Archive for November, 2009

Nellie McClung (left) and Irene Parlby

Although women in Canada achieved the right to vote in 1917, many of the improvements to the status of women that first-wave feminists no doubt hoped would follow were slow in arriving. Indeed, achieving equal rights to those of men has been a tedious journey and has required the ongoing persistent effort of countless women over the past century.

When I began work in a large Toronto office in 1970, the young man seated at the desk next to mine, who was hired after I was, and was performing exactly the same chores, was rewarded with a bigger paycheque at the end of the week, simply because he was male. Things have changed since then, but women are still under-represented in highly-paid positions.

One of the steps along the road came when women fought to be recognized as persons. You’d think this was self-evident, but Prime Minister Robert Borden, and then Prime Minister Arthur Meighen and their governments maintained otherwise. They argued that the 1867 British North America Act prevented women from holding seats in the federal Senate because Section 24 of the act stated that only “qualified persons” might be called to the Senate, and a British court had ruled that women were “persons in matters of pains and penalties, but not persons in matters of rights and privileges.”

Emily Murphy, an Edmonton magistrate, had campaigned for years for government institutions to open their doors to women. A clause in the Supreme Court Act stated that five citizens could petition for an interpretation of a part of the BNA Act if the minister of justice supported the request for a ruling. In 1927, Murphy was joined by Nellie McClung, Irene Parlby, Louise McKinney and Henrietta Muir Edwards, all active participants in women’s organizations, in petitioning the Supreme Court.

Henrietta Muir Edwards (left) and Louise McKinney

On April 24th, 1928, Chief Justice Anglin handed down an opinion. He held that since women did not hold public office in 1867, the BNA authors could not have intended that women would be eligible to sit in the Senate. Therefore, women were barred from sitting in the Senate. In short, women were not to be allowed to sit in the Senate because they never had.

Murphy and her companions appealed the matter to a higher court: the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in Westminster, England. In October of 1929, British lord chancellor Lord Sankey stated that the BNA Act was capable of growth. A liberal interpretaion of the act was espoused and he concluded that the word “persons” includes members of both the male and female sex. Therefore, women were eligible to be summoned to the Senate of Canada. This year, 2009, marks the 80th anniversary of the decision.

A commemorative statue remembers this important moment in the history of the Canadian women’s movement. Unveiled in October of 2000, the monument is situated on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. The larger-than-life sculptures were completed by Edmonton artist Barbara Paterson and were donated to the Government of Canada by the Famous 5 Foundation. The Famous Five are portrayed as they might have been as they celebrate their victory. Nellie McClung holds up a headline announcing Women are Persons! At her side, Irene Parlby looks on. Emily Murphy stands by her chair, while Louise McKinney clasps her hands and Henrietta Muir Edwards raises her cup in acknowledgment of the victory.

Unlike most of the monuments on Parliament Hill, which are formal and conventional, the Women are Persons tribute invites visitors to join the women, even sit down with them and celebrate their achievement. It’s a lovely remembrance of five important persons.

Emily Murphy

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Dinner is served. Breakfast and lunch, too! With cold weather approaching, I have been getting my bird feeders cleaned and set up for the winter. Birdwatchers can be an obsessive group, keeping a life list, hiking for miles to see that one special species. For the most part, I am satisfied just to let the birds come to me and watch them from the comfort of my home. Especially in winter, when it’s cold and snowy.

Feeding backyard birds has become a hugely popular hobby across North America, second only to gardening. It’s estimated about 1/3 of households make seed available. Considering the huge negative impacts humans have on the lives of birds, the occasional free lunch seems like the least we can do for them.

Supplemental feeding may help weaker birds make it through the winter and allow birds to begin the breeding season in better condition. During extreme cold spells, feeders can help more birds survive as individuals who are unable to find sufficient food before sunset often don’t make it through the night. Feeding birds will not stop individuals from migrating, an urge triggered by daylength. However, over time the availability of widespread supplemental food supplies can impact the winter range of birds. In past decades, the number of goldfinches overwintering in Ontario has grown. Northern Cardinals have also been able to expand their range northward partly because of bird-feeding practices.

I set my feeders up farther away from the house than I would have liked. It’s nice to have the birds arriving just outside your picture window. But proximity to a window can be a deathtrap for birds, who often take off in a rush when startled and fly right into the window. Many birds die this way every year. If the impact doesn’t kill them outright, they may die later from internal bleeding. Placing the feeder away from the house makes viewing less immediate, but is safer for the birds.

Having a variety of feeder types and different kinds of seeds available helps to attract an assortment of species to your yard. As the weather has been unseasonably mild, so far I have had a limited number of visitors, but a steady stream of Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata) stop by. I put a handful of peanuts in the shell out for them, a sure hit. While the mainstay of my sunflower offering is black oiled sunflower, I also put out some of the larger striped sunflower for larger birds like the jays.

I have a couple of kinds of suet feeders. This log variation has been quite popular. Here, a Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens), identifiable as a male by the red spot on the back of his head, is helping himself. If you are a keen observer, it is possible to tell woodpecker individuals apart by the pattern of colouration on their heads.

By far the most numerous visitors at the feeders right now are American Goldfinches (Carduelis tristis). When I first started feeding winter birds a few decades ago, I was puzzled by these drab, olive-yellow visitors. It was a while before I learned that the bright yellow summer birds molt into a less flamboyant feather coat for the winter. Losing their breeding colours helps to signal male birds that breeding competition has ended and lets them come together as a flock. If you want to attract goldfinches, a nyger feeder is your best bet. Goldfinches love nyger (thistle) seed, but also take black oiled sunflower seed.

Another common visitor is the Black-capped Chickadee (Parus atricapilla). In fact, these jaunty, active little birds are often the number-one most-common feeder bird at Ontario feeders. Chickadees like black oiled sunflower seed, and I usually put out a handful of peanut bits or small redskin peanuts for them as well. They have to beat out the blue jays though.

Most feeder birds visit multiple backyards and still use natural food sources as well, so unless you are in an isolated location, you can take a winter vacation without guilt over hungry birds. One uncomplicated argument for feeding birds goes like this: When you feed birds, you help more birds survive to breed again. More birds will eat more insects, so fewer pesticides are needed. Fewer chemicals are safer for everyone.

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The property neighbouring ours doesn’t have a house on it. It is agricultural land used for growing corn and soybeans, with the exception of one odd little patch of forest. The few acres of trees form a little island in the midst of a sea of corn. The soybean crop has been harvested, but the corn is still standing.

A drainage system underlies the land and empties into a rather impressive ditch that borders the fields, eventually emptying into our little river. The water level in the river can change dramatically in heavy rain, no doubt in part due to the artificially accelerated rate of drainage of water from the soil. I took a walk along the ditch to take a look at the forest island, now that the soybeans have been harvested and a path along the edge of the field is clear.

It is composed mostly of impressive Red Pines (Pinus resinosa). They may have formed part of a plantation at one time, but if so, the straight-row pattern that is usually easy to see wasn’t evident. It seems strange that this one little patch of trees, a few acres worth, has been left untouched. I would like to think that they were saved for their majestic beauty, but it seems more likely that plans to harvest the timber will follow at some time in the future. Although the pines predominate, there is also a sprinkling of small maples and beech, now leafless. Around the edge of the forest fragment is a narrow ribbon of birch trees.

CORRECTION: Thanks to Tony for letting me know that the trees are actually Scots Pines (Pinus sylvestris)! They were planted about 35 years ago as a Christmas Tree plantation, but never harvested. As the trees were planted close together in anticipation of a harvest in 6 to 8 years, they grew to be rather spindly when they exceeded their “best before” date as Christmas trees. A number fell over and were otherwise lost, so the remaining stand represents the survivors. They appear to be doing very well.

If I had paid more attention to the cache of cones I came across, I might have done a better job of identifying these trees. Scots Pines are popular as Christmas trees because of their shape and good needle retention, while their fast growth habit and good response to shaping makes them popular with growers. They were one of the first tree species to be introduced to North America. John Laird Farrar notes in Trees in Canada that in Europe the Scots Pine is a tall, straight tree with wood of excellent quality. In North America, the trunks are seldom straight (although I would have to say most of the trees in this stand were pretty straight) and the wood quality is poor owing to the seed source chosen by early settlers. The trees can live in the range of 150 to 300 years, so this stand is still young.

Up until a couple of hundred years ago, most of eastern North America was covered in forest. Now, in eastern Ontario, in the Ottawa region, forest cover is only 13 percent in some areas, and the remaining forest is highly fragmented, a few acres here, a few acres there.

Fragments are not good habitat for birds. Forest fragmentation increases nest predation by a stunning list of predators. Skunks, opossums, and raccoons hunt at night. Snakes, chipmunks, even deer, are not averse to a tasty egg when the opportunity arises. Other birds such as blue jays and crows will rob nests of eggs and nestlings. Cats take a huge toll on the bird population. Cowbirds lay their eggs in the nests of other birds and their larger chicks often survive at the expense of the host’s own young. Predation is higher in forest fragments than in continuous forest. One study found in suburban woodlots, about 70% of nests suffer predation. In rural woodlots, it’s about 50%. Other studies have found different rates, but all found that nests in fragments suffer more predation than nests in continuous forest cover.

Fragments are population sinks. That is, more birds are killed over the breeding season than are replaced by new youngsters, resulting in a net loss to the population. The birds that nest in fragments are like a steady trickle of water going down the drain. Large forests are usually population sources because breeding success is relatively high. For example, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the largest national park in the eastern United States, has more than 200,000 hectares of continuous forest. Some 10,000 nesting pairs of wood thrush produce a surplus of almost three thousand females each year beyond the number required to replace the breeding females who have died.

Fragmentation of habitat is one of the reasons the songbird population is crashing. To read more about fragmentation and other songbird issues, check out Dr. Bridget Stutchbury’s book Silence of the Songbirds.

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Back in the summer, I visited Gracie the Elephant at Homestead Gallery, near Kemptville. This encounter is recorded in Meeting Gracie. At the end of September, Gracie moved to Merrickville and was joined by a second creation by artist Robert Turnbull. Gracie and her giraffe buddy spent the fall outside the Judith Moore Gallery. I wrote about them in Visiting Gracie and Friend.

In November, Robert was featured on a segment of CTV TV’s program, Regional Contact. The enjoyable show gives viewers a chance to see Robert at work on his sculptures and learn a bit about his background and inspiration. In addition to his giant animals, some of Robert’s other work is highlighted. You can watch the podcast of the segment online at CTV Ottawa – Regional Contact. Just click on the video link for the November 7th broadcast. You’ll also get a preview of Robert’s next project: a hippo!


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The shoreline above illustrates a typical set of plants found at the water’s edge. With their feet in the water are clumps of sedges and grasses. At the edge of the shore are cattails. Behind the cattails, on the left, are taller reeds with their fluffy seedheads. To the right, you can see the fall yellow-gold of young larch trees. On dry land, in the distance, is the forest. The reeds are Common Reeds, or Phragmites australis. They are easily recognized in the fall, both by their full, plume-like seedheads and their long stems. Often ten or twelve feet tall, they tower over other plants.

Fossil records show that phragmites have been present in North America for at least 40,000 years. While the term reed is sometimes used generically to indicate tall, grass-like plants, phragmites are the only plant correctly called reeds. They grow in large, dense, colonial clumps and can be found along marshes and wetlands, even ditches. Unlike cattails, which like some water movement, phragmites grow on land or in shallow, still water.

In spite of their conspicuous seedheads, phragmites reproduce predominately via rhizomes and stolons. They send out runners that can extend a long distance, sending up new shoots along their length. The photo above, taken in September, shows phragmites making serious inroads into new territory. Clonal colonies can be very large and extremely long-lived. Phragmites can play a role as land-formers. They divide up shallow water with their network of horizontal runners and vertical shoots. Mud, algae, dead leaves and other debris becomes trapped in the network and slowly, new ground is built up.

Although phragmites are native in North America, something has changed over the last 150 years. Their distribution and abundance has increased dramatically. Botanical records from the 1800s list phragmites as rare or uncommon and phragmites were limited to the southeastern states. By the early 1900s, the plant was more widespread. Now, phragmites are found throughout the United States and into southern Canada.

Scientists investigating possible causes for this change have found molecular evidence that suggests native phragmites are no longer the plants they once were. Phragmites australis is a cosmopolitan plant, found widely around the world. However, different strains are limited to different locations. Molecular studies that have compared modern North American populations with historical ones from herbarium collections indicate that an introduction has occurred. Furthermore, the introduced variety of Phragmites australis has largely displaced the native species. In addition, the non-native phragmites have spread to regions not known to have phragmites present historically.

This is termed a cryptic invasion. The introduced species is so similar to the native species that it is nearly impossible to tell them apart without testing. However, the introduced species doesn’t act like the native species.

Phragmites provide cover, and a few birds, such as black-crowned night herons, may nest in their dense stands. The only mammal that is known to feed on them to any extent is the muskrat. While not problematic in limited concentrations, the continuing expansion of their range and population is a concern as the invaders squeeze out native species that play important roles in wetland ecosystems. You can read more about phragmites as cryptic invaders in Saltonstall’s Cryptic invasion by a non-native genotype of the common reed Phragmites australis, into North America, published in the February 19, 2002 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

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Down by the river, I noticed that a new house has been added to the neighbourhood. A very attractive dome-style home has been prepared by an industrious builder. The builder, though busy as a beaver, is a smaller cousin, a muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus).


As befits the smaller size of its resident, the lodge is quite a bit less ambitious than that of a beaver, but still represents a substantial mound of materials. While beavers use tree branches to build their winter home, muskrats are cattail specialists. The lodge is constructed by first heaping cattails with mud and other plant matter to form a mound. Then, a burrow is built into the lodge from underwater. Muskrats depend on cattails for food as well as housing. Although they will eat crayfish and fish, muskrat diets are primarily made up of cattails and other vegetation.


You can compare this muskrat house to the beaver lodge shown in this post: At Work Under the Beaver Moon. Although close to the river edge, this lodge is surrounded by water. The water must be deep enough so that it will not freeze to the bottom during the winter, but shallow enough to allow the growth of cattails and other vegetation. Ideally, the water should be between 1 and 2 metres deep. Areas with a good supply of bulrushes, cattails, pondweeds, or sedges are preferred. Ahhh, home, sweet home.


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Nellie McClung by Charlotte Gray. Penguin Canada, 2008.

Charlotte Gray’s biography of Nellie McClung belongs to the Extraordinary Canadians series. Edited by John Ralston Saul, the series of more than a dozen titles covers a wide range of Canadians, from politicians such as Trudeau and Tommy Douglas to artists such as Emily Carr and writer L. M. Montgomery. Each title is written by an accomplished Canadian writer.

Rather than just reciting the details of McClung’s life, Gray does a good job of putting her achievements into the context of her era. Truly, Nellie McClung led an extraordinary life for a woman of her time, and indeed, any time. Born in Ontario in 1873, she moved to Manitoba with her family at the age of seven. In a day far removed from our modern world of convenient travel, they carried their entire household of belongings with them, using two slow-moving oxen carts to complete the final 200 kilometres of their journey. The family, with their five children, arrived just in time to settle into a remote, small, drafty cabin before the onslaught of the prairie winter. It was a few years before a school was built close enough to allow Nellie to begin her education and she learned to read at the age of ten.

From these difficult circumstances, Nellie went on to become a teacher herself and married a young pharmacist. Together, they raised a family of five children, first in a small Manitoba town, and later in Winnipeg and Edmonton. Nellie’s mother-in-law, who with her “fearless, radical” mind was so very different from Nellie’s own conservative, conventional mother, no doubt played an important role in helping Nellie to find her voice.

As a young woman, Nellie joined the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. First established in the United States in 1874, it spread rapidly through Canada because drunkenness was a serious problem everywhere. We tend to dismiss the notion of prohibition now as the ideal of over-zealous religious types. But in 19th-century North America, a time when people lived hard, difficult lives and men often drank freely in public, alcohol presented a threat to wives and children, who had no protection from abusive husbands and fathers under the law. Prohibition ultimately changed societal mores before it was repealed.

It is hard to even imagine now the complete lack of status women held a century ago. An unmarried woman remained with her father or brother. If a woman was trapped in an unhappy marriage, she was a failure. If she left her husband, she had no right to her children or a share in their joint estate. Sons inherited land. Daughters did not. The temperance movement offered women a vehicle for change in a time when much of society could not even imagine women voting.

Nellie became an inspiring speaker and through her writing and speaking engagements, played a significant role in the first wave of Canadian feminism. The three prairie provinces were the first to grant women the vote in 1916. Ontario and British Columbia, and the federal government followed a year later, with the remaining provinces gradually following their lead. However, even after the vote was won, women were barred from the Senate because they were not “persons” under the law. Nellie and the Famous Five succeeded in their quest to change that in 1929.

Charlotte Gray’s biography is a lively presentation of Nellie’s life and accomplishments, and well worth reading. Gray wonders how Nellie came to be so different from her more conventional family, what drove her, what made her the determined campaigner she was. Gray offers no clear answer, but makes Nellie come alive for a new generation who enjoy the fruit of her achievements.

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Sunset Across Fields


Sunset, Hedgerow


Sunset, Maple


Sunset, Trees

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The Eastern Larch, or Tamarack (Larix laricina) is an interesting tree, a conifer that is not evergreen. Rather, it is deciduous, shedding its leaves, or needles, every fall. Other conifers retain their needles for two to ten years, thus maintaining their green colour year round. The larch is quite attractive and distinctive in every season. In winter, it presents an interesting silouette, with its nubby, dense branches. In spring, the fresh new soft green needles lend the tree a feathery appearance. However, it is in the autumn that the larch really shines. As the year advances towards winter, the larch needles turn a vibrant gold. After the brightly coloured maples and oaks and other deciduous trees have lost their leaves, the larch trees stand out against a background of brown branches and dark evergreens, glowing brightly even on the drabbest day.


The Eastern Larch is wide-ranging. It can be found from Maryland north to the taiga, and across the continent from Newfoundland to Alaska. In spite of its wide range, it rarely forms pure stands and makes up only one percent of the softwood trees of Canada. It is quite adaptable, but is most commonly associated with wetlands and damp areas. It favors fens, which are less acidic than bogs, and have some minimal water flow bringing nutrients. Larch trees have shallow, wide-reaching roots that help to protect fragile soils and prevent erosion at the edges of wetlands. Trees grow to a height of 50 to 70 feet and live for 60 to 80 years, on average.


Small cones, less than an inch long, are produced and heavy seed crops occur every three to six years. Studies have found that up to half of the seed crop that drops to the ground is consumed or cached by small rodents and shrews. American Tree Sparrows and Red Crossbills are said to favor larch seeds and grouse feed on the needles and buds. Porcupines are fond of the inner bark and may damage the trees as they chew away large patches.

Many larch were destroyed in the early part of the twentieth century by a larch sawfly (Pristiphora erichsonii)epidemic. These needle defoliators virtually wiped out most old-growth stands of larch in eastern North America. The epidemic subsided after most of the larch population had died. Recurring infestations have varied in impact across regions. Fortunately, a few survivors carried on and in this area we are fortunate to be able to enjoy a good representation of the species.


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You Go, Girl!!!


Zenyatta (photo from Wikipedia)

Every once in a long while, an individual comes along who dominates their field, stands head and shoulders above all the rest. When this happens, you don’t have to be a sports fan to appreciate their achievement. Even my 85-year-old mom, who never played a sport or even rode a bike in her life, loved to follow Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong.

I don’t follow horse racing much, beyond catching the annual running of the Kentucky Derby and the Queen’s Plate. It was just by accident that I saw the running of the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic and was awed by just such an athlete, one who dominates her field.

Named for a 1980 album by The Police, five-year-old mare Zenyatta beat out Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird and Belmont Stakes winner Summer Bird in her most recent triumph. No filly or mare had ever won the Classic since its inception in 1984. Undefeated in 14 starts, Zenyatta is the all-time leading female Thoroughbred earner in North America, winner of $5,474,580.

See the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic below. Watch for the rider in the bright green silks (as in the picture at the top of this post).

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