Humans Not The Only Species Feeling the Housing Squeeze: Guest Blog by Mark Bell


First of all…a confession: I’m not much of a birder. Robins, House Sparrows, Cardinals, no problem, but beyond that I am not to be trusted.

So it was a bit of a surprise even to myself when I recently became obsessed with my local population of Chimney Swifts. I noticed them one evening around dusk in my Parkdale neighbourhood in downtown Toronto. Their bat-like movements and constant chittering intrigued me and it didn’t take much research for even me to make a positive I.D.


These aerial insectivores spend pretty much all their waking hours in the sky collecting small insects and any other aerial plankton that might be swirling in the air above our heads. You will never see a Chimney Swift land in your backyard, or on your feeder, you will not even see one perching on a branch or on a wire. These birds are in constant motion, and when they are not in flight they retreat to the inner safety of their chosen chimney. So while these city-dwelling birds are easy to spot, they are almost impossible to really see.


Originally they would have lived in the old-growth forests where dead, hollowed out trees provided the sort of deep, protected nesting locations they favour. Ever since we cut down our older forests the Swifts have learned to adapt to the concrete jungles we have built in their place. The architecture of most chimneys mimics the hollow trees they were used to and they can easily cling to and build their nests on the rough brick interiors of these chimneys.


Sadly for Chimney Swifts, the current trend in new construction does not allow for large (or even small) open chimneys, and even older buildings are starting to cap existing chimneys or line them with metal to make them more fire-safe, measures that prevent Swifts from nesting there.


I live in the Parkdale section of Toronto which is blessed with some lovely old buildings from an era when industry once flourished alongside residential areas. The prevalence of older industrial buildings (and their chimneys) in this part of town probably explains why the aerial gymnastics of Chimney Swifts are on constant display here during the summer months.


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Of all the species of songbirds, it is the aerial insectivores that are having the most difficulty in recent years. Many of these are at critically low population counts with some, like the Chimney Swift, down by 95% since 1968. There are many factors involved in this pattern of decline, and in all likelihood, this constant and gradual disappearance of housing opportunities is a contributing factor.



For a city-dweller such as myself, one of the extraordinary things about the Chimney Swift is that I don’t need to travel to the Boreal Forest to catch a glimpse of this rare bird. It can be as easy as sitting on my deck with a coffee, staring up into the sky.

And with only a minimum amount of effort I can take my observations one step further and contribute my data to the Bird Studies Canada SwiftWatch database. Because these birds are in such serious decline, the data that citizen scientists can contribute is of tremendous importance. Gathering information on their numbers and nesting locations helps to keep track of their population and overall health.


Swifts are incredibly elusive, but they have one behavioral trait that is predictable: within 20 minutes before or after sunset they will come home to roost for the night in their chosen chimney.

As a Swift-watcher all I have to do is stake out a chimney in my neighbourhood around sunset and watch to see how many, if any, enter the chimney. You might think staring up a chimney for half an hour might be boring, but there is an unbelievable rush of satisfaction when you are lucky enough to witness a Swift entering a chimney. These birds are incredibly agile and as they swoop and dive they can reach remarkable speeds as they race back and forth collecting dinner in their open beaks, but when they decide to call it a night they will glide over their chimney and for a split-second appear to pause in midair, before dropping themselves down, disappearing into the opening of the chimney. Some go headfirst, others perform a twisting sort of pirouette to slow their entry, others go feet first, but each entry is as elegant as it is mysterious.




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I’ve been observing these birds since the Spring. I’ve watched them pair up and take nesting material to their chimneys. (They have a one-nest-per-chimney rule, regardless of how big the chimney is). I’ve seen them making more frequent visits later in the summer, presumably to feed their newly hatched fledglings. I’ve seen families flying in formation in what I can only assume is a kind of flight school for young Swifts. At the end of September I’ve seen them abandon their individual chimneys in favour of group living as they congregate in large groups in a single chimney in preparation for their annual migration to South America. And finally, I made my last observation of a local chimney where a few days earlier I had counted 37 swifts entering. The chimney now stood empty.  Sad to see them go, but of course I wish them a swift journey south (they probably hear that one all the time) and I’m already looking forward to their return in April.


Bird Studies Canada has an excellent website with plenty of details about Chimney Swifts in general and also specific information on the SwiftWatch Program for anyone that would like to contribute data to help preserve these amazing birds.


This video from Nova Scotia posted on YouTube captures both the beauty and the awe Swifts can inspire. Just don’t expect to see quite so many on your first outing!






Photo’s Courtesy of Bird Studies Canada, Christian Artuso, Mark Bell, The Northern Hoot.

Mark Bell 2017






Two amazing books: ” Birds Art Life ” by Kyo Maclear and “The Evening Chorus” by Helen Humphreys



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“In  Birds Art Life, writer Kyo Maclear embarks on a yearlong, big city adventure chasing after birds, and along the way offers a luminous meditation on the nature of creativity and the quest for a good and meaningful life.”

I recently finished Kyo’s Mclear’s memoir Birds Art Life and I was sad to put it down. It felt as if I was just getting to know someone – someone who shared my passions and the questions I have about the world around me. It was a conversation that I didn’t want to end!


“Birds Arts Life” is an astute memoir of connection and discovery, a distilled crystal-like celebration of the small and significant, the imperfect and the struggling, and the liberating effects of keeping your eyes and ears wide open.”

Through four seasons, and guided by a new companion, Kyo discovers the world of birds. These are the birds that pass through our cities and our yards. The birds that float on our lakes and rivers, both the remarkable and the unremarkable. Her words are a refreshing break from the sensational and newsworthy events that seem to shout at us every day.  She reflects on small things that create meaning in our lives – a choice is both bold and honest.



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“Helen Humphreys ‘The Evening Chorus’ is brilliant evocation of an unforgettable time and place and a natural history of both the war and the human heart.”

The Evening Chorus is a work of fiction that interweaves three compelling stories: James Hunter, who spends the second world war in a POW camp. His young wife Rose who, in James absence falls in love with another man, and James sister Enid who forms a friendship with Rose that alters the course of all of their lives.  Notably, for those interested in birds the character James Hunter is inspired by the real life birdwatcher John Buxton. Buxton, while held captive as a prisoner of war in WWII, studied a family of redstarts and wrote a book about his observations. Today this book is still regarded by many as one of the most comprehensive single-species studies ever undertaken.

The writing throughout The Evening Chorus is beautiful. Rooted in the rhythms and imagery of nature and featuring chapter headings named after various flora and fauna, this novel is moving, meaningful and a pleasure to read.

You can pick up Birds Art Life or The Evening Chorus at your local bookstore or through any of the major on-line retailers. I really loved reading these books and highly recommend them. ENJOY!


Die Gotterdammerung – Reason and Mercy

Die Gotterdammerung is the last in Richard Wagner’s cycle of four music dramas titled Der Ring des Nibelungen or The Ring Cycle.

Last year I wrote a short blogpost about The Forest Bird in Wagners Siegfried. This year, I was lucky enough to see the COC production of Die Gotterdammerung, and found myself pondering the role of birds, both in music and in the stories we tell.


Like the opera Siegfried, birds are featured once again in Die Gotterdammerung, but this time we meet two ravens called Reason and Mercy. Tragically (this is opera after all) these ravens are the messengers who decree Siegfried’s death. Birds have something to tell us indeed.


Screen Shot 2017-02-19 at 5.46.29 PM The raven is perhaps humankinds most storied bird. The mythology of the Haida is based on the epic cycle of stories about the Raven and his various exploits.  One of the best-known of these stories tells how the Raven disguised himself in order to enter the house of the Sky Chief, from whom he stole the sun, moon and stars to give to humankind.


Be it stories or music, birds are our long time cultural companions. British composer David Matthews believes that western music inspired by birdsong goes back at least as far as the 16th century. You can read more about his ideas in this essay. Matthews also understands what it means to be losing our birds.



 “Many of our birds are in decline – the cuckoo among them: fewer people now hear this essential sound of spring. Fortunately we still have blackbirds in great numbers, but we had better take care of them, and our other songbirds, otherwise we shall end up with the silent spring that Rachel Carson warned us of in her famous book of that title. Birds were singing millions of years before we evolved: they were the inventors of music. Maybe our future depends on theirs.”


Wise words indeed.

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With gratitude, 2016 was a good year for The Messenger. 2017 will be a challenging year for our environment and the world we live in. We hope that the film will continue to inspire and inform.

Winner: Prix Buffon, Paris Science, Le festival international du film scientifique, 2016

Winner: Special Jury Award, Visions of Nature/Voices of Nature Environmental Film Festival 2016

Special Mention for Best Documentary, CinemAmbiente, Italy 2015

Winner: Best Environmental Film Prize, Festival de l’Oiseau et de la Nature, Abbeville Cedex, France 2016

Winner: Best of Fest, International Wildlife Film Festival Missoula, Montana 2016

Winner: Best Theatrical Feature, International Wildlife Film Festival Missoula, Montana 2016

Nominated: Best Cinematography in a Feature Documentary, Canadian Screen Awards 2016

Nominated: Best Editing in Feature Documentary, Canadian Cinema Editors Award 2016

Nominated: for Dutch IntL Science Film Festival NTR Audience Award & Youth Jury Award, 2016

Winner: Whistleblower Award Cinema Verde Environmental Film & Arts Festival, 2016

Winner: Favourite Documentary Feature, North Bay Film Festival, 2016

Winner: Best Conservation Film, Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival, 2015

Winner: Top Ten Audience Award, Hot Docs 2015

Recipient of the 2015 Carl Nunn Media and Conservation Award presented by Ontario Nature


Now available on itunes in Canada and the USA.




The 6th edition of DREFF – Dominican Republic Environmental Film Festival, Santo Domingo

Can’t say enough good things about Dominican Republic Environmental Film Festival (DREFF).

This was a very different kind of film festival.

DREFF is an initiative of Global Foundation for Democracy and Development (GFDD) and the Global Democracy and Development (FUNGLODE) Foundation. Their goal is to promote environmental films and raise the level of public awareness.


publico-4They do this by connecting the film a dedicated audience. The Messenger was paired with several high school groups and screened at different locations in Santo Domingo. Teachers had prepared the students for the screening (including assignments) so they were very attentive!  Filmmakers accompanied their films into the classroom, engaging in lively Q&A’s. It’s great to see environmental films reaching these younger audiences and to see these audiences connecting with the material.

The screenings were rewarding, as was the company. All filmmakers stayed in the same hotel, and spent many wonderful evenings talking — exchanging ideas, perspectives and stories from around the globe. Our screening days took us in very different directions, as many filmmakers travelled all over the Island to present their works to a variety of cities, towns and communities. Programming included films from Chile, the Yukon, South Africa, the UK, the USA and more.



Personal Highlights included a walk through the botanical garden accompanied by a local bird guide who pointed out many resident species that I had previously never seen or heard.


On the last day of the festival we participated in a beach clean-up. Hundreds of people were present, combing through layers of debris, most of which were discarded plastics. The site of all this garbage along the beach was sobering.  Shocking as it seems, recycling programs are rare in Caribbean countries and there is so much waste! (What ever happened to glass bottles and deposits?) And bottled water is such an environmental tragedy on every level).


While the beach clean-up left us with the feeling that so much work needs to be done, the festival was a shining example of what can be done, and what is being done with positive and tangible impacts.

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