Backyard Bullies

Today’s species of the week will focus on one of the more aggressive of my backyard visitors. Between these guys and the squirrels, it is amazing any other birds visit at all.

Today, I introduce to you…

The Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula)


From a distance, Grackles look like large blackbirds, but get a bit closer, and you can see a range of iridescent colours, typically in shades of blue and purple (usually on their heads). On a sunny day, they are quite striking. Sorry for the embarrassingly terrible phone photos.

Go to this page instead for amazing photography and some truly hilarious images:

Grackles dominate at birdfeeders, and often travel in flocks. In my yard, it is not uncommon to see a flock of them swarm the feeder, sending smaller birds fleeing for safety. They are common in suburban areas and city parks, as well as agricultural fields, open woodlands, and meadows. They may migrate a short distance south in winter, depending on location.

Here’s a fun fact:

The Grackle was Jim Henson’s favourite bird. I’m reading Jim Henson’s biography, and when I came across this particular nugget, I decided to choose this for a feature species.

Here are a few (somewhat more educational) facts:

Their sounds have often been compared to rusty gates. Click here to see why:

Grackles are the #1 threat to corn crops. Farmers use a variety of tactics, from scarecrows, to bad tasting chemicals to deter them.

This one is really cool: Grackles engage in something called “anting” where they expose themselves to the formic acid of ants or other substances (like citrus) in order to rid itself of certain parasites, fungi or bacteria. They have been known to rub their wings actively on anthills or invite ants to climb aboard.

Grackles are noisy and aggressive, and many people don’t like them at their feeders. If you belong to this crowd, there are types of feeders designed to discourage birds such as these. Look for feeders without large trays, with smaller perches and smaller openings.

But, I think they’re pretty.


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You’ve Got a Friend in Me


The other day, I committed the ultimate parent-to-a-3-year-old sin.IMG_20140609_105152

My son had just shoved a few mud-encrusted rocks into my hand. After a few minutes, when I thought he had moved on to other business, I tossed them back on the ground. Apparently I was wrong. These friends required immediate rescue.

The term “friend” can have so many interpretations. My littlest applies it to anything he likes. I have watched him chasing frogs and moths across the yard. “What are you doing, honey?” “Playing with my fwends!”

We teach children a very broad definition of “friend.” We encourage them to befriend stuffed animals, assigning them human characteristics and sometimes voices. (Note, this picture with the stuffed animals was entirely un-posed). IMG_9902Kindergarten teachers often start the day with “Good Morning Friends!” At that point in life, every child in your class is “your friend.” Not until grade 1 or 2 do you realize that maybe not everyone is worthy of your friendship, after all. And, of course, ever since a giant purple dinosaur sang “I love you, you love me,” we all know that television brings us regular doses of virtual friendship.

Then again, many of us adults do the same thing, don’t we? How many of your facebook “friends” could you call friends in real life? How many are current friends? Long-ago friends? Acquaintances? People you just met? Friends of friends? Obligatory friends? And, dear readers, in some ways, I consider you all friends. You have taken time out of your busy life to listen to what I have to say, and I appreciate that.

So, has the term “friend” lost any meaning? I don’t think so. I think this approach is a valuable tool to help teach children empathy; to introduce the world as a positive place where a friend can be found in the backyard or just next door; and to give them a sense of brotherhood with all of humanity (and beyond?).

So, my little man, if you decide that any vegetable, mineral, or animal is your friend, who am I to judge? I don’t really see a downside at this point (though I may steer you away from befriending bees or skunks).

And, I’m sorry. Next time, I will take better care of your fwends.

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Climb Every Mountain

It’s March and the snow hasn’t really given much thought to melting yet. The banks are still as high as an elephant’s eye.

One might think that February’s record-breaking cold weather would deter a 3-year old mountain climber from scaling every single *insert expletive of choice* snow bank on the way from the car to the school and back again. One would be wrong.IMG_20150302_152636

When I was small, my grandmother would take us to the giant piles of snow in the grocery store parking lots so we could climb up and slide down over and over. Thank you for your patience, Grandma!

Snow does make for a fabulously flexible and diverse landscape for play, doesn’t it? When I’m at the schoolyard, I find it fascinating how the piles of snow seem to morph over time, subject to countless games of king of the castle, fortress building, and tunnel digging as well as continuous additions and subtractions due to adult maintenance and weather.

Every year, the snow tells a different story.

Despite my appreciation for this ever-changing playground, I find myself increasingly frustrated, as I rescue my little stuck mountain climber from a huge pile of ice and snow for the umpteenth time on our 100m walk.

Patience Mommy… spring is around the corner.

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The Butterfly Conservatory: A place to go at 30 below.

IMG_20131107_102207When you pass through the door, the warm humid air envelops you like a hug. Then, you smell …. yes, the unmistakable smell of “green.” A giant, sapphire blue butterfly swoops past your shoulder and lands on a red hibiscus flower. You hear gently splashing water, and as you seek out the source, you stop to let a small yellow bird hop across your path into the lush garden of tropical plants.

Do you live near a butterfly conservatory? When the thermometer dips below “freeze the toes off a polar bear,” this is the place to be.

It’s wonderful for kids and adults of IMG_20131107_101710all ages. There are no lineups, no dangers, and few places to hide from mom and dad. We got a membership, so both of my kids spent plenty of time learning to walk (and run) there. They loop around the pathways, delighting at the swooping butterflies and birds, and excitedly pointing out each one they find (though they are everywhere). There are plenty of benches.

Friendly staff members are eager to introduce some of the other creatures inhabiting the conservatory, from birds to giant snails to intimidating insects. They also have many programs, and in a couple of weeks, we will venture over there again to taste some delicacies for “BugFeast.”

IMG_20130806_144212 I never get tired of going to the conservatory.  I find it particularly helps us get through the dark and dingy, cold and cranky days of February and March. I miss my garden.

The conservatory also does important work for butterfly (and other insect) conservation.

(Also, my sons find their coin-spinning fundraising bucket particularly entertaining.)

Here’s one location.

I hope you can visit one too.

(Note:  they didn’t hire me to write this).

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The Song of the Boot

It’s been cold lately. Not sure if you’ve noticed. Our school board already cancelled one day of school for -35oC weather, and it looks like they might do it again tomorrow.

Last week, my 3 year old son and I sledwere trudging through the snow from the car to the school to pick up big brother (I am NOT pulling a sled for 20 minutes each way, and waiting another 15 in -35oC. To heck with principles!). I was rushing us along, trying to find respite from the wind. Then, from my little 3-foot bundle of scarf, hat and snowsuit, I hear the muffled words:

 “My boots are singing a song!”

Remember when you used to notice the squeaking, crunching noise that comes from your boots on the snow on very cold days? Remember how neat that sounded?

What a great reminder!

Another excellent lesson in mindfulness from one of my most important teachers.

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Food Culture in Schools

By: The Grinch Who Stole Valentine’s Day

This blog post has been nibbling at my conscience for a number of years now. Time to put it on paper… er… laptop.

IMG_7583When my son entered school, I started to realize I was about to lose control over many aspects of his life. Nowhere has this become more apparent than with his diet.

“Wait… don’t you still pack his lunch?”


“Don’t you provide breakfast and dinner and snacks?”


But let me tell you about last Friday:

  • cheese pizza with white crust
  • a cupcake
  • 2 cookies
  • 2 packages of pop rocks
  • 7 suckers
  • 5 packages of smarties
  • a bag of skittles
  • 8 wrapped chocolates and
  • a package of gum

This is what my son got at school on the Friday before Valentine’s day. None of this was supplied by me, and it is happening over and over again.

I don’t want to point fingers here. It won’t help anyway. The solution has to come from all angles (school boards, principals, parents, teachers, and even children themselves) because the food is coming from all angles!

Unhealthy eating is a systemic problem. It is a problem in most schools, and with society in general. But when kids are in elementary school, we are in a unique position to help them develop healthy eating habits when they are the most impressionable, and WE MUST DO BETTER!

Special Events and Holidays:

IMG_20131108_131254Remember school parties before holidays when you were a kid? We might get one cupcake or a cookie. It was a big deal. Valentine’s day? The cards in the paper bag were enough. Now, it is moderately difficult to find School Valentine Cards that don’t come with a slot for a sucker. Now, kids come to school the day before Christmas break, or Valentine’s day, or Halloween, bearing a 24-cupcake holder, or a big bag of treats to share. Notices even come home from the teachers inviting treats.

What About Birthdays?

My son is in a class of 20. Next door, there is a similar class, and they often gather as a whole group for lessons or activities. When someone has a birthday from either room, they often bring cupcakes, or timbits, or muffins, or cookies for both classes. He says that rarely a week goes by without a treat coming to class. That’s 40 kids. That’s a lot of birthdays.

251929_4250088569614_1642263949_nOne of my many hobbies is cake decorating. I think kids should have cake …. on their
birthdays, family birthdays, friend birthdays… of course! But extra ones at school for every kid in their class? Every time? NO WAY! My son doesn’t even consider these things treats anymore. A cupcake? No big deal. A trip to Timmy’s? “Meh.”

The children have developed this expectation, and parents feed it (pun intended). Of course I understand this. No parent wants his or her kid to be the only one not bringing treats. There is a sense of competition, of “one-up-man-ship” among parents, and it has to stop. Again, I’m not pointing fingers. Almost everyone is doing it.

And Other Days?

Sometimes it isn’t even for a holiday or a birthday. My child has been given popsicles for outdoor sport days, s’mores for “camping” day, cupcakes for fundraisers, and once, a whole month of “cultural” sweets brought in daily by a different child to celebrate their unique countries of origin.

Pizza days at our school happen every Friday. You can opt in or out for an entire term.  You can be the mean parent who doesn’t let their kid have pizza for lunch every single Friday, or you can go with the flow. There is no middle ground.

Then again, Ontario’s School Food and Beverage Policy would have us believe that pizza is a healthy choice. Which, if covered in vegetables, made with a whole wheat crust, low fat cheese and sans meat, it certainly would be. That is not what they serve. Let’s talk about that policy.

Ontario’s School Food and Beverage Policy:

Ontario has a food and beverage policy for schools. This policy restricts the types of foods that can be sold in schools. This is a great idea, and absolutely necessary, but really doesn’t address a huge part of the problem.

This is because the policy only applies to food that is sold at the school.

There is absolutely nothing stopping a teacher from bringing free donuts and cupcakes every single day of the year for his students, or from handing out chocolate bars as rewards for correct answers.

The policy also allows for 10 “special event” days when food can be sold that doesn’t fit into the guidelines (for things like bake sales etc.). This has absolutely no bearing on special event days where children are permitted (nay, encouraged?) to bring unhealthy snacks from home to share. There is no limit on these days.

Even after a cursory evaluation of Ontario’s school food policy, I noticed that foods like “baked potato chips” can make their way to the “sell most” category. 80% of the food that schools sell is supposed to come from this category. This one particular item was even used as an example of a good food choice in a training exercise for teachers on the website! In what world does this constitute healthy eating??  Even if one particular brand fits into guidelines for fat, salt and vegetables (and it is a challenge to find the one or two that do), it sends the message to kids that potato chips are a positive food choice! THIS is the policy that is supposed to help fix the problem.

Downright bizarre!

Why Should We Care?

In Ontario, almost a third of children are overweight or obese. Yup, that’s one in three. Scary.

I don’t think I have to list the long-term health effects of obesity here. Here, let me Google that for you:

Unhealthy school food cultures undermine the very lessons the health curriculum ainathan applems to teach. My son tells me there is a sign in the gym stating “sugar is killing us” which compares the amounts of sugar in different beverages. “But, go ahead, have a cupcake, some cookies and a Popsicle!” What kind of weird mixed messages are our children getting at school?

While the Ontario Schools Food Policy does nothing to address free food, for some schools that is the main problem. So, forget help there. Without the help of a policy or a firm administration devoted to the cause, each school community is stuck developing their own food culture. In our case, it appears to be designed by children.

So what should we do?

The truth is, some schools and individual teachers ARE doing better. I gratefully applaud those who come up with creative alternatives. However, I think these brave souls are few and far between. I mean, who really wants to be the one mean teacher who won’t let the class eat cake? All the kids love the teacher who hands out candy.

Schools must realize there are alternatives. Celebrations need not revolve around food. There are so many choices, and plenty of schools have actually made no-food birthday policies. Parents can hand out other things (stickers, tattoos, pencils) if they choose. Or, perhaps birthday kids could choose a special treat, like extra recess, or maybe they get to pick the game for gym class. There can be dance parties, class board games….the possibilities are endless!  Food should never be used as a reward or incentive.

Frankly, the kids are bored of cupcakes anyway!

I found this link, which is amazing and full of great ideas. Please visit it:

I’m no health nut. There is ice cream in my freezer and cookies in my cupboard. Of COURSE my kids get treats. I’m not even opposed to the occasional treat in school. I’m opposed to a stream of sugar being poured down my son’s throat that I have absolutely no control over.

So, the line must be drawn, and it must be drawn soon.

If you are in a position to help change this, wherever you are, please do so.

Our children’s lives literally depend on it.

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The Risks and Rewards of Sharing Hobbies with Children

One of the joys of parenthood is when you realize you can start inflicting your hobbies on your children.

So you do.

Then, one of the great disappointments of parenthood can be when you realize that children have the ability to take your cherished hobby and turn it into a puddle of miserable with a constant stream of whining and tears.

On the other hand, one of the great joys of parenthood can be when you introduce one of your hobbies to your children, and they like it. A lot.

You never know exactly which of these to expect when you embark on a new activity with your kids. (I have the feeling I was guilty of the former on more than one occasion. Sorry IMG_20150201_105736Mom and Dad.)

This weekend, I took my son cross-country skiing for the first time. He absolutely loved it. We did a short little practice loop, and it quickly became clear he was ready for more. We did over 2.2km on the first time out. Of course he had a few falls, but didn’t let that bother him for one second. Bright eyed and bushy tailed, he couldn’t get enough.

This opens up a new option for winter activities for him, and it will also encourage me to get out more!


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