Our birds, observed, at Brewery Creek 80 years ago

Take a river, add a canoe, binoculars, notepad and pencil and you have a recipe for time well-spent. In this case, the time was during the 1940s, the river was in Ottawa and the watcher was the British High Commissioner, Malcolm MacDonald.

MacDonald’s keen observations of avian lives and loves, drama and tragedy - just a few paddle strokes from his office - survive the test of time. The Birds of Brewery Creek, published in 1947, is organized by the month and it’s a pleasure to find how the May chapter from 80 years ago mirrors the parade of birds observed here in south-central Ontario in May, 2024.

May is the start of nesting – and the familial experiences of many birds are described in detail. (The book can be read online on the website archive.org – by being borrowed for an hour at a time. I never had any problem renewing for another hour.)

“One of the most fanciful designers and builders of nests in Canada is the Baltimore Oriole. No bird is more skilful. Its creation is so fine that it might be classified as a work of art rather than one of mere craftmanship,” MacDonald writes. He found several such nests, but was disappointed in his efforts to view a bird in the act of building.

But he was able to watch an Oriole pair start a family, the female sitting on eggs, deep in the bag of the nest, hidden from sight. The male is nearby, standing guard when she leaves to forage, taking no part in incubation, but flitting from branch to branch frequently singing his short, cheerful song, the “gently uttered notes” evidence of a true bond of affection. When the chicks hatched, he disappeared, not the usual behaviour for males of this species, MacDonald suggest, so perhaps he had been killed, leaving his mate to raise them – which she did.

MacDonald took a fancy to one of several Yellow Warbler pairs. “What a good-looking couple they were! His brilliant yellow body with a chestnut-streaked throat and breast was the brighter and lovelier of the two. But her greenish yellow colouring, though more subdued, was also pretty. In figure and movement, they both had enchanting grace.”

Through several pages, the fortunes of the pair’s small family are detailed, culminating in the successful fledging of the three chicks. “Their mother was a remarkably capable little creature… Her whole conduct from the moment when she arrived in the creek and started building her nest had been a model of wifely and maternal devotion and efficiency. I felt that it was not only a pleasure but also an honour to have known her.”

Another pair was less fortunate, a Cowbird having chosen to lay an egg in their nest. “It was a pitiful sight,” says MacDonald of coming upon a young Cowbird being fed by two Yellow Warblers. He has little time for the loutish Cowbird, “a giant compared to its foster parents.” The warblers foraged diligently and one arrived with a caterpillar every few minutes. “As its beautiful little benefactor hurried towards it, the fledgling waited with ill-concealed greed.” This is the only bird for which MacDonald is unable to find a good word. Even Starlings, “those despised immigrants,” get the nod for their colourful plumage and cheerful whistling in winter.

Brewery Creek is witness to several sad tales, including the disappearance of one handsome Barred Owl, after a thoughtless remark to a taxidermist. “Next morning the Owl was gone. I never found it again in the creek. But a week later I saw it perched on a bit of wood in the workshop of my excellent friend (the taxidermist)… I thought the poor bird’s glass eye looked at me reproachfully.”

There was the Veery who built her fragile looking nest with quiet efficiency. It held up against wild stormy weather but first egg that was laid disappeared overnight. Another one was laid and it too was gone the next day. MacDonald wondered whether she would desert – but she persevered. The next morning a third egg lay in the nest. It was still there when he visited that evening, but it appeared a struggle had taken place. “Stuck to the shell of the egg was a Veery’s breast feather. The nest itself was dented on one side and more feathers were ominously attached to its edge. A crushed dock leaf leaned against the nest and the dock talks below had been trampled on and broken.” The egg was cold and remained so, and the Veery was not seen again – perhaps mortally wounded and retired to a quiet place to die, or, more hopefully, gone to build another nest with a better prospect of a peaceful, happy life.

MacDonald has the ultimate accolade for the hummingbird. “The head, back and middle tail feathers were golden bronze-green. They glinted like polished metal. Nay, they gleamed and glistened and at some angles glittered like a bright green flame. Perfection is rare in the world, but the beauty of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird is perfect.”

We owe a debt of gratitude to those who, like MacDonald, watch, take careful notes, and have a depth of knowledge to explain what they’re seeing with empathy and affection. “It was charming to see occasional demonstrations of the devotion which united them,” is how he describes a pair of Belted Kingfishers as they came dashing through the air with twists and turn for “no apparent object except joie de vivre.” By June, a tunnel would have been excavated with beaks and claws into the side of the creek bank – out of reach, to MacDonald’s regret, of the ornithologist’s prying eyes. This would be the nest into which the female laid her eggs. By mid-July, there were young Kingfishers, perched around the creek, calling for food as the parents were fishing.

MacDonald devotes three pages to a description of the Kingfisher’s angling technique. The juveniles’ splashing attempts to get their own food are a far cry from the streamlined elegance of the adults’ dive into the water. But by August, they have learned, and adult guidance being no longer needed, the family group disperses.

MacDonald was a politician and member of cabinet in the pre-World-War-II years and drafted a controversial 1939 White Paper on British policy in Palestine before moving on to a career as a diplomat and colonial administrator. Postings to Malaysia and India led to books about birds in those countries. Another book, Down North, is about a trip he took to northern Canada in 1942. It’s available on archive.org, though I can't find the bird books there. His easy writing style makes him worth reading on any subject.
Margot Edge
- 9 June 2024 at 03:58pm

We have cardinals nesting in a barberry bush close to our front entry. male is forever watchful. We hear babies now so hope all goes well. Great read above. Just bought book called Bird Detective at the library sale. Great reference.
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