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A beginner's guide to wildlife in Toronto

At the foot of Spadina Quay where the harbour water licks the edge, there's a section of the boardwalk called the Spadina WaveDeck where the pathway arches like elegant waves. Below the surface, Northern Pike hang out amongst the artificial habitat tucked underneath, enjoying the summer rays cascading off the water.

"You can ride the Spadina streetcar down, get right off at the quay and go fishing," says Rick Portiss, manager of restoration and environmental monitoring projects at the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority

He should know – he and his colleagues do it from time to time. Albeit they skip the hooks and rods, instead using the TRCA's non-invasive electrofisher, which sends a current into the water and stuns the fish for a few minutes, to process and tag them with microchips.

"We'll take some of the smaller fish species in the harbour and put them in a bin right on the quay there," he says. "Within minutes you'll have sixty people around you asking where you got the fish."

They come from underneath. From below the wave decks and in the other pockets of artificial habitats built by Waterfront Toronto and the TRCA along the downtown lakefront. 

Further out in the harbour, thirty or so thermos-shaped receivers sit on the lakebed pinging out and tracking the depth and movement of over 300 fish from nine species. The harbour is an underwater city filled with slender pike, olive-coloured walleye with spiny fins, and prized largemouth bass.

The electronic pings – signals sent out by the tags tucked in their scales – let the TRCA and their Carleton University partners know where the fish hang out, so they can better protect the harbourfront and shallow shorefront areas, all of which are still officially considered areas of concern.

"For a number of years it was a degraded system with poor diversity, poor water quality," he says. "Over the past 20 some odd years we've been working on this remedial action plan to improve the areas diversity, environment and water quality." 

Little minnows called emerald shiners are starting to show up in huge clouds along the waterfront and open shoreline areas as well, a fine snack for hungry bass.

"Not only do we have these huge predators, but we're seeing the signs of the support system there as well," says Portiss.

And it's not just the harbour – Toronto's ravines are littered with these wildlife systems. 

Furry friends

While muskrats and beavers play along the riverbanks, squirrels and possums hide out in the trees of Toronto's urban green spaces. They're not alone. Hunters and smaller scavengers such as mink, weasels, and raccoons roam nearby, the latter a familiar sighting on city streets. A recent estimate pegs the city's raccoon population at around 100,000.

Then there are the coyotes. Adept to city scavenging, their presence in Toronto is often polarizing as they've been known to snatch house pets such as cats and small dogs, and startle locals. For the most part they stick to the ravines and their omnivore diet of berries, fruits, and the occasional rabbit,though they have been known to take down injured deer from time to time.

 "White tail deer are actually fairly abundant throughout the ravines of Toronto, but people are very excited when they see one," says Theresa McKenzie, terrestrial volunteer coordinator at the TRCA. "They don't expect to see one on every hike, but they are certainly there."

Although there are no concrete numbers surrounding the amount of deer in the city, the Toronto Wildlife Centre gets hundreds of calls a year about sightings, especially between April and October. 

Species of concern

There are also species of concern like the ovenbird – a brownish-yellow bird with a black striped head and belly – which nests on the ground making it an easy snack for wandering house cats.

"Free roaming cats are a big concern for a lot of birds, but specifically ovenbirds," says McKenzie, who helps to train volunteers – ranging from amateur naturalists to biology students – how to pick out the 50 different native indicator species like songbirds, mammals, and plants that point to different areas of the city's terrestrial diversity.
Native frogs like the wood frog or northern spring peeper are also species of concern as the need both wetland and forest environments to thrive. Frogs are adaptable little guys, able to breed in most wetlands, be it a ditch at the side of the road or soggy runoff.

"Their big issue in the city is pollution in the wetlands. The one environmental toxin that people don't think about which is very severe for amphibians is salt," says McKenzie. "When we salt our roads in winter and then the rain comes in the spring and washes all that salt into the wetlands, amphibians can't live in it." 

It's a simple example of the disconnect between nature and urban life. The animals that can't adapt often leave, further degrading the biodiversity.

"We still have porcupines in the rural zone, but not in the urban because they're very susceptible to road kill," says McKenzie.

Up in the sky

When it isn't forced, migration plays a role in the ecosystem as well. Beyond the shadow of Toronto's skyline at the tip of Leslie Street Spit sits Tommy Thompson Park, a sanctuary for 316 species of birds. Millions of birds migrate through Toronto annually and TTP is a hub of activity. 

Historical habitats like the Ashbridges Bay marsh and nearby deciduous forests would have been a haven for birds.

"Those habitats disappeared or were reduced fairly recently, but are still present in the ecological memory of our wildlife," says Karen McDonald, manager of restoration and environmental monitoring projects at the TRCA. "Wildlife does not evolve fast enough to accommodate for these changes, so that's one reason why so many birds still migrate through our area."

TTP is home to the largest double-crested cormorant colony in eastern North America, and at its peak the area's black-crowned night heron colony represented 30 per cent of Canada's national breeding population.

"We like to think of these [migrating] birds as 'our' birds because they stop over and stay around here," says McDonald. "But we share these birds. They come from the tropics, from the high Arctic, from all around the world, thousands of kilometres."

Which is why these habitats are critical, she adds.

"By monitoring migratory birds along their migratory routes we can assess stopover locations – [places like TTP] are gas stations for birds, where they can rest and refuel for the next leg of their journey – as well as how they fared on their overwintering and breeding ranges," says McDonald. "This provides insight into areas that may be hard to monitor, like the Boreal forest, and can tell us if there are problems so that appropriate actions can be taken to address them."

The wildlife that lives in Toronto's ravines, hangs out under the dock at the harbourfront, and lands at the tip of Leslie Spit in the fall represent the checks and balances of the unique and fragile ecosystems that find a way to peacefully co-exist. 

"There is a misconception about Toronto's wildlife – many people think that we only have a few common species, but in fact Toronto has a rich wildlife landscape," adds McDonald. "We need to protect what is left and restore and enhance where we can."

And what better spot to start than our own backyard?

Andrew Seale is a Toronto-based freelance writer whose writing has appeared in The Toronto Starthe Vancouver SunThe Calgary Herald, and Alternatives Journalamong other places. He loves Toronto, but doesn’t like to sit still for too long and publishes stories of his adventures at whenwedrift.tumblr.com. Find him on Twitter @WhenWeDrift.
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