Slowing down allowed for the discovery of local wildlife

When I moved to the Alberta Avenue area a few years ago, I was a little intimidated by the neighbourhood’s reputation. Amid the challenges, I quickly saw past my first impression of urban strife to the rich mosaic of individuals calling this community home. I explored the shops and restaurants, met my neighbours, and tried to become a good community member. 

I also bought a bird feeder, which I hung from a tree right outside my window and filled with peanuts. I hoped to attract the local corvids, a family which includes crows, ravens, magpies, jays, and whiskeyjacks. Corvids are the most intelligent of birds, with superb facial-recognition skills, and the only birds capable of making and using tools. I figured the feeder would help relieve boredom for my indoor cat and, other than filling it regularly, gave it no more thought. 

Then the pandemic struck and I was suddenly quarantined. With nothing to do and nowhere to be, I felt a little anxious and needed a distraction. I began paying more attention to the feeder and to the creatures who frequent it. I saw the patterns, habits, and behaviours driving the secret world of inner-city wildlife. This is how I discovered the complex society living under my nose.

It began with a magpie I nicknamed Maggie. She came by every morning for peanuts and would screech if I was late filling the feeder. Once, when money was tight, I became concerned because I couldn’t afford to buy nuts. A Google search suggested that Maggie might enjoy pet kibble, and I had plenty of that. I also learned that corvids are territorial. So, it’s a good bet that the bird I saw each day was in fact Maggie.

Maggie showed no interest in the kibble, but it’s the reason I met Nutsy, the squirrel living in the spruce tree a few feet away. Nutsy had no such compunctions; he would happily climb into the feeder, stuff his face with kibble, then scamper back to his den. When I was once again able to provide peanuts, Nutsy would pluck a peanut from the feeder and sit on a branch to enjoy it. Maggie would scold him, but she wouldn’t approach. Then Nutsy would go back, taking one nut at a time and eating it slowly and ostentatiously while Maggie yelled at him. This kept up until the day’s supply was gone.

Curious, I Googled for an explanation. It turns out squirrels are fearless and, with sharp teeth and claws, can defend their stash effectively. Little Nutsy was, in fact, a dangerous beast, and Maggie hung back because she was intimidated!

Thus began a new morning tradition, where I sprinkled kibble around the base of the spruce tree while putting nuts in the feeder on the rowan branch. Nutsy was frantic to gather up all the kibble and take it “upstairs”, which gave Maggie plenty of time to carry off peanuts. It seemed I had helped them find a way to coexist.

It was not to last. One sunny morning, I heard two adult blue jays in the rowan tree. Nutsy and Maggie were nowhere to be seen, and the jays chattered as they raided the feeder. Then one jumped to the ground and began scarfing the kibble, while the other continued to poke at the nuts. I named these two Bonny and Clyde. For the rest of the spring, whenever the blue jays arrived, the other creatures hid. Maybe it was the pecking order, the noise they made, or just strength in numbers. But clearly, nobody wanted to challenge them.

That’s not to say Bonny and Clyde ruled the roost. One visitor snubbed the bird feeder and everyone else hid when he appeared. I first heard the strange sounds in late March, a raspy croak that could only belong to a raven. When I went out for a closer look, he was on the street, digging his beak into the bottom of a styrofoam cup. I called out a hello to him and he glanced up, disinterested, before returning to his cup. I named him Edgar. He doesn’t come by often, so I suspect this isn’t his territory.

On a trip to take my trash out, I decided to check on the rhubarb which grows in an alcove behind my apartment building. I figured if the pandemic were to last until summer, I could pick and preserve fruit. I spied a flash of white when I bent to examine a stalk. Three tiny baby bunnies, jackrabbits most likely, were hiding under the leaves! They were perfectly still, frozen in terror and with eyes squeezed tightly shut. I immediately backed off and looked around for their mother, who was nowhere to be seen. Back to Google, where I discovered mothers often leave their kits alone while foraging during the day. I checked back over the next few days while the kits remained hidden there. When I didn’t see them anymore, I hoped they had moved on rather than become a tasty lunch for coyotes.

In late May, Maggie stopped coming around. Another magpie came, much bigger but equally intimidated by Nutsy. Whenever he managed to bypass the squirrel and snag a nut, he immediately flew high up into the elm tree across the street. I dubbed him Magoo and wondered where he spent his time. Was he just a visitor in the territory? 

One warm night in June, when my windows were open, I was awakened at 2 a.m. by the outraged screams of what sounded like a hundred magpies. The screeching went on for what seemed like hours. The next night, same thing. And the next. Once again, I consulted Google. It turns out they do it for a very good reason! When young chicks are beginning to fledge, the parents’ noise drives away predators. The chicks are just learning to fly, and might not be quick enough to save themselves from a hungry cat. Sure enough, a few days later I found a skinny young magpie with tiny tail feathers under the rowan tree and two others exploring the sidewalk. Maggie and Magoo have babies!

Lately I’ve noticed a solitary whiskeyjack in the early mornings. He’s quieter than his jay cousins, and seems content to perch in the branches and watch the world go by. The radio was playing “Blue Eyes Cryin’ In The Rain” when I first saw him, so I named him Willie. Willie doesn’t approach the feeder. He watches me from the spruce tree and leaves as soon as Nutsy arrives. Maybe he’s just lonely. I like to imagine he’s like me, watching the world go by and waiting for things to return to normal.

Featured Image: This bird feeder has been the site of many wildlife sightings. | Ali Hammington