Possibly my favourite natural phenomenon in Halifax is the daily migration of thousands of crows in the Clayton Park area. Their nightly congregation in the trees surrounding Mount St. Vincent University is something well known to most local residents. I compare it to a couple of awe-inspiring natural events I’ve witnessed in the past. It’s similar to seeing row after row of huge “V” formation flocks of geese on their yearly migration, navigating the skies like choreographed fighter jets at an air show. Another event that I first witnessed as a child is a similar phenomenon involving Chimney Swifts in the town of Wolfville. Anyone who has seen either of these events knows that it is a sight to behold.
As an avid hiker and outdoor activity enthusiast, when I see the skies fill with hundreds of crows heading down towards the Bedford Basin, I know it’s time to head out of the woods before darkness sets in. There is no better measure of remaining daylight. No matter where I am, I love looking up to see this awe inspiring daily ritual. The crow roost at the former Mount St. Vincent property has been a well-known neighborhood phenomenon dating back to at least the 1960s. The often noisy and messy lifestyle is both tolerated and celebrated by Mount St. Vincent University students who likely identify with a lifestyle similar to the highly intelligent, social creatures.
“For the most part, though, Mount Saint Vincent University has embraced its noisy neighbours. The campus lounge is called the Crows Nest, there’s the Crow ‘n’ Go convenience store and earlier this year, the university even retired its mascot, Monty the mountain lion, in favour of a new one: Captain the Crow.” – via CBC article.
Unfortunately, the crows roosting grounds are now ground zero for a huge development. Destruction (especially cruel in the dead of winter) of the crows roost has begun on the former Mount St. Vincent property where the developer has used the cost-cutting, cookie-cutter approach of clearcutting everything. The unfortunate side-effect is the loss of the crows main roosting habitat, and well-aged forest ecosystem that is home to deer, fox, and countless other inhabitants. Some trees, well over 100 years old, are given no deference nor was there any real consideration for the wildlife. I’ve witnessed more than one extremely dangerous vehicle collision with deer on nearby Dunbrack St. This loss of habitat, with no attempt at remediation, will ensure that danger will only continue to increase (nevermind the malice toward the deer).
“The company has said it consulted with professionals in the area about the crows, but Young didn’t have details on those discussions.” – via CBC article.
The only guard rails to the ‘wild-west’ development approach in Halifax seems to be community objection when light is shined on issues like this. It’s obvious to anyone who lives in the area that the crows and deer that are prevalent on that land would need to be a huge part of an environmental impact study, with appropriate measures taken as a result. That is, if it was an environmental impact study worth anything more than the paper it was written on. A recurring theme in situations like this is the fallback statement that everything is “in accordance with Municipal and Provincial requirements” which is to say, our requirements are an obvious farce. I’m sure that “requirements” will be met by dumping “treated” toxic waste into the Northumberland Strait. Municipal “requirements” were also met by the toxic drinking water in Flint Michigan.
“The art of progress is to preserve order among change, and to preserve change amid order” – Alfred North Whitehead.
I am by no means anti-development or anti-progress. I want to see a stadium in Shannon Park, I want to see a vibrant urban core and I want to see Halifax on the same stage as other capitals in North America. I love seeing Halifax evolve and flourish. I also want to see large developments like this one adapt to their surroundings instead of plowing them down just because it’s the cheapest method. Contributing to our green infrastructure, as Polycorp did with its mutually beneficial improvements to Long Lake Provincial Park, counts for more than just good publicity. Having at least a modicum of communication with the neighbours and the public during the development proposal would go a long way to avoiding the optics of backroom dealings. During the time this land was on the market, the owners (the Sisters of Charity) sent leaflets to the surrounding neighbourhood to keep them apprised, as the good neighbours and stewards they were.
I do not think the current short-sighted approach of reckless abandon is good for our future success and leaves the balance of our natural assets in the rubble. Too often, the only requirements for considerate, balanced development come from an outraged public. Benefits to the public beyond the increased tax base are often few and far between. The large developments dump more people into overcrowded schools and overflowing, embarrassingly undermaintained roadways with a sorrowly lacking public transportation system. As developments grow our public infrastructure is going from bad to worse, despite some of the highest tax rates in the country for the non-developer class.
Let’s not forget in the very recent past, Halifax almost had massive ‘slash and dash’ developments on irreplaceable green space that would have changed the entire character of the city. It wasn’t until overflowing hallways and meeting rooms full of engaged citizens put the brakes on it. The public was able to voice enough opposition to have it properly debated (and in one case, saved with the help of the Nature Conservancy of Canada). Instead of having what could be North America’s largest urban wilderness park (the Blue Mountain-Birch Cove Lakes Wilderness) and one of the most unique natural urban landscapes in the country (the Purcell’s Cove Backlands), we would have had another sprawling housing development, doing nothing to set Halifax apart.
The development of the former Mount St. Vincent property has followed the past formula where public info on the plans is not well advertised, and seen only by the few who care to dig. Public awareness usually comes too little, too late. City council often plays a passive ‘lap dog’ role. They seem to hope the public won’t do what should be the city council’s job of proper due diligence. A flippant attitude is often the norm, as evidenced by this quote of councillor Russell Walker in this article by Frances Willick of CBC News:
Russell Walker, the councillor who represents the area, said he has received two emails about the tree-clearing, but not specifically about the crows.
“Right now, I don’t have any concerns,” he said. “In HRM today, you can cut trees on your own property. And it’s their property, so they’re cutting the trees on their property.”
I expect the number of emails to Councillor Walker and the rest of city council will no doubt turn into a flood, if it hasn’t already. Public outrage was swift upon seeing the recent clearcutting as evidenced by this Facebook Video Post with 60, 000+ views (as of Jan. 3) with an extensive comment thread. (Warning: rightfully emotional language in the video may be offensive to some). This Instagram post shows the extent of the disaster of the first phase of clearcutting (and the small fortune in lumber).
I hope it goes to show that if this situation is “in accordance with Municipal and Provincial requirements”, the requirements are woefully inadequate and need to be addressed immediately. Sure the animals that aren’t killed directly will move on from their home of the countless past, and the local ‘birdland’ moniker of the neighborhood, may be earned by street names only. The crows may relocate their roost elsewhere and leave us to tell fanciful stories to our grandchildren of when urban Halifax was host to an awe-inspiring natural phenomenon every evening. Let’s hope the animals don’t end up in front of your car or seek mass refuge in your backyard as a result of old-growth clearcutting blessed by our city’s requirements. But if there’s one thing I have faith in, it’s the actions of the citizens of Halifax. Have your voice heard, contact your local representative (or email email@example.com) to make sure they are representing their constituents.