Marvin and Mavis: 2020 in Review

Marvin and Mavis have had a pretty stressful 2020.

They’re far from alone, of course, but spare an extra thought for these two.

Spring was looking pretty good. Several years of effort had paid off and they’d finally driven all other crows out of “their” row of poplar trees on Kaslo Street.

I like to think they had a couple of weeks of feeling satisfied with their achievement before the trees were all felled in June.

Left with a blue construction fence instead of 22 stately trees, they tried at least two different nesting sites in smaller street trees. At one point it seemed that they did have a single fledgling, which came to the house a few times and was spotted on the construction fence.

It’s always hard to keep track of the crows during this period as they change their habits, protecting their young ones and chasing off in unpredictable directions after their novice flyers. All that, combined with the summer of noise and dust on the construction site, caused me to completely lose sight of Marvin and Mavis and the young one.

Unfortunately, by the time the literal and metaphorical dust settled at summer’s end, there were just the two of them again, looking a bit glum on the blue fence and starting to moult.

Fall feathers came back in and I was looking forward to getting back to the normal routine of them coming by the house a couple of times a day and  having some quiet chats about world events.

Trouble on this front too, though.

For new readers, a short crow history lesson may be needed here.

Before Marvin and Mavis became our “house crows”, our place “belonged” to George and Mabel. When George died in summer 2017, Mabel moved to the other end of the block and eventually started a new family there.

Mabel and just a couple of her clan.

In 2019  Mabel and her new mate had three fledglings, with two of them staying with mum and dad. This spring they had three more, and the two survivors of that batch are with them now as well — creating a large family unit of six crows.

Six is a lot of beaks to feed, and Mabel seems to have now remembered that our house was once her territory. Consequently, we have a bit of a power play going on, with Marvin and Mavis seriously outnumbered.

Mabel on the garden gate post, back to her old haunt

I have tried to apply the Peanut Diplomacy method to the problem, scouring the scene for the Mabel gang before putting a few discreet peanuts out for M & M.

But, with six pairs of sharp crow eyes on lookout, it’s very rare that anything gets past them — and Marvin and Mavis are constantly having to fend off interlopers.

It’s rare to see either of them these days without fully deployed head or pants feathers, trying to look as fearsome as possible.

Or ducking …

Anxious to avoid crow riots, and potential crow injuries when they dive bomb each other,  I’ve stopped putting peanuts out for anybody for now. When the dog and I leave our gate and I find eight crows waiting, I just walk off and try to lure Mabel and company back to their usual territory at the other end of the block, before rewarding them with a small nut offering.

At the end of the walk, I arrive by a different route at the back of the house and, if I’ve succeeded in losing my “tail,” I can usually find Marvin and Mavis and we can have a bit of discussion about how 2020 is going for each of us.

Suffice to say, sympathy is offered on both sides.

 

 

 

 

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Some days seem harder than others. It’s November — with still more than a month to go before the winter solstice, when the light (slowly, slowly) begins to turn the tide against the dark.

It’s cold, dark and generally miserable. We’re in the middle of pandemic that looks set to get worse before it gets better . . . so, yes,  this week seems particularly grim.

Keeping exclusively to our tiny household groups can make things a bit lonely. It’s certainly not a time to be getting out there and expanding your social circles.

Unless, of course, you’re looking to add some crows to your support group.

The benefits are many — in good times and bad.

I’ve written about my Crow Therapy theory before, but I thought a little pandemic re-cap might be in order.

Hang in there!

Not worrying about how crazy the neighbours might think you are is a bit of prerequisite for longer conversations with your local crows.

I imagine more of us may be at this point now than we were at the start of the year.

I often compare notes with Marvin and Mavis on how our respective years are going.

I know they’ve had a rough 2020, losing their entire tree territory overnight this summer and, in spite of building at least three nests this spring, having no surviving fledglings to show for all that hard work.

Consequently, it’s hard to say who’s sympathizing with who when I tell them about the latest political and pandemic news.

Nothing really surprises them any more.

Although sometimes . . .

If you don’t feel ready for fully fledged conversations with crows just yet, they also appreciate a simple generic greeting as you pass by, delivered in a suitably appreciative tone.

How’s it going, guys? Lookin’ good.

Of course, you may not feel ready to engage in any degree of chatting with crows (yet)— and this is  perfectly fine.

The benefits of paying attention to crows can also be experienced from a discreet distance.

If you watch them every day, through the whole year, you’ll start see seasonal behaviour patterns. There will be lots of tender allopreening in the weeks before they start nesting, building that pair bond for the hard work ahead. There may also be some local skirmishes as they stake out nest territory. Then there’s the lovely “flying with twigs” period as they start construction.


Next, the nesting females will disappear completely for a while, hidden as they  incubate the eggs. By early summer it’s the time of baby crows, with some dive bombing of unwary pedestrians as parent crows try to protect their flight incompetent fledglings. A summer of noisily begging baby crows and increasingly exhausted parents ensues. The end-of-summer moulting season blends into raucous fall behaviour, gradually quietening into winter, as new crows learn the rules of etiquette and everyone settles into their usual territory and predicable habits.

One of the main purposes of my annual City Crow Calendar is to give a small sense of this lovely pattern of parallel lives going on through the seasons — although, rest assured, it does also have dates and the usual calendar stuff in it too!

Observing this cycle of life has been especially grounding this year when so many  human habits and expectations have been upended.

I heard my son telling a friend on the phone today about a lovely dream he had last night — of being at a party. It’s so sad that simple parties are currently the stuff of dreams. It’s not an exact substitute, but you can safely soak up a rave-like atmosphere by observing your local crow roost any night of the week.

While scouring the stressful news seems unavoidable this year, I do find it helpful to have the alternative narrative of what’s happening in my local crow world running in my mind. It’s a refreshing channel change to look at the world from their point of view — and there are truly plenty of compelling stories going on out there.

Stay tuned for some of the latest from the CrowFlix in coming posts …

 

I know — pretty gripping, right?

 

 

 

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Crow Comforts

Hardly Worth Mentioning

It takes something quite extraordinary to stand out from the generally topsy turvy nature of reality these days.

It seemed, therefore, almost predictable that a tiny upside down house, packed with piano parts and foliage, should appear overnight at the end of our alley.

We do get quite a lot of things dumped in our neighbourhood, but usually the scale tops out at mattresses or the occasional sofa.

An entire shed, however, was something new. It stayed with us for almost a week, so we had plenty of time to determine that it was most likely an old play house, judging by the miniature railing on the front. Or maybe someone’s micro yoga retreat? A potting shed for very small plants??

Amid the stress of the US election, and almost everything else 2020-related, making up stories about our new local landmark proved quite entertaining.

On Friday, I posted some pictures of it on social media and it obviously lit a spark of creativity in many others longing for distraction. Comments and questions poured in.

Theories and jokes abounded — ranging from Wizard of Oz comparisons, to suggestions for US election metaphors. The two things overlapped quite a bit.

Over the course of a few days, news spread of our impromptu art installation.
Vancouver is Awesome did a small story about it.

Someone scavenged the piano bits and pieces — hopefully for an art project of some sort. Another recycler came by to have a look at the motorbike wheel that had spilled out of the front door. Sadly, it was the wrong size for their purposes.

Someone contacted me on Instagram to let me know he was pretty sure he knew who dumped the shed, as he’d seen it on his neighbour’s truck the week before. Sometimes, Vancouver seems like quite a small town.

We had assumed that the true story behind our little conversation piece was as boring as this — the mundane avoidance of legal dump fees — but then again we did have a lot of fun in a stressful time — joking about the increasingly familiar feeling of not being in Kansas anymore, and speculating about Toto and flying monkeys.

Marvin and Mavis remained deeply suspicious about this new landmark and Marvin, when interviewed, had this to say:

The City did finally come and haul it away yesterday.

And, for those of you wondering, I did check and I saw no ruby slippers left behind.

 

You might also enjoy this post about another accidental local art installation:

 

 

 

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The Gazing Bowl

There’s a lot (a lot!) of pressure on the gazing bowl this year.

Unlike tea leaves, the assorted bits of foliage in the gazing bowl confer no psychic abilities upon the reader — well, not this one, anyway.

Handy as that would be. Especially this year.

While the future remains stubbornly hidden, time spent peering into its depths does unveil some ephemeral truths.

October 25

Pondering the ever-changing patterns gives me a different way to see the world, if only for a few moments.

This year, I’ve been finding in it  metaphors for history and ideologies — one layer affecting another —murkiness in the complexity —shadows and light — one thing reflecting another.

November 2

But then, the bowl (and everything else) depends upon Nature — and I hope we all remember that in the coming hours, days, months and years, and steer our history and ideology to reflect that truth.

Geordie, who seems to think that my prognostication receptacle is actually his water bowl, has lately been hinting that the murkiness I am seeing in it is less metaphorical, and more a question of diminished drinkability.

Begging his indulgence, I think I’ll leave it for one more day and then tip it out and fill it with clean, fresh water.

 

See also:

 

 

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Cedar Waxwing Extravaganza

I’ve only seen Cedar Waxwings in Vancouver once before. In the snowy winter of 2017 they appeared very fleetingly on a crabapple tree-lined street near us.

One morning in February there was a whole flock — and all gone the very next day.

Cedar Waxwing, East Vancouver, February 2017

Ever since, I keep an eye open for them when I walk the dog down that street.

No luck … until this week! I first spotted those little crests, bright yellow tail tips and Zorro masks on Tuesday.

Ironically, we’d wanted to go out to the Reifel Bird Sanctuary that day, but had left it too late to make a reservation. I was, therefore, feeling a bit glum when I set out on the usual walk around the ‘hood — same old, same old …

Just goes to show something or other, because if we’d gone to the bird sanctuary I might never have noticed these rare visitors in our very own backyard.

I went back every day this week, expecting them to have moved on, but they’re still there!

There seems to be at least a dozen of them, with quite a few juveniles in the party.

The young ones have a less defined bandit mask around the eyes and a more speckled appearance than the adults.

The mature birds have a smoother feathers, pinky brown merging into lemon yellow on the lower body. The mask is sharper — and it’s always exciting to spot the waxy red tips on the secondary wing feathers that give them their name.

Cedar waxwings eat mostly fruit — although they won’t say no to some delicious bugs.  They eat the berries whole and, apparently, are prone to getting drunk on berries that have started to ferment. Fun as that sounds, it isn’t really, as they then tend to fly into windows and perish.

In fact, a neighbour who lives on this berry-lined street, was just setting up his own system of Acopian Bird Savers for their windows to try and stop this from happening.  I have a similar set up on my glass studio doors and it really seems to work!

We’ve had a bit of every sort of weather this week, from pouring rain to strong winds, and back to bright sunshine, and still they remain. I have started to wonder if they might stay for the winter.

This berry cornucopia is popular with all kinds of small birds, so it’s not surprising that it eventually popped up on the local hawk’s radar too.

This morning the crows were making a big fuss and scared up a small hawk — a Sharp Shinned, I think — which finally gave up a flew away, for now.

The trees were very empty this morning, but I noticed a few brave robins and a couple of waxwings were back this afternoon.

So, Cedar Waxwings, are you staying or going?

I guess I’ll just keep checking and be prepared to see them gone — until the next time.

 

 

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Nothing Is Simple

Simplicity is a rare thing these days.

I’m sure I’m not alone in spending hours online seeking a simple answer to the questions, “how did we get to this place?” and “is there a way to get out of this place.”

The fine art of doomscrolling takes up far too much of my days. You too?

And, of course, in world full of  confusion, contention and endless, endless complexity, there simply are no simple answers.

One recent distraction has been reading Dostoyevsky’s 1866 novel, Crime and Punishment, in tandem with my son who’s reading it for a course.  As you may imagine, it’s not exactly light reading, but it very immersive and a trip to mid-nineteenth century Russia is a getaway of sorts.

Berries and birds have been my other escape this week.

In case you need a distraction, and at least the illusion of simplicity, come along . . .

There is a street near us lined with berry laden trees.

At various times, it’s populated with hundreds of birds. Many species are enjoying the buffet, but robins are the main customers.

Joined by a strong starling contingent ..,

… and a good showing from house finches and juncos.

The rarest visitors (be still my beating heart) are the cedar waxwings, filling up for their journey further south. More on them in a coming post!

And the crows. Of course, the crows. Some of my dog walk followers end up on this street with me and discover the berry delights.

As always, they are excellent models, pleased I’m sure, at how fine the ebony of their winter feathers looks against the scarlet berries.

The world does seem quite simple while I’m peering up into those branches and I actually have to force myself to head home.

Besides, while I’m photographing, Geordie is grazing on the fallen berries, with some unfortunate gastrointestinal results — giving me another reason to tear myself away and get back to the doomscrolling.

But I’ll certainly be back tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

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Some Wet Crows

It was a  classic Vancouver winter walk this morning — penetratingly cold and damp. And only October!!!

Looks as if frigid weather is set to come early this year, with snow falling on local mountains, and the rain down here in the city seeming on the edge of sleet at times.

But — another one of my mother’s many handy sayings — “Every cloud has a silver lining.” In this case, the silver lining is made of soggy crows.

I imagine their looks are long suffering, but that could just be me projecting.

In any case, I always politely extend my commiserations as I walk by.

One of Mabel’s extended family

Marvin posing with a gourd in a neighbour’s garden

Wet Arthur

Golden maple crow, possibly Ada

Some of my favourite crow portraits have been really wet crows.

Judgemental Crows, below, captures the look that Marvin and Mabel often give me on rainy days. It seems to imply that the weather is purely the result of some bungling on my part.

In Philosopher Crow, Mavis embodies all that is stoic and thoughtful in a crow’s expression.

Another from this morning — one of Mabel’s offspring, humming the lyrics of  You’ll Never Walk Alone

You’ll Never Walk Alone

Lyrics by Rogers and Hammerstein
When you walk through a storm
Hold your head up high
And don’t be afraid of the dark
At the end of a storm
There’s a golden sky
And the sweet silver song of a lark
Walk on through the wind
Walk on through the rain
Though your dreams be tossed and blown
Walk on, walk on
With hope in your heart
And you’ll never walk alone 
You’ll never walk alone
Walk on, walk on
With hope in your heart
And you’ll never walk alone
You’ll never walk alone
Cue strings ….

While I may be imagining that the crows are suffering in the wet weather, I know for sure that Geordie, a California dog, can’t wait to get back in the dry.

Please can we go home now …?

While he loves snow, he really, really does not like rain, in spite of the stylish raincoat.

Back home and vying for fireside positioning with Edgar.

 

 

 

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October Walk

As a sequel to yesterday’s post, here are some photos from this morning’s walk — just a few crows in an autumn landscape.

Most of today’s crows are not close acquaintances, but part of the mysterious entourage that follows me along the dog walking route.

As I mentioned yesterday, the autumnal rowdiness is kept in check by an absence of peanuts and a few kind words of thanks after I take their photos.

I’m not sure why they follow me, but I always get an especially warm welcome at the corner where (almost two years ago now) crows played a pivotal role in the finding of a lost dog.  I always thank them when I walk by and they seem to remember me still.

This character, photographed close to home, is one of Mabel’s offspring. I can’t tell it’s one of the 2020 batch, or one of two 2019 youngsters who still hang around.

It’s a very grounding feeling to walk your own neighbourhood and see familiar faces, human and corvid, and exchange daily pleasantries.

It makes me feel that the world is still spinning on some sort of stable axis.

 

 

 

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Autumnal Adjustments

For humans, the 2020 autumn season is bringing with it — along with pumpkin spice — a sprinkling of existential dread.

For crows, however,  it’s the normal rowdy, rollicking, freedom-from-fledglings social season.

No social or physical distancing for them.

In fact, the normal territorial boundaries are being blithely crossed in search of seasonal bounty. Any block with a nut or berry tree is a “go-zone” this month.

Contributing to the mayhem is the fact that the excitable new fledglings have yet to learn the finer points of corvid etiquette.

A certain amount of chaos inevitably ensues.

I find it’s best to employ my special autumnal version of Peanut Diplomacy at this unruly time of year.

Instead of stopping on my fall morning walks to exchange pleasantries and a few peanuts with each set of  crow acquaintances on their territorial corners, a far more parsimonious peanut distribution system is in order.

Normally token offerings are made, accepted with grace, and I move on to visit new crows on new corners.

At this time of year, however, the dog and I seem to be claimed as  territory-to-go and crows will follow us from their own domain and into their neighbour’s. This can result an accumulation of dozens of boisterous crows following us for blocks and/or unseemly crow brawling.

Fall Peanut Protocol is best deployed at this point.

Upon leaving the house, I offer a few peanuts to Marvin and Mavis, if they happen to be waiting, then a few more for Mabel and her gang at the other end of the block. From that point on I exchange only kind words with my crow (and human) walking acquaintances. I’m still followed, but it’s a much less fractious group.

Harmony restored …

I generally find that, by December, things will have settled down again and normal Peanut Diplomatic Relations may resume.

Besides, at this time of year, my paltry peanut offerings pale beside the bounty that nature has to offer.

 

 

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On The Road Again

With careful notes made on things that we’d forgotten on our first little “shakedown cruise” in the teardrop trailer, we prepared to set out on our big trip up to the Cariboo district in central BC.

Now, the following is a lesson I have learned before in my life, but tend to forget from time to time. You could call it the “your entire life is a shakedown cruise” philosophy, but it’s probably best summed up by Robbie Burns — “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men Gang aft agley”

You can make all the lists and plans you want, but there’s really no preparing for an overnight switch from a clear, blue sky to an off-the-scale level soup of particulate matter from wildfire smoke blowing in from hundreds of miles away.

Ah well, the morning we left the raven shown above dropped by at our local construction site to wish us well on our journey.

Naively, we thought we’d soon be driving out of the worst of the smoke, but it was still very dense at our first night’s camp site just north of Whistler.

After one smokey night we had a quick toast and tea breakfast and headed off along the lovely Duffey Lake Road,  hoping to outrun the smoke.

That dream proved elusive, however, as we passed through Lillooet, Pavillion Lake and Clinton with only minor improvements in visibility.

When it was still smokey, hours later, at 100 Mile House, we decided to just push on to our destination — Likely — instead of spending the night, as we’d originally planned, at Green Lake.

By the time we reached the familiar Likely road the smoke was at least high up  and not in our lungs. I drove that road so many times when I had my cabin out there, it always feels like going home, marking off the familiar landmarks along the way.

While we love the Cariboo landscape,  what we really, really looked forward to was seeing some much-missed faces. Spending time with old friends was the focus of our visit, although we usually managed to combine catching up with soaking up the scenery — Cariboo cocktail hour, for example.

We camped our little trailer outside the homes of two sets of old friends during our stay in the Cariboo — near Likely for a few days, and then closer to Horsefly, part way down the gorgeous Beaver Valley.

Making some early morning coffee, with a bit of fall chill already in the air.

All very cosy inside the camper.

Looking out onto lovely Lake George, one of Beaver Valley’s chain of small lakes.

It wasn’t just the humans that had a great time socializing. Geordie was thrilled to spend time with his boxer buddy, Samson — just as handsome, two years in since our last visit.

Both Geordie and Samson are always eager to jump into the truck for a woodsy adventure!

One especially fun expedition was to Quesnel Forks — home, in it’s 1860’s hey day, to around 2,000  fortune-seeking gold miners, before the chase for riches moved north to Barkerville.  Quesnel Forks has been a ghost town since the 50’s when the last resident died, but it’s now far less overgrown now than I remember it in the 70’s. Recently the trails have been cleared and some of the tumble-down cabins carefully rebuilt to give some sense of what it once looked like.

Lichen on some fallen and rotting wooden walls

A rather elegant old outhouse returning to the forest

There’s a rich and well-recorded history of gold mining in this part of British Columbia — with many colourful  and gripping tales of exploit, adventure, intrigue and suffering. The excellent little museum in Likely is well worth a visit to learn more about this period, although you can also glean some intriguing snippets from the gravestones in the Quesnel Forks cemetery — full of inscriptions recording deaths by drowning, robbery, smallpox and mine collapse.

Much less is written about the indigenous people who lived in this part of the world for thousands of years before the miners arrived — fishing, hunting, travelling, living and dying in this vast landscape. I imagine that this spot would have been very special to them too, at the meeting of these two powerful rivers, now known as the Quesnel and the Cariboo.

I was thinking of confluences … the turbulence created when people, cultures, rivers collide … when yet another visitor from a distant shore made a surprise appearance, flying, literally, right through my thoughts.

I took a photo of the newcomer when it landed on the rocky river shore.

I also filmed the bird’s incredible aquatic competence, confidently navigating the dangerous currents right where the rivers merge.

As soon as we got back to our friends’ house, out came the full collection of bird books and apps as we attempted to identify our mystery “video bomber.” We really couldn’t figure it out. Some sort of gull … but none of the one’s you’d expect to see …  perhaps a curlew of some sort …? Eventually, I posted the photo online with a plea for an ID from my more bird knowledgeable social media community. The answer came back that it was, in fact, a rather rare sighting of a Sabine’s Gull, way, way out of its normal range. They spend summers in the Arctic and normally migrate south via the waters off the West coast. I wonder if this one was driven so off course by the dense smoke that was still clinging to the more coastal areas. Fingers crossed that our little traveller eventually finds its way to the its winter destination.

It seemed sort of ironic for me, who likes to celebrate the everyday birds you find in your backyard, to see such a rarity. Just goes to show, things just show up when the time is right, I guess.

Bears and Salmon

Two things you do expect in the Cariboo in the early fall: many salmon returning to the rivers of their birth to spawn, and bears feasting on them.

Spawning Salmon near Horsefly, 2013

The Salmon Horsefly Festival was actually underway the day we left the Cariboo, but it was going ahead in the virtual absence of salmon. Due a variety of factors, including the 2019 Big Bar landslide on the Fraser River that blocked the spawning route, there were virtually no salmon in the local rivers. We walked along the same river bed where the photo above was taken a few years ago, at the same time of year, and saw not one single salmon.

Bears, however, are very much in evidence and this is not a good thing. The reason they’re so visible is that, with no salmon to fatten up on before hibernation, they’re desperate enough to come into town to dig up garden carrots. Four grizzlies are currently hanging around the small hamlet of Likely — something that was unheard of in years gone by — and a situation that’s likely to end very badly for the bears.

You can see that the bear droppings we saw (all over the place) were heavy on seeds and berries. It takes a heck of a lot of berries to make up for the missing salmon course in a meal.  So, next time you’re sad that you can’t get a sockeye salmon for the BBQ, spare a thought for the bears, for whom the shortage is more a matter of life and death.

In spite of the smoke and the worrying lack of salmon it was a real joy to switch for a week from “urban nature enthusiast” to wander the forests and learn to read the landscape from our Cariboo friends, who are all “wilderness nature enthusiasts.” They know their forests, lakes and rivers as well as I know my local streets and crows.

Moffat Creek Falls near Horsefly

I received a message from this Cariboo raven (with chickadee accompaniment) to bring back with me for my feathered friends in the city  — a call of the wild that echoes all the way from the remotest forest to heart of Vancouver — as I hope it always will.

 

 

 

 

 

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© junehunterimages, 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to junehunterimages with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.