By Cole Swanson  

Cole Swanson is a Toronto-based artist that likes to explore the complex relationship between nature and our culture. Cole is working with ecologist, Gail Fraser to examine the ways the local double-crested cormorants use human-made materials to build nests on Toronto’s Leslie Street Spit.

In Accidental Wilderness: The Leslie Street Spit, a documentary from The Nature of Things, we follow Fraser as she uncovers human-made materials from cormorant nests — everything from industrial waste to plastic sunglasses.

Along with Fraser, Swanson has explored the relationship between the birds’ natural nest-building and their very unnatural building materials, creating a cross-disciplinary exhibition art installation, called Devil’s Colony.
We’ve collected some of Swansons’ photographs and learned what inspired his work.

Words and images by Cole Swanson (unless stated otherwise)

Like many Canadians, my introduction to the double-crested cormorant colony at Toronto’s Leslie Spit was facilitated by the mainstream media. Debates on the birds’ apparent threat to greenspace and commercial fish populations dominated public discourses. I saw the creative potential in taking a closer look at Toronto’s cormorant colony, the largest of its kind in North America.

The Spit's double-crested cormorant colony

The Spit's double-crested cormorant colony is the largest in North America.

During my first visit to Leslie Spit, I followed the haunting din of cormorant calls, which led to a thinly-forested peninsula on the colony’s borders. Trees whitened with guano hung heavily under the weight of blanched nests. Fallen trunks scattered the ground like elephant bones. Black feathers gleamed in stark contrast to the surroundings.

Empty nests of the colony

The Spit's urban wilderness is minutes from downtown Toronto.

During the early stages of my project, I met Dr. Gail Fraser… [She] remarked that cormorants collect large quantities of anthropogenic (human-made) materials. I began to document nests containing waste items to consider any material connections that might exist between our species.

Human-made materials incorporated into a cormorant nest

Human-made materials are incorporated into a cormorant nest.

An examination of my photo-archive revealed a curious correlation between the colours and materials that cormorants were collecting. While items of various hues were found in nests, an overrepresentation of blues and yellows was apparent. Interestingly, double-crested cormorants have deep blue eyes and throats, and don bright yellow-orange patches on their cheeks. I questioned how avian anatomy perception and behaviour might mitigate what happens to specific waste materials once introduced to nature.

Cormorant nests and anthropogenic materials

Cormorant nests and anthropogenic materials.

To facilitate live-observation of the colony in the spring and summer months, Dr. Fraser constructed a tunneled blind to provide visual access to the most densely colonized nesting area...From within the blind, I documented the behaviours of cormorants during the peak of their breeding season.

A double-crested cormorant nest in a tree

A double-crested cormorant nest.

During the summer months, up to 70,000 individual birds nest in close proximity on the Spit’s peninsulas. Bearing witness to the massive colony caring for its young was transformative; I considered how sharing this experience might challenge the narrowness through which we imagine this oft-reviled organism.

Double-crested cormorants nesting in trees

Cormorants nesting in trees.

Time plays out differently in the colony. Birth, growth, migration, and death happen in a fraction of a human timeline. The presence of time is raw and conspicuous. I believe that modern fears around death and decay make the colony easy to abhor, but there are universal truths embedded everywhere on the Spit, and therein lies empathy.

Over 300 species live minutes from the core of Canada's biggest city
Letting nature take its course — one man's fight to let wilderness thrive in downtown Toronto

A dead chick decays in the colony

Death is a fact of life within the colony.

I created ‘Spit Spectre’ – a performance artwork – in response to the waste-collecting behaviours of the birds. A humanoid figure comprised of the same trash collected by cormorants stalks the vacant colony. Like the lifespan of the factory-made trash at its feet, the spectre’s endless loop around the site’s perimeter embodies the life-cycles of birds, humans, and the materials they share.

'Spit Spectre' features the artist wearing a suit of discarded blue materials

'Spit Spectre' - photo by Jamie McMillan.
Humans and nature over time

In summer, 2019, Devil’s Colony was launched at Hamilton Artists Inc. as the first major exhibition on my research from the Spit. Titled after the nickname ‘devil bird,’ the collection re-situated the colony into the gallery space. Seventy-one life-sized photographs of nests containing human trash were splayed across the walls, recalling the colony’s topography.

'Devil's Colony' art installation in Hamilton, On

'Devil's Colony' art installation, Hamilton, On.

Following the culmination of Devil’s Colony, Dr. Fraser and I solidified plans to embark on a unique art-science experiment that would test my hypothesis on the colour preferences demonstrated in cormorant collecting behaviours. The project will consider the agency of a burgeoning animal population in negotiating the material presence of humans at a key ecological moment while promoting curiosity toward an important species within the Great Lakes ecosystems.

Ecologist Gail Fraser walking through the empty colony

Ecologist Dr. Gail Fraser walks through the empty colony.

Watch Accidental Wilderness: The Leslie Street Spit, on The Nature of Things.

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