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2006 11 21
City Birds in Winter

In November the city birds huddle and mutter together like feathered monks, their solemn bowing a kind of benediction to the city. Their breath is invisible, their feet bright red against the frozen sidewalk. They are spectral beings, their bearing judicial. As the days darken they seem forgiving, nodding above the neon marquee, but as the winter wears on they fix us with an unblinking stare. Feed me, they say; there is nothing for me to eat, and no warm place for me to stay.

The City of Toronto dissuades us from feeding city birds: it is concerned about overpopulation, and describes resident wildlife as an invasion. But how like us they are: intelligent, adaptable, messy, even invasive. We might hold them up as mirrors. Timothy Findley does this in Headhunter, a Toronto novel about a city beset by moral malaise, where starlings are scapegoated for a disease produced in a pharmaceutical lab. Those who secretly pity and feed them are the city's mad, those who (Findley writes, quoting G.K. Chesterton) have lost everything but their reason.

Perhaps we, too, might retain our reason. In this city in winter, starlings, cardinals, and little sparrows and finches are often the only wildlife remaining in our backyards; pigeons the only relief from our own ceaseless jostling at subway entrances. We are taught to avoid the old man who spreads crumbs at the edge of the square, although, like Saint Francis, his empathy surpasses our own. We assume that the only birds of value in this city are those vetted by the Toronto Ornithological Club as a result of outings to regional parks and cemeteries. But if we think of the city as a new kind of natural habitat, and appreciate even its prosaic and invasive species as urban dwellers like ourselves, we might breach our conditioning and learn to tolerate them. In Toronto the Wild, naturalist Wayne Grady suggests that we acknowledge our uneasy rapport with the species we have attracted as a consequence of altering our environments to suit ourselves. We might admit that retail signs and apartment balconies provide ideal nesting sites, that big box stores and gallerias might serve as perennial terrariums, that our unfrozen waterfront can support bird populations while we dither over its development, and that our discarded sandwiches might stave off starvation for a host of sparrows who cannot survive on seeds when the trees that produced them are long vanished.

In November, chilled pigeons sidle recursively across our neighbours' roofs while finches and sparrows consume the last of the cedar buds outside my study. Starlings gather daily in the alley to eat the kibble we put out for stray cats, and in the hour after teaching my love feeds birds at the edge of a suburban campus, a solitary Saint Francis at the edge of the city. There is a bird feeder somewhere in the garage: it is time again to hang and fill it, so that there will still be chattering and preening in the city in January, something to tide us over until life returns in the spring.

In her Toronto Book Award winning novel, The Perpetual Ending, Kristen den Hartog writes that the red feet of city pigeons are frightening, like an organ exposed.

Like the city's heart, made visible by birds in winter?

(The above image was taken by Striatic and is used under the aegis of a Creative Commons license.)
[email this story] Posted by Amy Lavender Harris on 11/21 at 12:32 PM

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