People & Places

Caring for all creatures in a climate change era

The five baby starlings Leslie Trenholm found in the grass beside her Arlington Woods townhouse this past April were just days old. Two were dead; one was struggling to survive and did not. They had fallen from a nest built inside an exposed air duct — the mother bird was trying, impossibly, to get her brood back up to the nest.

The holes on the side of Trenholm’s townhouse and roughly 20 others in the development were exposed because triangular covers normally attached over them had been ripped away by the tornadoes that descended in September of 2018 or were removed by work crews hired to replace the storm-damaged siding.

Early spring brought the usual wave of breeding birds; in the absence of the glorious, decades-old grove of trees that had been destroyed by raging gusts of wind, they chose to build their nests in air ducts.

“I had a huge maple in my front yard,” says Trenholm, a personal support worker who was driving when the tornado hit. She arrived home to find stunned neighbours trying to comprehend what had just happened — and her rescue kitten traumatized from having weathered the boom of the storm alone at home. Her patio furniture was broken and flung to the winds, siding damaged, and the big tree destroyed. A family of squirrels had lived there, and it had attracted jays, cardinals, chickadees and, of course, starlings. “We had all kinds of birds in the neighbourhood. We don’t have as many now.”

When I arrived, as a volunteer for the bird-rescue organization Safe Wings Ottawa, to taxi the two surviving starlings to the Wild Bird Care Centre (WBCC) in Nepean, they were peeping relentlessly, their heads tilted back, their mouths wide open, yellow pouches as big as the rest of their bodies: FEED US! NOW!

Illustration by Michael George Haddad

They would have to wait in their box till we got to the centre, alongside another, much larger box in which perched a great blue heron that had been immobilized for days before being found in the foliage beside a river, tangles of discarded fishing line embedded in one of its wings, causing the bird to nearly starve and to contract a life-threatening infection. A group from Safe Wings spent hours with the bird to gingerly untangle the line and apply antibiotic cream.

That human beings cause damage to wildlife by way of thoughtless actions, such as tossing tangled fishing line onto riverbanks, is not news. But climate change raises the grim stakes for wildlife by an order of magnitude that we are only now grasping. We understandably focus on our own homes when climate calamity strikes, as it has with more regularity everywhere in the past few years. Coping with the human trauma and losses resulting from extreme weather events may focus our attention away from what’s happening to the animals in our midst or minimize what it means when wildlife is displaced, injured, or destroyed completely. We might want to keep them in our thoughts, though; what happens to them is entirely linked to what happens to us as the increasingly precarious future of the planet unfolds.

“The natural landscape is eloquent of the interplay of forces that have created it…. It is spread before us like the pages of a book in which we can read why the land is what it is, and why we should preserve its integrity. But the pages lie unread.”
~ Rachel Carson

“We’re all very weather aware now,” says Trenholm of her community. While her house had some damaged siding, many others in her neighbourhood sustained far greater destruction to their homes. “I think many were traumatized. We warn each other now,” she says of any hint of stormy weather potentially coming their way.

Scientists can’t say if the Ottawa-area tornadoes of fall 2018 had anything to do with climate change; if anything, say some, we may see fewer tornadoes in future, with warming air trends. But six all at once — that has not happened before.

Many communities are still picking up the pieces of that extreme event, as well as the flooding of 2017 and this year. While humans sandbag, drain, pump, and bucket water from their homes, beavers, mallards, and any number of other species fend for themselves to survive in whatever way they can. They don’t read global climatology reports; they haven’t really a chance to prepare, although survival instincts honed over millennia may at times serve them better than our own.

Sadly, despite heroic efforts, the heron did not make it. But the starlings did. Trenholm called the WBCC several weeks later to learn that they were thriving and would soon be released back to the wild. Starlings are not an endangered species; some think of them as a nuisance — an invasive, introduced species that crowds out others. Regardless, they are here, and damage to their habitats is, in the end, damage to ours.

The celebrated science writer Rachel Carson wrote in her 1963 game changer, Silent Spring: “The natural landscape is eloquent of the interplay of forces that have created it…. It is spread before us like the pages of a book in which we can read why the land is what it is, and why we should preserve its integrity. But the pages lie unread.”

As more extreme weather events befall us with every passing season, we might want to pick up that book and read it, cover to cover, and a few times over.