It’s Raccoon Mating Season – And That Means Injuries

Did you know that it is now raccoon mating season?? I sure didn’t. Maybe you have been hearing raccoon fights in your backyard or alleyway. Aside from the raccoons in care at the TWC, I have not seen a raccoon since last autumn. And now there are so many raccoons in care at the TWC that it’s getting tricky to find rooms and enclosures for them all. I asked the staff why we are getting so many raccoons right now. And that’s how I learned that it’s mating season.

Male raccoons are coming in to the TWC with wounds and abscesses on their backs from fights with other males. They really fight! Not just a show of aggression to scare away the other male. They scratch, bite, and apparently even bite-throw each other, as they fight for a female.

I would have never thought I’d be curious about the sex life of racoons, but it is Valentine’s Day and Family Day long weekend, after all…

Male raccoons are promiscuous. After mating, male raccoons sometimes stay with the females for up to a week before searching for another female. And the bigger a raccoon is, the more action he gets. The most dominant heaviest male will do 50-60% of the mating with the females within the group’s territory, says the Wildpro Electronic Encyclopaedia.

Female raccoons usually mate with only one male. They only have a small window of time – only three or four days per mating season when they can conceive. Raccoon Attic Guide says that “during the three to four days in which conception is on the table, raccoons will meet as a social group, foreplay and copulation being repeated during these nights, with sessions that last for about an hour. And while the strongest male will always get the chance to ensure the survival of its genes by copulating with more females… [he] can’t possibly mate with all the available females, the weaker males also eventually get the chance to breed. The urban female raccoon will give birth to an average of two to three litters during her lifetime.”

After gestation of about nine weeks, the female raccoon gives birth to three or four kits usually. The babies are born blind and deaf, but their face masks are fully recognizable. Their eyes and ears open at around three weeks, and by about 7 weeks old their eyes can focus. The kits remain in the den until they are 8-10 weeks old and will stay with their mother for a year or so. The mother raises her kits alone.

Mating season means injured raccoons coming in to the Toronto Wildlife Centre now, but it also means that it will be time for orphan and injured babies to come in starting around April and May.

According to PBS Raccoon Nation, in the wild a raccoon has a life expectancy of about 2 to 3 years, but in captivity a raccoon can live up to 20 years.

Fun fact I discovered (thanks to Wikipedia) while looking into raccoons: The word raccoon in English is based on an Algonquian (Powhatan) word meaning “he scratches with the hands.” Similarly, the Spanish word mapache is based on an Aztec word meaning “one who takes everything in its hands.” But in many other languages, the raccoon is called a wash bear: Waschbär (‘wash-bear’) in German, Huan Xiong (‘wash-bear’) in Chinese, dvivón róchetz (‘washing-bear’) in Hebrew, orsetto lavatore (‘little washer bear’) in Italian, and araiguma (‘washing-bear’) in Japanese.

Ann Brokelman’s Toronto Wildlife Photography Safaris

Photograph by Ann Brokelman. “The Kiss”. February 3, 2020

Ann Brokelman spends every day out in Toronto’s parks and wilder areas, with her camera and a coffee. Since retiring from the City of Toronto’s Arts & Culture division 4 years ago, she has enjoyed countless hours watching and photographing Toronto animals, from buck to beaver (that is just today!), coyotes, fox, birds, and every other local creature you can think of.

A “Wildlife Photography Safari with Ann Brokelman” was one of the silent auction items at the Toronto Wildlife Centre’s Wild Ball last November, donated to raise funds for the TWC. When I commented to other Wild Ball volunteers that night about how awesome the photography safari would be, I heard from them that Ann is a wonderful photographer and might also be a TWC volunteer. It turns out that she is both.

Ann has been a wildlife photographer for more than 13 years. She also helps with Toronto Wildlife Centre animal rescues, and she has been part of hundreds of releases when an animal has healed or grown enough to be returned to the wild. She photographs many of the releases for the TWC.

Ann Brokelman releasing an owl back into the wilderness

Her Wildlife Photography Safaris were created when Ann was looking for a way to donate to the Toronto Wildlife Centre. She thought, “I know where the animals are in Toronto, so why don’t I take people with me.”

On her first safari, three years ago with a woman who works as a neurologist, they saw 67 different species in one day. They were out from 8am until 6pm. Ann says, “we were on a roll… baby hawks, baby swans, baby ducks, baby deer …  we just kept going because it was one of those things – this is the only chance!”

It was a friend of mine’s birthday last week. I had been thinking for weeks about what would be a super special gift for her. My friend is a birder and co-founded the Toronto chapter of a bird watching group, and a gardener, and photographer with a new camera she is getting to know. I thought of the photography safari auction item at the Wild Ball, and contacted the TWC’s event manager, Elena. She contacted Ann. It turned out that yes, Ann does offer Wildlife Photography Safaris year-round, to anyone who would like to go on one. A portion of her fee goes to Ann to cover costs and the rest goes directly to the Toronto Wildlife Centre as a donation. The perfect gift for my friend.

To prep for each full-day or half-day outing, Ann asks people which animals they are most interested in seeing. She says, there are some animals she can pretty much guarantee could be seen every day. Others, of course, are seasonal.

Guests on Ann’s safaris have the opportunity to use her camera. (A Canon 7D Mk with a 400mm prime lens.) The lens is crucial for getting clear colour-rich photos of animals and birds from a distance. Also, “you can see behaviour so much better by taking a short 30 second clip,” she says of the chance to video record using her equipment. If the person prefers to use their own equipment rather than her camera, Ann will take a few memory photos of the day.

One of the safaris she guided last year was with a fellow who was thrilled with the wildlife images he got, including Red Tailed Hawk babies. Ann tells me, “These babies were about 3 weeks old and they were dancing! So I suggested that he video record them. The adult came in with food and he captured all that on video.” This safari guest was a photographer with his own equipment that he used most of the day, but he used Ann’s long-distance lens and the video capabilities of her camera to be able to get the shots that were so special to him.

A Wildlife Photography Safari full day is around 6 or 7 hours, including driving to locations, walking, and enjoying the outdoors. Ann likes to help people understand the animals they see and why they are seeing it – all of the things that make it interesting.

She shows her guests things like how to stand to get great photos, how to use her camera, and “I can give people background of what has happened and what will happen next with the animal.” She says, “I try to teach the person about what we are seeing, what’s going on, what to expect, why the animals are here, what they are doing, what’s going on with them this time of year.”

“More than just taking pictures, it’s what’s going on in nature and in the world.” – Ann Brokelman

“Right now there are Snowy Owls all over the place – there are 8 that I know. In May, the little birds are coming through, and there are 5 locations I go to. When photographing birds, what I am looking for is colouring. I want to see what colour the beak is, I want to see what colour the feathers are, what colour is the fur and is it healthy, what colour is their tail, are all of the tail feathers there… all of those things are important to know when you are taking photos. There are also techniques for how to get the animal’s eye in the light so you get the glint – that is what makes the photos come alive.”

She brings a monopod or tripod, as well as her two all-time favourite books: Behavior Of North American Mammals by Mark Elbroch and Kirk Reinhart (which she found in Muskoka, and I intend to find online) and The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior by David Allen Sibley, which she received as a gift from a friend. “I really love to study and read about animals. I carry these books with me and if I see something unusual, one of these two books will usually explain what is happening.”

After the day of photographing wildlife, Ann adjusts the best of the photos in Photoshop and provides all of the images from the day as large Jpgs on a USB key for the safari guest to keep.   

Ann waiting for a heron to move…

When I spoke with Ann on the phone at 5:30pm, she had just arrived home after being out since 12:30pm. She said, “Today I picked up a coffee pulled up into a park with my camera, my coffee, and my purse. I went for a walk and saw nothing. Then on my way back to my car I saw a buck! I got photos of two bucks together with a young buck. And a strange thing happened. One of the bucks put its head between female’s legs and picked her right up off the ground. I thought, what is going on? Rutting season is in November. And what is he doing with horns still… they should be gone this time of year. I will investigate… this is unusual behaviour for this time of year.”

At that same park this afternoon, a woman asked Ann if she had seen the beavers. Ann had replied that she hadn’t seen the beavers for quite a while. So Ann went over to where the beavers are, watched as one cleared the bark off a branch, finished and tossed it away, and got another branch to work on. Ann got some wonderful photos of the mom and the baby beaver above the water. A particularly special treat, since it is the first week of February, and a thick layer of ice is usually covering the water.

Photograph by Ann Brokelman. Beaver. February 3, 2020

“I live and breathe nature,” she says. “Even at my house we have cameras and night vision cams all over the place. It is especially great to see the animals’ behaviour. There is a fox who pees in the exact same place every night.”

“Today I spent a lot of time videotaping and took a lot of photos… I can just watch the animals as well – I don’t need to take images. When I take someone else out with me, I don’t shoot – I focus on their experience.”

“I could tell you the story of every photo I have ever taken – where I was, when it was, who I was with. A beautiful shot and a beautiful moment become a memory.

I am a memory photographer.”

Photographer and Toronto Wildlife Photography Safari guide Ann Brokelman volunteers for Coyote Watch Canada, Shade of Hope, Toronto Wildlife Centre, and The Owl Foundation. She also writes “On the Wild Side” articles for Beach Metro News.

She can be found online at:

Ann Brokelman Photography in the Wild

Nature Photos By Ann Brokelman

@AnnBrokelman

Ann Brokelman’s On the Wild Side articles in Beach Metro News are here

A gorgeous story featuring Ann Brokelman’s images in the Niagara Escarpment News is here

The Comfort of Companions

When we think of animals and companions in the same breath, we often think about pet dogs. Maybe some therapy animals. The focus there is really on the companionship and related benefits that the animals provide to humans. All good. But what about the animals’ own needs for companionship? Many of our urban critters have their own social needs and structures.

Coyotes in care together

Of the four adult coyotes in care right now, two have been placed together in the same enclosure – it turns out that they are a mated couple! Both are in care to heal from mange. I think it’s amazing that we’d have both in care, and that we would know they are mates and be able to put them together.

Urban coyotes mate for life and are totally faithful to each other, unlike other canids.

How do we know they are mates? These ones are from the Richmond Hill area, both from the same territory, which is what tipped off the TWC that they might be mates. The TWC’s Hotline and Rescue services often have a variety of people in a neighbourhood watching certain animals. It is likely that these two coyotes were observed together or in the same territory many times before they were brought in.

Although these coyotes came in separately, and were originally cared for in separate rooms, they have now been placed in the same room. The initial stage of mange treatment takes 3 days, so I suspect that they were moved in together after both were passed that stage and into needing time and care to heal. There are always two different kennels in their room but staff person C said that a few days ago she saw them cuddled up together in the same kennel.

I was fortunate to see them both up close this week, as I closed them up in their kennels (usually open) so their room could be cleaned. One of the coyotes is beautiful, with gorgeous fur and alert calm demeanor. The other is in really rough shape with missing fur, one eye halfway closed, scabs and swelling. A lot longer way to go to heal.  But it will heal. In the meantime, it must make such a huge difference to them to be together, since their mate and family members are so very important to coyotes.

The Urban Coyote Initiative says, “It’s common to see a single coyote hunting or traveling on its own, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is alone. Coyotes are highly social animals and this didn’t change when they entered the urban ecosystem. Coyotes may live as part of a pack, which usually consists of an alpha male and female, perhaps one or two of their offspring from previous seasons (known as a “helper”) and their current litter of pups. The pack may also welcome in a solitary traveler if their territory can support another member. Packs living in sizable protected areas can have as many as five or six adults.

However, a coyote may also spend part of its life on its own … common when young coyotes disperse from their pack and go in search of their own territory, a new pack to join, or a mate with whom to start their own pack. A coyote may also spend a stretch of time as a loner if it was an alpha in a pack but lost its mate.”

A forever home for the quail

I finally asked about the quail we have in songbird room at the TWC. On her chart it says that she is an escaped domestic bird. It turns out that the TWC is trying to find a home for her – someone to adopt her! A staff person I spoke with said they are looking for someone with an acreage or hobby farm with a family of other quail for her to join.

Quails in the wild live in social groups, or coveys, that are mostly family members. Quail mate for life and are monogamous, with both partners raising their babies and teaching the young all the skills they need to thrive. They are also fairly vocal with a variety of unique sounds they use to communicate.

“The quail, invisible, whistles, and who attends?”  – Henry David Thoreau

Peeps the baby pigeon has a pal

Peeps the baby we heard and fed last week is now in a double-wide enclosure with another young pigeon, who is gorgeous. White and auburn feathers – I don’t think I’ve ever seen one that colour before. Brownish red. True auburn, with just a little bit of iridescent purple at the tips of her neck feathers. She and Peeps are calming each other, good together.

Both needed to be tube fed, and it happened to be my final sign-off for pigeon handling. I needed to remove Peeps carefully with one hand since the enclosure opening is so small, and had to tuck one of her wings into the pillowcase that covered her to keep her calm. She pecked at my fingers holding her breast under the pillowcase. But it was smooth with both of them, they were fed by volunteer J, and returned to their enclosure together, and I got my pigeon handling final sign-off.

Pigeons are social and, as we see in all parts of downtown they live in flocks of 20-30 individuals. All of our feral city pigeons, a.k.a. rock pigeons, are descendants of domesticated rock doves. They can live more than 30 years and they, too, are monogamous, with one mate for a lifetime. Pigeon mates can lay multiple clutches in a year, including all year-round if winter doesn’t get too cold. They lay two eggs at a time, which hatch after 18 days.

Young birds depend on their parents for the first two months of their life. Both parents take care of the chicks (called squabs), and feed them a form of “pigeon milk,” which is what we try to replicate when tube-feeding baby pigeons at the TWC. The pigeon is one of only three bird species (the others being flamingos and male emperor penguins) known to produce ‘milk’ to feed their young. Scientists at Deakin University found that, like mammalian milk, it contains antioxidants and immune-enhancing proteins important for the growth and development of the young.

Pigeons are highly intelligent. They are of course well-known for their ‘homing’ superpowers and their history of carrying messages over long distances to accurate destinations. In scientific tests, pigeons have been able to not only differentiate between photographs, but even differentiate between two different human beings in a photograph. They can be taught to recognize all letters of the English alphabet. They are also able to recognize themselves in a mirror.

Bat Cuddles

I wrote about Zenelophon and Yorick cuddled up together in a previous post here. Since writing that, the first time I found them together like that, every time I have cared for them, every week, they are always cuddled up together.

Bats are super social animals, well known for forming huge colonies. Roosting together in such large numbers gives them protection from predators and the social interaction they need. According to James Robertson’s book The Complete Bat, the females gather to form these large colonies, with males remaining largely solitary or in small groups until the breeding season. Communication is vitally important to bats – researchers have found that their wide range of vocalizations are associated with warnings of threats and with general social communication.

A surprise in the mail: Pigeon Mating Dances

I just received a sweet delightful surprise in the mail, and thought I’d share it with you.

A bright yellow envelope arrived in my mailbox. In the envelope was a wonderfully fun tiny little book, illustrated handmade by Toronto artist Natalie Draz. 

Here’s a look inside Pigeon Mating Dances:

Natalie had also included some stickers with her illustrations of raccoons and pigeons. Each individual with its own name, so we know who each portrait is of.

Of course I had to investigate the real thing, and it turns out that pigeons really do have a mating dance!  The male pigeon coos at his chosen female, struts to impress her, and tries everything he can think of to show her how awesome he is. If she likes him, the pigeons mate for life and are monogamous through the years as they both care for and raise their babies. 

My little book, Pigeon Mating Dances, is now in a business card holder on my desk and it makes me smile every time I see it.

Natalie Draz has a store on Etsy here and you can visit her website here.

Peeps the baby pigeon

The middle of winter, no mother, she cries for food, she cries for comfort. The plush stuffed dragon with pink wings in her enclosure to calm her is cute but … not interacting with her, not responding. Little peeps, loud peeps. She is calling for food, for love, for attention. She is a baby. Bird. She doesn’t know she was born a species that people call names like rat – another who is intelligent, affectionate, misunderstood. She doesn’t know what happened to her mother. Or maybe she does, and has nightmares. Where are her brothers and sisters. She calls out, loud peeps, I am here! I am here! Here! Here! Someone please feed me! Someone! I’m hungry! I am a baby and I am here in the strange place and I can’t get my own food. She calls out, someone hear me! Feed me! Hear me! All of the adult pigeons, in separate cages lined up along the counter, hear her. We humans, hear her, down the hall. The other pigeons hear her. None are her mother, the other pigeons can’t help her. They are isolated, they are there to heal from some other trauma. They are city birds, more likely to be burned from hot cooking oil in an alley than in a forest fire. These are city birds, our neighbours, our local babies, this baby. This mid-winter baby calls out, loud peeps. She calls out for food, she calls out for attention. A squab, rock dove, a mess of baby fuzz on her head. Not yet the iridescent plumes of her elders. Alert eyes, flappy flappy flappy fear when I come too near. To cuddle her would be terrifying and dangerous for her. To tell her everything will be ok would be untrue. But to love her, and feed her, is something we can do.

Sleepy This Time of Year

Torpor. It sounds like a weather phenomenon. Or a piece of outwear. The word makes me think of stupor. It’s a word I have never thought about. But during this week’s TWC shift, as people spoke of the bats being in torpor and other animals we have in care who should be hibernating, I started to think, hm. Okay, what is the difference? And do humans also experience a form of torpor, is that why we are all so damn tired this time of year?

So I looked into it and here’s what I learned.

Hibernation is extended torpor. It’s all about saving energy. It is a state of inactivity that is technically a regulated state of reduced metabolism. Breathing and heart rate slow down. Body temperature decreases.  

It is not a state of sleep, as we often think. Humans lower their heart and respiratory rate every night when they go to sleep, but torpor is much slower. University of Oxford neuroscientist, Vladyslav Vyazovskiy, wrote, “some scientists suggest that, although we tend to think of hibernation as being like a long sleep, torpor actually creates a sleep-deprived state and the animals need to regularly compensate for this.”

Most animals go into torpor to avoid the cold or heat, but sometimes it has to do with availability of seasonal food sources, avoiding predators, and it can help an animal resist parasites.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica online, “The torpid state may last overnight, as in temperate-zone hummingbirds and some insects and reptiles; or it may last for months, in the case of true hibernation and the winter torpor of many cold-blooded vertebrates.”

Apparently some bears go into torpor but not deep hibernation, and others go into hibernation. Deep hibernators include chipmunks, garter snakes, and toads.

Racoons, deer mice, skunks, bats, turtles, and even fish like cod and koi, are among the animals that go into torpor but not full hibernation.

Bumble bees hibernate, but honey bees don’t – who knew. (Ok, I know that you, reading this, likely knew.)

Wild turkeys do not hibernate. Gray squirrels, voles, coyotes, red foxes, and opossums will create warm winter dens but they don’t hibernate, either.              

Among the birds, torpor occurs in hummingbirds and swifts, nighthawks, and some others.

According to BBC Earth, “Hibernation and torpor are clearly millions of years old. For instance, all three major groups of mammals have evolved the techniques, and those groups diverged tens of millions of years ago. That suggests that at least some of the animals humans are descended from could hibernate. However, we seem to have lost some of the key abilities. For instance, our hearts cannot work if they get too cold.” Also, animals in hibernation don’t urinate or defecate.

That is not stopping scientists from investigating the possibilities of engineering a human hibernation, primarily for astronauts and space travel.

Kelly Drew, a neuropharmacologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks who studies the brains of hibernating Arctic ground squirrels, is consulting with a company called Spaceworks Enterprises on a NASA-funded project to put humans into hibernation for spaceflight. The University of Oxford’s Vladyslav Vyazovskiy, mentioned above, is part of a team of experts organised by the European Space Agency to work out whether and how we might be able to put humans into a state of stasis. Anaesthesiologist Rob Henning of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands is working with NASA on exploring the possibility of engineering human hibernation to protect astronauts health in space. It appears that hibernation protects from muscle and bone loss.

Buddhist monks are the only humans who appear able to enter a state similar to torpor currently, as they have been known to lower their metabolism by more than 60% through meditation techniques.  

I am so ready for a nap. Ciao for now.

Bekah’s Bestiary

New Composition Premieres at The Royal Conservatory’s 21C Music Festival

Excerpt from the score for Bestiary I & II by Bekah Simms

It’s a relatively warm winter morning, and I’m at a downtown coffee shop with composer Bekah Simms, to talk about her new composition Bestiary I & II. It seems fitting that, just outside the large windows, hundreds of birds are swooping and swarming over the construction site on the other side of the street, and the large café, with its exposed brick walls and small wooden tables, is getting louder and louder as we chat.

The world premiere performance of Bekah Simms’s Bestiary I & II will take place on Sunday, January 19, 2020. Bestiary was commissioned by, and will be performed by, The Royal Conservatory’s Glenn Gould School New Music Ensemble, conducted by Brian Current. The free concert is part of The Conservatory’s 21C Music Festival.

Simms has composed Bestiary I & II for amplified soprano, amplified harp soloists, chamber orchestra, and electronics. Bestiary I opens with Cosmia, named for the moths, an intro that leads into a section called Fauna. The second movement, Bestiary II, is titled Flora.

In the Fauna section of Bestiary I, birds are named by the soprano – sparrow and dove make multiple appearances, and there’s a dog, grouse, and a horse. In Bestiary II a similar naming happens, this time with plants and herbs like yarrow, bulrushes, heather, and hollyhock. 

Simms’s electronics are heard throughout most of the composition. I was fortunate to be able to listen a few excerpts. To me, isolated from the orchestra and harp, the electronic component sounds much like an urban city at dusk; twilight shimmering off of metallic surfaces, abstract animal or human sounds making occasional appearances. Simms confirmed that her compositions are often described as nocturnal sounding.

Bekah doesn’t usually speak about her music before people hear it, but she made a generous exception for this story. She is warm, friendly, and very articulate and knowledgeable. She smiles over her cappuccino, “Everybody is experiencing these sounds completely differently. I like hearing what people heard or saw when listening to my music. … I don’t want to take that way from them by telling them what I thought when I was writing it, because it’s way better that they have their own thing. I think that is really important.”

Bestiary I & II is inspired by Simms’s favourite album when she was sixteen: Ys by harpist, singer, and composer Joanna Newsom. Newsom’s recording was Simms’s first exposure to composing music for orchestra and solo voice, and the lyrics include a high frequency of animal and plant references. Therefore, quoting Ys in her own original composition, Bekah’s Bestiary, the majority of the soprano’s text are a compendium of the myriad creatures and plant life featured in the songs of Ys, with occasional but related lyrical fragments throughout.

Simms explains, “Singer and orchestra has existed for a long time, and Joanna’s album Ys is that format, but it sounds nothing like it. And then this piece [Bestiary] is a third iteration of this format, but now with electronics, so now you had this additional element, mostly sourced from instruments and Joanna’s music as well, but distorted and refracted a third time. So you get this increasing distorted image of something that is recognizable, and it comes from a place of love. I love these things. But I’m interested in making them strange… making them new and fanciful.”

“I have a lot of reverence for the materials that I work with. Even if I make them grotesque sometimes, it is still coming from a place of adoration. That is true for orchestral music, Joanna’s music, and the animals that are quoted. I find these things interesting and I want to luxuriate in the sounds and the ideas.”

“Animal life and plant life play a very strong role in the narrative of [Newsom’s] music. I didn’t want to use her top to bottom lyrics, so instead I pulled out what I thought was a very crucial part of the character of her pieces – which is the inclusion of so many different and disparately related animals. I included as many as I could. As the piece progresses, it uses different musical cues that are from each of the songs. She has a particular interest in flying animals, mostly birds, and sparrow particularly comes up many times. Sparrow is the first word that the soprano sings.

“I see the instrumentalists as each having a stratified purpose or role in this greater sonic ecosystem or environment. In particular, in the second movement almost none of the instruments are making their normal instrument sounds.”

“I didn’t want this piece to be a zoological study of animal sounds – it’s more abstracted than that. But I did use a little bit of actual animal call in the electronics. Just with birds because they are already very musical. I didn’t want to take us out of the musical moment. The sense that we’re in a different sonic space for a little while. But I used a bit of recording from Sawmill Creek Trail, a really active ecosystem out in Mississauga.” Simms has been making trips to schools as a music educator and composer, and a Sawmill Creek Trail sound walk recording she did with students has come in handy.

In the middle of the score, there’s a beautiful line where the electronic music notation is a bird murmuration swarming in and out of the lines of the staff. Bekah tells me about that moment in the composition: “All of the instruments clear the acoustic space and all that’s left are the bird calls. There’s a duet between the soprano and the bird calls, but the soprano is secondary … it’s removing that heirarchy between human and animal, so you have move of the birds, less of the human. And then granulated bird flaps, which is the human element of processing or changing that environment, clears the way to the sounds of the creek where I recorded the bird sounds. That is the one moment in the middle of the piece where [animal and nature sounds] are more literal, but that is the only moment when that happens.”

“I titled the piece, as a Bestiary, looking back at those original bestiaries from the medieval ages – they are really colourful, and fanciful, and a little obscure. Some of the descriptions of animals and the drawings of these animals are done by people who had never seen them. So you are looking at this abstracted, kind of alien version of something, that is very well meaning but it’s a little off, a little bit strange. And because of that, it becomes almost mystical and mythological even though they are describing real plant life, real animals. A lot of the sounds in this piece are somewhat similar. You recognize those instruments, but the sounds they are creating, the shapes they’re creating, the form they’re creating, they’re through a filter or through a haze or through a fog, so they’re not quite the version that you’re familiar with. They are a little more obscure, but still fanciful and colourful.”

Bekah Simms was nominated for a Juno Award in 2019, in the Classical Composition of the Year category.  Originally from St. John’s, Newfoundland, and now Toronto-based, Simms’ music has been widely broadcast in Canada and the United States, and performed across Canada, in over a dozen American states, Italy, Germany, Austria, Lithuania, and the UK.

Bestiary I & II was commissioned by the New Music Ensemble of The Royal Conservatory of Music’s Glenn Gould School, Brian Current, Music Director. The piece is approximately 11 minutes.

The world premiere performance of Bestiary I & II takes place Sunday, January 19, 2020, as part of The Royal Conservatory’s 21C Music Festival. The Conservatory’s Glenn Gould School New Music Ensemble, conducted by Brian Current, will perform the world premiere of Bekah Simms’s Bestiary I & II, Gabriel Dharmoo’s the fog in our poise, Michael Colgrass’s Hammer and Bow, and the North American premiere of Miguel Azguime’s Aguas Marinhas. The concert is at 1pm in Mazzoleni Concert Hall. Tickets are free, and will be available starting January 13, by calling 416.408.0208.

More information about Bekah Simms is at www.bekahsimms.com

More information about the 21C Music Festival is at www.rcmusic.com/21C

Bat Cuddles!

Bat cuddles! I love the little bats at the TWC. I feel like I know them, now that I’ve been caring for them every week for the last month or two. I work with other species, too, and don’t want to get pigeonholed (LOL). Today I boxed a large coyote for his room to be cleaned, cleaned and fed three of the turtle patients, and weighed and released the fox back into its newly clean room. And of course, fed and cleaned bats. I do love little bats and am happy to feed and clean them each week.

The very last bat enclosure I worked on – a large double size mesh enclosure – was a treat. It houses Zenelophon and Yorick.

They are newer patients and have been there only a few weeks. Last week they were in separate enclosures, today they were together. Very together! I thought I was bringing out one bat to weigh, but when I opened the tea towel there were two bats in my hand!

Zenelophon, a girl, and the larger of the two, and Yorick, the boy, were cuddled up together.

I felt so bad when I had to separate them to weight them and harass their little bodies a bit more than usual to be able to see their belly side to identify who is the boy and who is the girl. Sexing a bat is a lot like a squirrel – they look pretty much the same, but boys are clearly more obvious on bats. “If there’s a gap, it’s a chap” is a helpful phrase – the female organs are closer to the bum and tail, and the male are a little higher up on their body.

So they were separated and each one was weighed and placed back in their enclosure, with two little dishes of fresh calcium water and two dishes full of mealworms, phoenix worms, and wax worms for them.

The last task of the day was to hand-feed Queen Gertrude. Assist-feed, actually. Hand feeding is where you hold the bat wrapped up in the towel and feed it, and assist feeding is where you feed the bat as it is hanging upside down in its enclosure and free to move around if it wants to. Queen Gertrude has not been eating for the last few days.

She was super slow and sleepy when I weighed her, cleaned her enclosure, and returned her into it. Staff person L suggested that I move her out of the very cold room where these bat patients are kept at outside temperature, and into another location to let her warm up a bit. Try assist or hand feeding her once she is warmer and therefore a little more awake. See if I can get her to eat her untouched food from last night.

So I placed Queen G’s enclosure on a countertop outside of the cold room, in a heated central area of the building, and continued cleaning and feeding the rest of the bats in ISO. There are about 11 in there in total right now. And the room is really cold! The window is left open to let in the cold air, so that all of the animals in the rooms of that area – chipmunks, a snowy owl, a coyote, and the bats, all get temperatures close to outside.

By the time I was done cleaning and feeding all of the bats, my fingers were numb. I couldn’t feel my fingertips, despite wearing latex gloves and thicker protective gloves. Queen Gertrude was a little warmer – she had probably been on the counter for an hour – and I needed to warm up a bit before I could use the larger tweezers well enough to feed her.

I ran warm water over my hands, and it just happened that volunteer D asked for help to weigh a fox and return it to its enclosure. I was more than happy to help her with that. So we weighed the fox (in a kennel kab, then weigh the kennel without the fox to get the fox’s weight), and moved the fox back into its clean room, where I released it. Then back to Queen Gertrude.

I had tried to feed her in the cold room before moving her to the counter to warm up. No luck. She would open her mouth a little, but not bite down. She would not take any of the food.

Then I tried hand feeding her in the warmer area near the counter. But she just clamped her mouth shut and would move her head away. No. No. No. I don’t want that! She seemed to be showing me.

But when she was ready – Rawr! Lol.

I had placed her back into her enclosure, taken her back into the cold room, and placed the enclosure on the table there. Queen Gertrude was hanging on the back wall of the mesh enclosure.

Now she was interested! She almost jumped at the food. She would lean way out to get it was I was bringing it to her, grab it with her tiny little mouth, and happily munch away. She also tried to take the next mealworm before she was even finished the one in her mouth. Chomp! Crunch crunch. Another one! Another one! Another one! She quickly ate 15 in total – with gusto!

She was my last patient of the day, and when I left at 6pm we were both happy and satisfied.  

Fox in a Box

Oh this day began in an unusual way, so I will tell it to you in the style of Seuss:

I was asked to box a fox!

We did not fight in a ring after a ding

I did not wrap him up for Christmas

It was simply time to clean up his room.

This is no ordinary fox, it is a fox with spunk

he made a big mess, and my oh my how it stunk

he is small and skinny and his fur is all matted

the fox is still healing and smelly from mange

it’s the mange that makes wild creatures sad

until they are cured of the mange that they had had.

So this fox was asked nicely and he walked into his box

I closed up the door and latched up the lock,

carried the fox from his room to the hall,

and to make it less scary, placed him facing the wall.

Then we cleaned and we mopped and we picked up the mess,

set it up all fresh with new toys, dig box, and clean bed,

brought fox back to his room, and let him go free

to be comfy where he’ll make a new mess, surely!

A coyote was next, his room was to be clean

the coyote was tidy and couldn’t be seen

in the back of his box where he lay on his side  

he could sniff, he could watch, he could hide

he refused to move for his room to be cleaned

did not get out of bed, barely lifted his head

when I changed the blankets around him.

Then it was time to go outside

to clean the recovery rooms of little racoons.

What’s with all this cleaning, I hear you think

I hardly do the dishes in my own home sink!

But for wild ones, large and small, who need to recover

under their fur or fins or scales or feathers

helping them get healthy and able again to be free

makes my heart grow like the Grinch’s – three sizes bigger.

How to Hold an Owl

There are four owl patients at the TWC right now. Two Great Horned owls, one gorgeous Snowy owl that everyone is excited about, and an amazing little Saw-Whet owl. The room that has been the squirrel nursery, ever since I first started there, is now an owl care room.

This week’s shift at the TWC was full of delights. I was able to hold a fox for treatment, and a wounded and frostbitten pigeon to be tube fed. Was hissed at by a racoon in an outside enclosure (as I was standing on a ladder to remove his fleecy blanket and replace it with a warm thick duvet on his high-up platform). Had a meaningful moment with Hot Dog the snapping turtle. And was happy to feed a room full of opossums in different enclosures and take care of the sweet little bats.

A highlight of the day was holding a Great Horned owl.

The snowy owl that is in TWC’s care was scheduled to be fed and given medication at 5pm. I joined J and CA, intending to observe. Really, just to get a look at this beautiful snowy owl that everyone is enamoured with. L, the TWC assistant volunteer coordinator was there, too, to take some official photos.

As J and CA were about to move the snowy owl out of its enclosure, they realized that its wing bandage had come off. A senior staff person needed to come and replace it before they could move it to give it food and medication.

CA decided feed and give meds to the other owl in the room in the meantime. I’m glad I was there with thick gloves on! J generously suggested that I hold the Great Horned owl while he waited to do the snowy owl. Super awesome of him, since he was lined up to do both.  

So CA removed the Great Horned owl from his enclosure, and passed him over to me. The key to holding an owl and other birds of prey is to ensure that their very strong, sharp talons are held securely and pointed away from anyone, so no one gets hurt.

You hold their legs with your hands (in very thick protective gloves) and use your thumbs to point their talons downward. Your arms help to hold the owl against your chest, facing outward.

This owl came in with wounds and one blind eye. One eye is completely black and the other has the usual bright orange iris around the black pupil. The great horned owl has the biggest eyes of all North American birds, even though its body size is smaller than a snowy owl, the largest owl species.

I was able to hold the owl against my chest, talons secure, as he was given medications. He was very calm until it came time to go back into his enclosure. Then he got restless and wanted to jump back in. All good.

Great horned owls are common, year-round residents with a relatively small home range, and apparently are one of the most aggressive owls in North America. Their call is unique and has earned them the name hoot-owl. Whereas other own have a softer hooo hooo sound. Each owl has its own voice and a range of sounds, including shrieks, whistles, hisses, cries, coos, barks, and a stress-related beak-snap.

After I returned the Great Horned owl, I went to feed opossums until the Snowy Owl could be treated. By the time I was done and returned to the owl room, J and CA had finished the treatment and were returning the owl to its enclosure. I missed it!

A little later in the evening, I helped Ak, another volunteer, move a different Great Horned owl out of a room that needed to be set up for a new coyote patient. And we got a great example of needing to secure its claws right away.

This owl apparently has spinal damage and it seems possibly neurological damage. It was on the ground of its recovery room, looking up at us, when we opened the door. Ak captured it easily with the usual bedsheet method. But as she was trying to position the owl so she could properly secure its talons, it tried to hang on and secure itself – by grabbing her hand.

Thank goodness Ak was wearing thick protective gloves, but she could still feel it. Owl talons are super strong and shockingly sharp. In fact, thanks to their powerful legs and talons, great horned owls can exert 300 PSI (pound-force per square inch) of power. I removed the claws from Ak’s hand – not easily. And I removed them from where the sharp points had easily pierced through the sheet.

Ak was able to get a good hold on the owl. We then moved it to the new owl room and placed it into its new enclosure, Most owls would prefer to perch, but this one sort of fell slowly sideways  off his perch – only about 4 or 5 inches from the floor of the enclosure that has been covered with two layers of a soft fuzzy blanket.   

After the owl was moved, Ak and another volunteer cleaned the room and set up for the coyote. I took the tree branches that had been in the owl’s room and placed them in the recovery room of a gorgeous fox who tends to trash her space – the branches will smell like owl to her, and stimulate her foxy curiosity.

Warm thanks to Lauren Clift, Assistant Volunteer Coordinator at the Toronto Wildlife Centre for taking and sharing these photos.