Nature in the City

For more than a century, the trees and grounds of Osgoode Hall have been home to the wildlife of the city, and in particular, birds. The publicly accessible greenspace is a rarity in the concrete jungle that is Toronto’s downtown core, and the grounds and trees offer a much-needed sanctuary to Toronto’s wildlife (and there is plenty of wildlife!). We came across the following post in the blog archives, written by a former staff member who was known as the Great Library’s head bird guy. Enjoy! 🐦🌳

*Post originally published in April of 2017*

Although its central downtown location might suggest otherwise, Osgoode Hall is one of the best places in Toronto to see birds. The common ones are on constant display, of course – starlings and robins, squadrons of the best-fed pigeons in the city, and flocks of sparrows, or, as birders like to call them, LBJs – “little brown jobs”. But the plentiful trees and shrubs on the sprawling grounds play host to an amazing variety of birds one would only expect to see in a quieter, more rural setting.

Red-tailed hawk

To begin with, woodpeckers. Yellow-bellied sapsuckers, hairy and downy woodpeckers can be seen and heard regularly in the ash and maple trees, but best of all is the annual April thrill of seeing a shy yellow-shafted flicker poking about for ants on the east lawn, then scurrying back to the safety of a bush. Even more than robins, the flicker’s arrival is a sure sign of spring. Another is the flock of slate-coloured juncos which visit for a week or so every April before moving on.

Last year’s long, hot summer produced a bird bonanza: in mid-May, Baltimore orioles came for the nectar when the crab apple trees were in blossom and by July the grounds were alive with the sights and sounds of blue jays (attracted by the big oaks), cardinals, grackles, flycatchers and goldfinches. Among the most elusive songbirds are the warblers. I’ve only seen two kinds in my entire “career” as a birder, but just after my birthday passed last August I saw two more within a week. A black and white warbler flitting about in the shrubs, and then a Canada warbler, which landed three feet in front of me and stayed just long enough to be identified – small, plump, blue-gray wings, yellow breast with a black “necklace”. I was astonished and took it as a sign of something good, without being quite sure what.

The ample hedges provide cover for such skulkers as gray catbirds, brown thrashers, towhees, hermit thrushes and tiny winter wrens. Speaking of tiny, just yesterday I saw a brown creeper obsessively spiraling its way around the bark of a maple. Recently one of the gardeners asked me about a little bird she’d seen, describing it as greenish-gray and sporting a bright red cap with two black stripes along it. I told her it had to be a ruby-crowned kinglet, adding it to the list of birds they’ve told me about seeing. Two summers ago they reported spotting an indigo bunting – bright royal blue all over – on the west grounds. Having never seen one, this filled me with no small envy. Of course I went looking, but to no avail: the best way to see birds here is to have them drop in on you, rather than the other way around.

A few weeks later in September, a lady from the Smithsonian Institute arrived, decked out in the trappings of the expert birdwatcher – sensible shoes, Tilley hat, pad and pencil, binoculars. I spoke to her briefly and she told me that Osgoode Hall has for years been a major stopping-off point for birds on their annual fall migrations, and that she’d noted sixty-six species on the grounds in the past few days. That far exceeded even my expectations; she was clearly more than a match for me.

Even winter provides bird watching opportunities here, such as when a splendid juvenile red-tailed hawk turned up and ruled the roost the past two years, perched up in a bare tree as gawkers pointed and snapped photos of it. And if you think the red plumage of a cardinal is brilliant in summer, you should see it against a white backdrop of snow, as I did a couple of years ago. This past January, a number of us saw something for the first time ever: a flock of at least twenty robins cavorting about on a very cold, snowless and sunny day, as if it were April. Robins, as a sure sign of winter? Very strange indeed.

Among other things, all this avian life serves to remind us of that no matter how much progress we may make, the best things in life are still free.

One thought on “Nature in the City”

  1. And what happens when metrolinx cuts down all the trees? No birds!!!! Save the trees and the birds. Don’t let metrolinx cut down the trees to make way for a subway station that should not be built on that corner.


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