Toronto’s ducks save biology undergrad
Photo Credit/Zach Morgenstern
I double major in Peace, Conflict & Justice (PCJ) studies and Ecology & Evolutionary Biology (EEB) at the University of Toronto. A lot of people rightly acknowledge this is an an unusual combination. The way I see it-taking an unusual combination makes sense. PCJ as a subject falls within my rally-going-Daily-Show-watching comfort zone, while EEB covers different ground. My decision to major in EEB was thus a decision to take advantage of being in school to learn something new.
Unfortunately, Canada’s education system falls in between the American liberal-arts model and the British ultra-specialized model, and as such while it allows for double majors as diverse as mine, programs are not designed with the expectation that students will take them for the sake of learning alone.
As someone who took EEB not to go to grad school, but for the sake of being able to casually peruse nature with the informed wonder of a Gould or a Cousteau, I begrudgingly struggled through weed-out courses like CHM138/139 and BIO230. Even in my fourth year, the frustration continued, however. In my other major,students are able to appeal to take courses that aren’t part of the department’s official major requirements. With that in mind, I picked an EEB schedule for 2014-15 rife with courses I was excited about. I was soon told by the department I was not allowed to do that-even though all the courses I had selected were EEB.
The courses I ended up having to take were not awful, but their focus on basic bioinformatics software seemed irrelevant to my aim. I wanted to be able to remember anecdotes about animal behavior and evolution, not how to use Excel and R to check null hypotheses. I did, luckily, stick with one of the EEB courses I was told I couldn’t count towards my major as an elective-EEB386 Avian Biology. EEB386 looks at birds from both evolutionary and behavioral perspectives. What’s distinct about the course, however, is that it asks students to work on a field project that essentially involves cataloguing as many species as they can find in the GTA.
I initially did not know what to make of the project. On a daily basis I simply saw Columba livia and Passer domesticus (pigeons and sparrows), and as a non-driver I wasn’t going to be able to make regular trips to top birding sites like Tommy Thompson and Humber Bay Parks. Needing to try, however, one day I forced myself to walk down Yonge St to the harbourfront. At first I saw only seagulls that were too distant to identify more specifically. I next saw mallard ducks (the common green-headed males and brown females), and though not unhappy to see them, I was not impressed either.
Then I walked to an artificial waterfall, just west of the ferry terminals and was taken aback. For the first time in my life I saw ducks other than the common mallard. I saw white birds with little orange bills and long, wispy tails. I saw a mallard-shaped bird with a black body and reddish-brown head, and I saw a bird with a long, narrow, red bill and a wispy Mohawk on the back of its green head. In a nearby body of water I found gray-bodied, dark-headed ducks. These were long-tail, redhead, red-breasted merganser, and greater scaup ducks, respectively. All of them call Toronto’s downtown waterfront home and all of them are birds I’d never seen until I took avian biology.
A phenomenon I’m sure many of us have experienced, is that you can go your whole life without knowing of something, and then once you hear about it you notice it everywhere. When avian biology forced me to look for these ducks, I suddenly realized that they not only exist, but they aren’t particularly rare. I have sinced returned to the harbourfront and also watched many of the same waterfowl off the Leslie St. spit.
Another exciting thing about discovering something completely new, is that it’s very easy to learn new things about it. While all of the ducks I listed swim with mallards, and redheads and scaups have a mallard-like shape, they belong to a different category of ducks-divers. Mallards for the most part feed on what they can reach from land or the water’s surface, but these other birds have differently shaped and positioned legs that allow them to feed deeper below the water’s surface. While feeding in different ways means these ducks to some degree avoid competing with mallards, I was able to observe on a couple of occasions mallards attempting to steal weeds from the mouths of redheads. I suppose you could say the mallards were to attempting to free-ride on the diving efforts of the redheads.
In addition to these and other ducks, swans also call the harbourfront home. I quickly found both mute (mostly orange-billed) and trumpeter (mostly black billed) swans. Having repeatedly heard the story of E.B. White’s The Trumpet of the Swan (the tale of a mute trumpeter swan who can finally communicate with his peers when his father steals him a trumpet) over the course of my childhood, I was mildly thrilled to discover the book’s plot is a subtle joke about these two common swan species.
Toronto may not be the Amazon, but I’m now attuned to far more of its biodiversity than I used to be, whether I’m scanning the skies of Hoskin Ave. in search of a redtail hawk, checking the grassy areas next to buildings for mourning doves (a miniature rock pigeon look alike), walking through Mt. Pleasant cemetery in search of crows and woodpeckers, or watching goldeneye ducks flip their heads to attract mates.
So, in short, I’ve spent many stressful hours memorizing numerous things at U of T, but perhaps the most powerful material I studied was found in a few moments, dabbling and diving in Lake Ontario.