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POWLace (Photos by Dave LeBlanc.)
POWLace (Photos by Dave LeBlanc.)


Designing minds take flight Add to ...

On behalf of all birds, I take issue with the phrase "strictly for the birds" and the term "birdbrain."

Worthless and stupid birds are not: They are wonderful, intelligent creatures that play a vital role in our ecosystem and, further, make our city a much richer place in which to live. According to Andy Bezener's Birds of Ontario (Lone Pine Publishing, 2000), "472 bird species have been seen and recorded" in the province, with 320 making "annual appearances." In other words, we live in a birder's paradise.

Ever since moving to a home one street away from a ravine in 2005, I have marvelled at the number of blue jays, cardinals, wrens and swallows that come to visit my little patch of green, and I've tried, slowly, to understand them, feed them, and complain only a little when they build homes in my carport.

The Toronto Botanical Garden’s For the Birds competition received 26 entries this year. The mirrored globe meant to house a screech owl was panned by the judges, who noted that the reflective surface would frighten birds, and owls will not nest in hanging objects.”

That's why I was so excited to tour the Toronto Botanical Garden's second annual For the Birds competition at the George and Kathy Dembroski Centre for Horticulture (777 Lawrence Ave. E.) earlier this summer and then, last week, to attend their Flocktail party. As an observer and interpreter of human habitats, I'm of course curious about how birds live - whether a nest of their own design or an appropriated hollow log - and even more curious to see what human designers create for them, since, despite the best of intentions, they sometimes miss the mark.

And that's the point of this competition: Pick a bird from a menu of seven as supplied by the TBG, design a dwelling for it, get judged on its suitability by an esteemed panel of experts, exhibit it for a few months and then see how much it fetches at the Flocktail fundraising auction.

This year, 26 birdhouses were submitted to the TBG in three categories: Individual, Student Professional and Professional. I paid particular attention to the Student Professionals and Professionals, since these are the people you or I would hire should we want our property landscaped or, perhaps, have a house designed to plop on top of it.

While striking to me, the sexy mirrored globe, "S.P.H.E.R.E. (Screech Owl Perfectly Hidden Elevated Reflective Environment)" by the folks at Superkül Inc. would be rejected by its client according to the judges; "Reflective surface would frighten birds" and "Owl will not nest in hanging objects" were a few of their comments. Landscape Designer Kathleen Vuurman's attempt for the same client - a whimsical, hanging kite-shaped home - would fail for the same reason.

Birdhouse for a wren.

Similarly, Jeffrey Tjendra's see-through, delicate and attractive "Droplet" might not work for the house wren because the penetrating sunlight "would cause the temperature to rise and could be harmful to the eggs." The graphically pleasing "Integrate purple/design to adapt" for the purple martin also illustrates a failure by Andra Totirescu to understand her client: "Cannot be cleaned" and "Hole too small" meant this one would never take flight.

There were client success stories, however, and many won awards during the Flocktail party. Striking a pose similar to a hornet's nest, "Birdhouse Wren" by Geoff Christou and Nick Savage "meets all requirements," said the judges; aesthetically, its charm lies in its use of organically shaped, cut plywood stacked in a random fashion. Even more organic, Prince Edward Island native Dario Zannier's "Untitled" for the chickadee is constructed from reclaimed barn board and driftwood, which caused the judges to remark: "Great design and craftsmanship."

"Ovo" for the tree swallow by industrial designer Paul Durocher, a streamlined, egg-shaped delight, caused the judges to crow that it was "clever," beautiful" and demonstrated a "good choice of materials." Another clever design was "The pOWLace" for the eastern screech owl by Chiara Camposilvan and Davide Gianforcaro, which mimicked the bird's feathers via a cladding of scrap pieces of Formica, although judges warned that it seemed "likely that material would break down when outside." I don't know about you, but I've been through enough vintage kitchens to know that Formica is almost indestructible, so I'd happily move into this one if I were an owl.

Although there might be "too much light and visibility," Shannon Small's "Nesting Bowls" for the house wren was also "witty, smart, clever and surprising," said the judges. At the party, Ms. Small reacted to winning in the Best Professional category by explaining her design: "I really like to bake, and I have a favourite bowl; it kind of sprung from that," said the 27-year-old with a laugh.

Another great design that dwarfed all others due to its massive size was the Moshe Safdie-on-acid "Swallow Hollow" by architect Paul Dowsett and his crew at Sustainable. Built after a rash of material-gathering dumpster dives, this crazy collection of purple martin condos demonstrates, once again, that being green doesn't mean you have to be boring.

The Sustainable design (along with many others) raised more than a thousand dollars at the Flocktail auction, which will help fund a Woodland Walk and Bird Habitat at the Toronto Botanical Garden, where some feathered tenants are already enjoying a selection of last year's birdhouses.

A fun, educational and worthy event, I'd say. You'd be a birdbrain to miss it next year.

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