Commentary

Storm Water Ponds Support Local Bird Life

Storm water ponds are home to a chorus of peepers and frogs, silent snakes, salamanders and many different species of bird.

By Timothy R. Trebilcock
Published June 27, 2017

In the storm water ponds now central to new townhouse developments, high grasses and sumac form a thick green undergrowth for the oak, maple and poplar trees lining gently-sloping hillsides that terminate at streets named Panabaker, Fiddler's Green and Garden. Floods are an increasing problem and these catchments serve as collection and drainage points to prevent flooding through the retention of natural features in the Hamilton region.

Rather than fill in and pave over ponds and streams, developers are now wise to the value of these natural features. Storm water ponds are home to a chorus of peepers and frogs, silent snakes, salamanders and many different species of bird.

Small, brightly coloured birds are the denizens of field, forest and shoreline in southern Ontario. The seagulls, for example, are miniatures of larger coastal varieties, perhaps not as well fed, and gorge themselves on the unhealthy leavings of hamburger and french fry bingeing locals. Despite the less-than-ideal diet, the gulls are whiter somehow, the markings darker, as if freshly washed, pressed and left to hang in the breeze of a helpless blue sky.

The red-winged blackbird, regularly seen in storm water ponds swaying and trilling atop tall seeded bullrush stalks, is the noisiest. The loud checks, slurred tee-errs and high-pitched rapidly descending notes can be heard from early morning to evening as they feed, confront rivals and raise alarms.

Impressive pitch-black plumage with shocks of fluffed red and yellow shoulder feathers attract attention from high perches over the wetland. The birds are almost as busy as bees, on mysterious missions, a string section for the symphony of springtime.

Timpanies rumble in the distance as ominous thunderclouds roll in over the horizon. Like storms, you often hear Orioles long before you see them, and the song is so much a part of the soundscape it takes time to register. The clear hew-li hangs in the humid air and ends abruptly with no sustain.

After the second or third rich, piping whistle, someone inevitably exclaims "Oh, it's an Oriole!" and the search begins, everyone on the lookout for a bird with the colours of baseball in Baltimore and Halloween. As eyes scan the lush green sumac, black pops from green and orange from black, and everyone is stunned into silence by the Oriole's tangerine poise.

From the branches of a nearby oak, two come-hither whistles in quick succession followed by three slow descending cheers announce the Northern Cardinal. The crest and tail feathers suggest an eccentric red-jacketed conductor gliding in to land at a bird bath rostrum.

Close behind is the builder, with a rapidly-rising chirp whistle on a mission to gather nesting material. The male seems content to follow along and show off his colours, yet 80 percent of Cardinal pairs stay together beyond one season.

Bird plumage is a function of sexual selection. Sexual dichromatism, or colour differences between the sexes in birds, can indicate health in males and provide camouflage to females as they build nests, incubate eggs and care for the young. Colour can also help individuals recognize members of their own species and announce an individual's territory.

Why do some species exhibit little or no difference in plumage between the sexes and why aren't males at greater risk of predation than their female counterparts? Many birds see a much wider range of colour than people do and even have colours in their plumage invisible to the human eye.

In bird pairs that appear similar, these "invisible" ultraviolet pigments are used to select healthy mates. At the same time, many predators see a narrower range of colour, and therefore males of prey species remain protected despite the target their colours seem to present.

Poplar leaves shake in a sudden gust like ticker tape while rushes bend in waves across the storm water pond. Song Sparrows, Blue Jays and Goldfinches take turns at the bath, while American Robins scour around lawn sprinklers for food with a steady tut-tut-tut.

A squirrel cautiously crosses a chain link fence and a rabbit moves quickly along the base in the opposite direction. Chipmunks provide endless entertainment for house cats behind screen doors and a child on the street hocks lemonade in a dixie cup for $1.

In the distance, the steady beep-beep-beep from heavy equipment warns as a back hoe descends into the recently drained storm water pond. The Deere's shovel swings back and forth knocking down bullrushes and dredging the pond, piling mud half way up the trees. It is necessary, it is for the birds and we are grateful. The rain is coming.

References:

Peterson, Roger Tory. A Field Guide to the Birds East of the Rockies. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1980

Heinsohn, Robert. "Why are Male Birds More Colourful than Female Birds?" Scientific American, 2005

Harrison, George. True Colours: Decoding Bird Plumage. Birds and Blooms

Timothy R. Trebilcock has been living and writing on Canada's West Coast for 25 years. He has written articles for newspapers and magazines. He currently lives between Hamilton, Ontario and Victoria, British Columbia.

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By NortheastWind (registered) | Posted June 27, 2017 at 15:55:53

As the neighbourhood matures it'll be even nicer.

Regarding your statement "developers are now wise to the value of these natural features". They wouldn't do it if they didn't have to.

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