A member of the largest extant flock of passenger pigeons (Royal Ontario Musuem)

A member of the largest extant flock of passenger pigeons (Royal Ontario Musuem)

Anyone passionate about passenger pigeons really must make a pilgrimage to Toronto and the Royal Ontario Museum. In the 1920s ROM prepared and distributed a detailed questionnaire on passenger pigeons that yielded important information from those who knew the birds from life. Under the museum’s auspices,  this information was collated and augmented by a wide range of other material by Margaret Mitchell, who published her findings in the superb The Passenger Pigeon in Ontario. Perhaps of greater significance for current visitors, ROM has the world’s largest collection of passenger pigeons with about 160 skins, mounts,  and skeletons. Seventy of those specimens were acquired by volunteer Paul Hahn who from 1918 to 1960 scoured the province in search of his quarry. I was therefore particularly pleased to be invited to give a talk in late September.

Bought by Paul Hahn for $7.50.

Bought by Paul Hahn for $7.50.

Project Passenger Pigeon has put me in touch with  people in Toronto, a number of whom I had met but some I had not. Artists  Tim Hough, whose bird renditions are nothing less than stunning, and Nicole Vermond, both of whom drove down to Chicago to see the documentary, graciously picked me up at the airport. We had lunch with another Toronto friend Richard Aaron  Then Nicole and Tim took me birding. Again, mid afternoon land birding proved to be slow: the natural history highlight were the antics of a raccoon (at end of text).

Nicole and Tim, in front of memorial to Tim's dad, a prominent architect and conservationist.

Nicole and Tim, in front of memorial to Tim’s dad, a prominent architect and conservationist.

My hotel was a couple of blocks from ROM, and right next to the University of Toronto. The next day was spent entirely at ROM. One unexpected pleasure came a few weeks before my trip when I received an e-mail from David Day, a world renowned author whose books on J.R. R. Tolkein have sold over a million copies. But he has also written extensively on extinct species, authoring such titles as the Doomsday Book of Animals (1981), revised as The Encyclopedia of Vanished Species (1989), Noah’s Choice (1990) and Nevermore: A Book of Hours – Meditations on Extinction (2012). He congratulated me on A Feathered River and expressed a desire to get together when I was in Toronto.

Mark P and David D

Mark P and David D

David and I met at the museum first thing and had a delightful time together. My formal presentation was part of a two person talk: the other speaker was Ben Novak who would be addressing the de-extinction work he is working on. David  and I were at the museum guest entrance when in walked Ben and his parents. Later we were all summoned by Mark Peck, the bird collections manager, to see the collections. While most museums have a drawer or two containing some number of passenger pigeons, ROM had many drawers. Ben and I reveled in the treasures, and never even finished going through all the passenger pigeon drawers. I did say to Mark that he would never have more enthusiastic passenger pigeon devotees looking at the collection at the same time as he did that day. It was a ROM specimen whose DNA Ben is using in his work.

Ben

Ben

ROM  had planned a terrific program with a reception and book signing before hand. There was also a musical prelude featuring a chorus replicating various avian sounds. I also met for the first time Skip Shand, a Facebook Friend whose ruminations on birding, nature more broadly, and literature (Skip taught theater for many years Glendon College of York University) led to some great on line discussions and a desire to cross paths. This trip provided the opportunity, as he was picking me up in the morning to go birding, after which he would deposit me at the airport.

Great egret with shorebirds.

Great egret with shorebirds.

Our first morning stop was Rotary Park in Ajax where we also met up with John Stirrat, a birding friend of Skips. Rotary Park is a diverse area with Lake Ontario on one side  along with woods and marsh on the other. We did find some several species of shorebirds including pectoral sandpipers, lesser yellowlegs, least sandpiper, and a stilt sandpiper. Cranberry Marsh in Whitby is inland and drew lots of birders and photographers. The birding highlight for me was the trumpeter swan family that came quite close. Pretending to be a photographer changes one’s perspective. Black-capped chickadees are so widespread they are rarely worthy of mention but here we encountered a totally habituated individual  that would perch on human hands. (I envision a book, Chickadees in the Mist) Not only is the red squirrel arguably the most comely of our eastern squirrels, it occurs in Illinois in but one county. It is therefore not a species I see often, and although it is certainly common within its range, finding one that proved to be a good photographic model elevated  the personal significance of the experience. Our last stop was at Thickson Woods where the highlight was meeting Glenn Coady, a local birder of longstanding who provided me with information on the passenger pigeon in Ontario when I was researching the book.

Family of trumpeter swans, a conservation success story.

Family of trumpeter swans, a conservation success story.

Usually being dropped off at the airport concludes the adventures. But there was something odd when I walked into the American terminal  and things seemed to be in suspended motion. The ticket agents were all engaged in long conversations with customers. I soon learned the problem: a contract employee set fire to a suburban Chicago air traffic control center where he worked, bringing O’Hare and Midway Airports to a halt. Two-thousand flights were cancelled. The ticket agent I wound up getting was totally stymied on what to do. I wanted to do something that suggested progress. She summoned someone else who seemed better able to handle  the challenge. He  routed me from Toronto to LaGuardia because that was possible: camping out at LaGuardia seemed the likely prospect. (While the two of them debated my fate, I did offer to go home with one or the other and sleep in the garage or in the back yard with the poodles (that last was just a guess.))  Later as I waited for that flight, I again encountered the second  ticket agent and he had a great idea: he said the few flights from New York to Chicago were so delayed I might be able to get to New York in time to catch one of them. And he was right..

late sept ON 2014 184

Catbird at Rotary Park

John and Skip.

John and Skip.

 

Black-capped chickadee and perch.

Black-capped chickadee and perch.

 

Considering options.

Considering options.

 

Decision made.

Decision made.

 

Going, going, gone.

Going, going, gone.

Foraging habitat.

Foraging habitat.

 

Slim pickings.

Slim pickings.

Hmm, where next?

Hmm, where next?

2 Comments to “Touring Toronto”

  1. Tim Hough says:

    I have that book by David Day in my library. And that racoon, if I remember correctly, was at the Evergreen Brickworks in the Don Valley. Toronto has the highest population density of racoons in North America.

  2. Joel says:

    Thanks, Tim. It was a joy being with you and Nichol. I did not know that Toronto has the highest density of raccoons of any city in the continent.

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