A Lesson from the Grizzlies

Although our final class for outdoor school was not outdoors, we were still able to tie together all our experiences from the past semester into one last event: the viewing of Werner Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man.

Herzog uses the lens of a camera to take an insightful look at the life and work of Timothy Treadwell, an advocate for Grizzly Bears. Treadwell spent thirteen summers in a remote part of Alaska filming bears and other wildlife. In the off-season, Treadwell spent his time showing his footage to audiences in order to increase awareness of the bears and their needs. Tragically, however, Treadwell and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard were attacked and killed by a bear in 2003.

Since his death, Treadwell’s story has sparked controversy in the world of nature conservation. Although Treadwell loved the bears he filmed, some have suggested that he acted disrespectfully by treating animals like human beings. Others have called Treadwell downright crazy for living in the midst of wild animals without any form of protection. Grizzly Man isn’t just a biography. It’s also a commentary on the role of humans in the world of nature.

This is the same concept that was discussed by Alexander Wilson in his book The Culture of Nature. Wilson identifies the anthropomorphic perspectives that the media often attaches to the wilderness and comments on the ways that nature is often constructed by our society. Werner Herzog’s film was similar in that it contained commentary on the role of humans in nature. Treadwell loved nature so much that he wanted to become like the bears that he filmed. Others that Herzog interviewed firmly believed that there are aspects of nature that humans should not interfere with.

Herzog carefully considers how Treadwell saw nature. Additionally, his film also looks at how others regard Treadwell. This documentary is a complicated piece of art containing so many layers of perspective, and as the film progresses it slowly becomes apparent that it’s not just a story about a man who loved bears. This film is about what nature means to us. It’s about how we see nature, how we treat nature, and how we respond to nature.

In many ways, all of our coursework has had something to say on this subject in one way or another. On our very first day when we visited the Organic Farm, we heard Martha’s perspective on what the role of humans in nature should be. As the semester continued on, we learned many more perspectives of nature. Holly Schmidt taught us to respect nature by noticing and appreciating the overlooked parts of nature. When we collected insects with Rachel, we learned to show respect by expanding our knowledge on nature. All of our other adventures over the semester could be connected in a similar way. Ultimately, one of our class’s overarching lessons has looked at how we, as learners and as humans, should properly appreciate and study nature.

In the reading from Planting Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer wrote about the importance of giving back to nature instead of taking without further consideration. Jan Sherman repeated this lesson when she described to us the values of her traditions. The importance of giving back was emphasized when we were instructed to give a little bit of the water and the food back to the earth before taking any for ourselves. In many ways, Treadwell’s story is also a story about giving back to nature. The controversy over his treatment of nature begins when we consider what that act of giving looks like. To Treadwell, it was a direct relationship with the animals that was intimate enough for him to give them names and look closely at their lives. 

I think that there is probably a delicate balance. The greatest lesson I learned from our adventures is that humans are not spectators outside of the natural world. Watching Grizzly Man and learning the story of Timothy Treadwell only affirmed this fact. Nature and the wild is something that is around us and that we are a part of. But there can also be value in keeping our humanistic values away from the wild animals. Perhaps we should not always touch them or give them names.

Even if we don’t agree with the way Treadwell treats wild animals, however, it is still possible to appreciate his zeal and utter love for them. That is one perspective that we could all learn to appreciate more thoroughly.

“While we watch the animals in their joys of being, in their grace and ferociousness, a thought becomes more and more clear. That it is not so much a look at wild nature, as it is an insight into ourselves, our nature. And that, for me, beyond his mission, gives meaning to [Timothy’s] life and to his death.”

Werner Herzog

Perhaps the most important takeaway from Timothy Treadwell’s story is that nature is able to reflect what we see in ourselves. What Treadwell saw was different from what Herzog saw. What we see is probably different from both of their perceptions. That doesn’t make any of us wrong. But we are always able to learn more. As we all continue in our studies, we will continue to learn more ways to respect and appreciate nature.

Continue reading “A Lesson from the Grizzlies”

Bird Banding

On Tuesday, November 27, our outdoor school class travelled to the arboretum’s nature centre for a class that was destined to be exciting – bird banding. We met with Chris Earley, a master bird bander who told us a bit about the ups and downs of bird banding and how it is normally conducted. Chris and Rachel rigged up a couple of ground traps and the waiting game began. We went back inside the nature centre and discussed bird banding for a few minutes. When we came back out, we had already caught a few chickadees!

Transporting the birds from the cages into cloth bags so we can take them inside.

In the H is for Hawk video we listened to Helen talk about how she used to take her hawk out to an open field and let it fly around. I looked at the chickadees, which kept biting Chris while he held them and flew away out of our hands as soon as we opened them, and I was completely stunned. That woman trained a hawk by herself and used it as sort of an outlet for the struggles she was going through. These fierce little chickadees made me realize what an incredible feat it is to train a wild bird which is absolutely massive and has the power to harm you. It also makes me realize how much work the volunteers at Wild Ontario must also put into training their falcons.

Chris showed us how to band the birds, and taught us some tips that he uses to identify certain aspects of each bird. When you band a bird, it must be over a year old. This is because there are few birds born in the arboretum who stay there for their entire life. This means that if every single young bird caught was banded, there would be many that would never be seen again which would waste a lot of bands. There are also four bands put on a bird which are read in a certain order to identify the bird, such as blue over orange, silver over yellow. The arboretum has nine different colours which means that there are over three thousand combinations available for a bird’s bands. The arboretum has banded about five hundred birds at a rate of about one hundred per year, so they are not likely to run out of combinations anytime soon.

Chris measuring the wing length of a chickadee. On the papers below him are where the information on the birds are collected, and farther up on the table you can see some of the bands that are used to band the birds.

For each bird, he would record the type, the numbers and colours on the band (if it wasn’t banded and was over a year old, he would band it and record the colours) where and when it was caught, the weight and the age. All the information collected is entered into a database where bird banders all across north America can view and track these birds. This reminds me of the first reading we did, where nature as a selling point was discussed. At the arboretum, nature is used to educate others in hopes to preserve and help the environment. For example, Rachel’s nature walks are of no charge, and the only point of them is to enjoy nature and educate people, instead of selling or profiting off of it.

Observing the ground traps.

In total we were able to capture and record around ten birds, nearly all of which were chickadees with the exception of one mourning dove. Before we left Chris showed us his magnificent bird impressions which were so realistic and absolutely amazing to hear! This was one of my favourite classes and sadly it was one of our last. I will never forget the unforgettable experiences I have had during Outdoor School this semester.


Ruth Myers

Sweet Chickadee Fun at our Final Class!

On Tuesday, November 27th we ventured into the arboretum for our final outdoor experience as a class. This week we had the honor of joining Chris and Rachel in bird banding at the Nature Centre. Excited to see what the day would bring, I have to say I was very impressed with how much we learned.

When we arrived Chris sat us down in a room and he explained to us what Bird Banding is and why people do it. It’s a safe way of catching birds, marking them for research and tracking purposes and then releasing them again. There are tonnes of information that can be gathered from bird banding such as, growth patterns, migration, where they breed vs. where they go for the winter etc. At the arboretum, Chris mainly bands chickadees but he says on some nicer days he has caught all sorts of other birds.

How to Catch The Birds

At the arboretum, Chris showed us three ways they catch their birds. When it is not cold and dark and windy outside, mist nets are used. They are known for looking sort of like badminton nets but rather than being really tight they are loose and bag like, in order to actually gently catch the birds. The reason why they cannot be used at this time of year is that in a mist net, birds that are caught typically end up on their back and cannot move and they may have difficulty withstanding the cold like that.

Mist nets, typically used for bird banding.

In our class, we used potter and ground traps. The potter traps are the little cages on the top of the bird feeder and the ground traps are the much larger cages on the ground. Chris poured birdseed all over the ground and the feeder to attract the birds to come and get caught in our traps. Potter traps are designed so that when a bird flies in it lands on the wire bait floor that triggers the closing of the door behind them, once one gets in nothing else can. Ground traps, on the other hand, are just too smart for the birds. They have an entrance that is always open but it is designed a way that once a bird flies in it cannot figure out how to get back out.

Potter traps located at the top of the feeder. Ground traps are on the ground.
Little one-way entrance on the ground traps that birds have difficulty finding their way out of.














Once the birds were trapped in the cages it was time to take them out and bring them in for banding. Chris would put his hand into the cages and safely remove the chickadees and then put them into a bag. He explained that it is important to know whether a bird needs to be alone in a bag or not because some birds can be extremely aggressive when in a closed space together, whereas other types can have up to 6 in a bag at once and not care. For the chickadees, each bird needed its own bag, and they were also never reused, just in case one of the birds was carrying some sort of disease.

Chris placing a chickadee into a bag after catching it in a potter trap.

How to Band the Birds

The arboretum has been banding birds for years now and each time something is caught it gets recorded on the data sheets. Our trip was no different, with the classes help, Chris banded each bird that we caught. Some birds were already banded so all we needed to do was update their information. Other birds had no bands and needed to be banded for the first time. At the Arboretum, there is a color banding system for the chickadees that was approved as a research project, therefore each bird is known by its band colours. We recorded their weight, age, wing length, sex and the time we caught them at.

Chris showing the class how to record the data we collect from the caught chickadees

It was cool to watch Chris interact with the chickadees which he claimed were his favorite bird. After doing so much work with then he seemed to have built a connection with them. While we were banding he would even speak to them in a pet-like way. This reminded me of the video we watched in class about Helen Macdonald and the connection she had with her hawk. Of course what we saw and experienced was nowhere near as extreme as Helen’s story, but being in the presence of these birds, closer than ever before, I could feel my connection with birds growing. All of a sudden these little birds that I used to think nothing of, had much more value and, was very fascinating. Chris even showed us how he is able to “talk to birds”. His bird calls are so good and so clear he won a talent show competition and genuinely claims to confuse birds with his calls. 

We also learned the proper way to hold a bird without hurting it. There are two ways, the first is called banders hold “peace sign” (pictured below) and the second is photographers, which is an upright position Rachel showed where you hold the bird’s feet.

Bander’s hold: used to hold the birds down while banding without hurting them.
This is the one and only morning dove that we caught and Chris spreading her wing feathers so that we can measure her.














Releasing the Birds

Once we were finished, the birds were ready to be released again free of harm. We got to take turns releasing the birds. We placed the Chickadee on our other palm and slowing released it to let it fly away.

Slow Motion Chickadee Release:

Thank you Chris and Rachel for such as awesome time!!! And thank you Diane for an awesome course we will miss you!!! 🙂

By: Kasia Kowanda