There are about 472 species of birds in Southern Ontario, 2,000 in North America and more than 10,000 in the world. Toronto Wildlife Centre has admitted more than 130 of these species.
Numbers like these are tantalizing to the collector type. When the collection is birds (at least the ones that don’t end up stuffed), the collectors are called bird watchers (or birders, bird nerds, twitchers). Like other collections, bird watching can become an obsession, ruining relationships and burning through savings. But on the plus side, the collection is easily stored – in brains, photos and checklists.
Bird listener might be a better word than bird watcher. An experienced (obsessed) bird watcher spends a lot of time listening. Each species of bird has a unique song to warn others of danger and to attract mates. The experienced birder can identify a bird by its song without even seeing it.
Luckily, birds are obliging, and many of their songs lend themselves to mnemonics. Mnemonics is a general word that simply means a device that aids in the memorization of something.
A barred owl’s hoot (TWC has admitted seven barred owls to date in 2012) sounds a bit like “who cooks for you.” An eastern-sided towhee suggests you “drink your teeeee,” while a patriotic white-throated sparrow trills “oh sweet Canada, Canada, Canada.”
Other birds have been helpfully named phonetically based on their song. The black-capped chickadee’s distress call, for example, is “chickadee, dee dee.” The Eastern phoebe’s song is “fee-be”.
In a twist, the northern mockingbird is aptly named too, not phonetically, but for their uncanny ability to mimic sounds. They copy other birds and car alarms and jack hammers. A male can learn around 200 songs.
Bird watching (listening) starts out cheaply. It doesn’t cost a penny to peer up at a bird now and again, and even starter binoculars and bird books aren’t terribly expensive in comparison to other hobbies.
And you don’t even have to leave the city. The Leslie Street Spit is a man-made peninsula that extends five kilometres out into Lake Ontario. Originally meant to act as a breakwater for Toronto Harbour, it became a handy place to dispose of clean-fill construction debris from the growing city’s many building projects.
Nature took over, and nurtured a diverse wilderness out of the rubble. The northern half of the peninsula is now Tommy Thompson Park and the rest is still an active dump.
Tommy Thompson Park is designated a globally significant Important Bird Area (IBA) by BirdLife International, recording more than 300 species of birds. Most of those species are just passing through during spring and fall migration, but even in the winter some species of waterfowl hang around.
What does that mean for you? Even in January, you can take a bus to an accidental wilderness and look for birds, and for you city types, still have the CN Tower and skyline as a reassuring backdrop.
Julia Coey is a writer and development coordinator at Toronto Wildlife Centre (TWC). TWC is a charity, relying on donations to run wildlife community education programs and an emergency wildlife hotline, dedicated wildlife rescue team and veterinary and rehabilitation programs that help about 5,000 sick, injured and orphaned wild animals a year. Visit www.torontowildlifecentre.com