to point B. But, this may be a strong enough argument to at least stall the construction.

People appear to be missing the bigger picture. They are not considering all of the hidden costs a community pays for a Costco (and other big box retailers generally).

Economic Costs

Big box stores drain money from the local economy. A company such as Costco provides powerful incentives in terms of bulk discounts and convenience. Smaller retailers cannot hope to compete, and may even close. Big box stores also spawn further similar kinds of development. This ultimately leads to massive problems with sprawl. Numerous studies have outlined exactly what happens when a big box store comes to town.

Big box stores remove money directly from the local economy. Studies have shown how big IMG_20130904_104611box retailers only return a tiny fraction of their profits to the community. Smaller businesses tend to buy locally, and generally keep more money within the community. Small businesses even tend to give far more money to charitable causes than big box retailers do.

Costco is planning to set up shop just down the road from a popular farmer’s market. If you want to know how I feel about those, see here.  But, it’s going to be hard for many deal-seeking shoppers to justify spending money on the high quality local food there, when two minutes away, you can buy a massive quantity for the same price.

Social Costs

Cookie cutter warehouse stores with giant parking lots do nothing for a sense of place and responsibility for the community. It is hard to get excited about places that look like prisons.

Big box stores reduce social interaction. One study I read found that a person is seven times more likely to have a conversation with a stranger in a farmer’s market than at a big box store. People who live in places with an abundance of big box stores have even been shown to vote less often.

Big box stores, and Costco in particular, are not designed to be accessible to people using alternative forms of transportation. They promote car-dependency. People just don’t take the bus to Costco. I even saw an online joke making fun of someone bringing their smart car to Costco. So, forget walkable and bikeable communities, although all the plans and strategies for the community state this is a priority.

In addition, a Costco is designed for people who have cars, who can manage bulk packages and who can afford a membership. This is clearly non-inclusive.

Health and Safety Costs

Increasing car dependence carries all sorts of health and safety risks. Increased traffic certainly increases accident risk, and reduces walkability in neighbourhoods. Increased car use contributes to the obesity epidemic. Reduced variety and choice (due to stores closing) also reduces accessibility around neighbourhoods, which should optimally be mixed-use and diverse.

Environmental CostsPicture1

Large parking lots are impermeable surfaces which create water runoff and quality issues. They also create heat islands and can destroy habitat. Since these developments tend to spawn further similar types of buildings, the cumulative effects can be devastating.

Increased car-focused development has many obvious impacts on the environment, from increased air pollution and resource use, to an increased demand for more and wider roads.

Traffic Costs

The traffic problems are well-documented (See here). The proposed location would create further congestion in an already problematic area. Costco would be drawing massive numbers of cars from the community and surrounding areas and creating a severe bottleneck. Clearly this is a problem. It just isn’t where I choose to spend my energy.

And, in my view, the biggest problem of all:

Legacy Costs

Every time we build a new big box store and another small business closes, we lose a piece of our community identity. We lose opportunities for stories, for adventures, for creativity, for art, for uniqueness, for nature, for learning and for cultural development. We lose the opportunity to teach future generations what a beautiful, sustainable, vibrant, healthy and safe neighbourhood looks and feels like.

Elected representatives have a responsibility and an opportunity to make good decisions about how our communities function. We select them because we trust that they will do the necessary background research, talk to the necessary people and make a concerted effort to fully understand the impacts of their decisions. My elected officials made commitments to the community to uphold principles of sustainability, active transportation, local economic prosperity, safety, health, and many others. It is my sincere hope that they will consider these principles before making a rash decision.

What is the real price we are paying for giant packages of toilet paper and buckets of ketchup? If the price is the health of our community, forget it!

Please contact me if you would like more information or are willing to join me in front of the metaphorical bulldozer.

I also wrote a letter to the newspaper:

If you made it to the end, thanks for reading!!!

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Grey squirrel, grey squirrel, shake your bushy tail

I decided to do something a little different for “Species of the Week” today. I saw some prints in the snow, and thought: “Gee, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to identify species this way as well?”

Animal prints I found in the snow:


OK, so it wasn’t a huge surprise when about five seconds of internet research revealed the owner of these prints to be:

The Eastern Grey Squirrel: Sciurus carolinensis


I know, I know, not very exciting for anyone who lives in Ontario. Grey squirrels are ubiquitous around here (unless, in my experience, you’re trying to research them). This year, they have taken up permanent residence at our bird feeder. Thank you husband for the lovely photos.


Here are a few things you may not know:

The Eastern Grey Squirrel is found in Europe and North America. They are native here in Ontario, but are considered a pest in BC and parts of Europe. In 1909, a group of 8 were imported from New York and released in Vancouver’s Stanley Park. Since then, they have become a very competitive invasive species there.

Eastern Grey Squirrels come in two main varieties, grey and black. Black ones, however, are less common the further south you go (which may mean the black fur has some sort of heat retention function). Their large tails serve many purposes. They are rudders for balance and steering, a shade, a blanket, and a tool for signalling to other squirrels (and taunting my cat at the window). The word squirrel comes from the words “shadow” and “tail” in Greek. Squirrels can move up to 25 km per hour.

They have a highly varied diet which includes nuts, fruits, buds, bark, insects, eggs, mushrooms, and, as I’m sure you’re aware, backyard birdseed. Through trial and error, we have discovered there is no such thing as a squirrel-proof bird feeder. Anyone who advertises something as such is trying to sell you a feeder that is also bird-proof.

Check this out, just for fun:

Grey squirrels hoard food in late summer and autumn for use in colder months.  I really wonder if this season of giant dense snow banks has left many of them baffled and hungry.


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Dear Winter

Dear Winter,

At first, I thought we had something special. When your gentle flakes first touched my cheeks, and your sparkling frost delicately covered the ground, I thought we were meant to be. My children played with you, building forts and snowmen, and sliding down hills with jubilant laughter.

When times started to get more difficult, I persisted in trying to make things work. In some of your darkest hours, I was able to find your beauty. I thought perhaps if I changed my attitude towards you, things between us would improve. I was wrong.

I have been trying too hard for too long. You have blanketed the whole community with negativity. I have grown tired of your constant tantrums and the intense coldness of your heart. I can no longer put up with your possessiveness, and your refusal to allow me to spend time with other seasons. I find you unreasonable. Being with you is simply too much work.

It’s time for you to go. Please pack up your things and leave as soon as possible. I sincerely hope that once we have had some time apart, I will be able to welcome you with open arms back into my life.




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GO AWAY! (no, not you)

I try to keep this blog positive. I really do. I like to talk about solutions instead of problems. And, at the risk of sounding like a goody-two-shoes, I like to take negative situations and try to find the good in them. The last thing we really need on the internet is more negativity….or kittens….or jokes about Justin Bieber.Image

However, there comes a time in every Canadian winter, when we collectively throw our cold, red, chapped, show-shovel-blistered hands in the air and yell, “I’M DONE!”

That time has come.                         

I am SO done with winter.

The snowsuit wrestling matches.

Dragging a toddler-laden sled uphill along unplowed sidewalks.

-29oC windchill factors.

Massive, vision-obstructing snowbanks (and the children who run onto the street from behind them).

Wet mittens, drippy noses, cracked fingertips, muddy boot-prints in the hall, and the colour “slush.”

Winter, go away.

Until it does, you can find me hibernating with my offspring in a big comfy couch with a fluffy blanket and a good book. Call me when you see the first robin (Like this one).

If you’d prefer to read positive posts about winter, please see the following:


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Rainbow Day!

When I was a child, someone gave me a many-faceted glass prism. When the prism is placed in the right window, and when the sun Imagecomes through at the proper angle, it throws an array of brilliant rainbows around the room.  A light tap sends the rainbows spinning in a wild dance of light and colour.

In my current home, I was happy to discover that by hanging this prism in my office, every single sunny morning would result in this effect.  I started calling out “It’s Rainbow Day!” which would bring our kids running in to chase after the patches of colour. If you’ve ever played with a cat and a laser pointer, it’s the same effect. Trying to catch the rainbows is a rather futile activity, but never ceases to entertain. It’s a wonderful way to start a day.

ImageThere is something innately magical about rainbows, isn’t there? Does anyone really get tired of seeing one appear up in the sky? It’s no wonder that they have played an important role in the mythologies of so many cultures (Australian, Greek, Norse, Irish, Judeo-Christian etc…).  You may see rainbows as an environmental phenomenon, a symbol of gay pride, a spiritual message, or an opportunity to find a pot of gold. Whether they appear in the sky, in the spray of a backyard hose, or dancing around a room, I never cease to enjoy their presence.

Don’t forget about this guy and his double rainbow:


Ever since I first learned the phrase “ROY G. BIV,” I have always had an affinity for things arranged in the “correct” order of the spectrum. Ok, maybe I’ll call it a compulsion rather than an affinity. If all the Imagecolours of the rainbow are there, why doesn’t anyone else feel the need to arrange them that way? (Crayons, plastic cups…etc.) They just look better!



Discussions on light refraction can wait for another day. For now, I am happy to let my children delight in the dancing rainbows on Rainbow Day. Plus, it’s hard to stay grouchy, even if you’re the most stubborn, sulking six-year old, when you’re watching the rainbows dance.

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S’no Big Deal

The other night, the snow fairies visited yet again. This time, they brought their dump trucks. It took my husband and me two hours to dig out our driveway after the plow came. But, we were grateful it DID come. Living on a cul-de-sac means the street doesn’t always get plowed very quickly. Living on a cul-de-sac with a significant slope means that driving up in heavy snow requires a sturdy set of snow tires, nerves of steel, and the good luck not to encounter anyone coming down.


You might think I’m grumbling here, but I’m not. Whenever there is a substantial snowfall, I see something really neat. People who we have not seen in months emerge from hibernation to shovel their driveways. All those people who typically spend the winter driving straight into their garage, closing the door and heading to the TV are forced outside for some hard work. Neighbours are talking, laughing at the situation, and helping each other. The kids are all outside, sliding on the huge snow banks, digging forts, “helping” shovel the driveway and generally having a blast.


Also, people are getting exercise. It really feels great going inside and having a hot chocolate after a workout like that. In the past, I have been known to leave the shoveling to my husband (using traditional gender roles to my advantage). However, I’m going to try to get out there more, as I actually end up enjoying it.

Some people get a snow blower or hire someone to take care of the snow. It does make sense for a lot of people. However, we know too many of our neighbours to get a snow blower. We’d feel obligated to do all their driveways and it would take forever. Besides, the sense of community, the exercise, the fresh air, and the sense of accomplishment make the shoveling worthwhile!

They’re calling for more snow in the next couple of days. Not entirely sure where we’re going to put it. Our snow banks are higher than the cars.

But I say: Bring it on!

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