Crow Signals

While, it is lovely to have particular crow friends and to have eye to eye contact, they also communicate with you from afar. You simply have to tune into the crow wavelength.

It’s not always possible to have close encounters of the corvid kind.

You might live in place where peanut diplomacy is strictly forbidden, or maybe you’re in a rural area where crows tend to be a lot less trusting of humans than they are in the city. You may be away from your familiar crows in a new town.

But that’s OK — because their very presence, however distant,  makes a difference. You just have to start start looking for the shapes they make against the sky.

Once you start noticing them they become like elegant punctuation, making sense of a garbled, run-on sentence of a world.

Exclamation point!

Full stop.

Crow signals can also guide you through the seasons.

In winter you’ll see couples snuggling close and building their bond in advance of the challenging nesting season to come.

You might also see some scenes like this as competition for the best nesting sites heats up . . .

Followed shortly by my favourite crow messages of hope and endeavour . . .

Later in the spring or summer, look for scenes like the one below.
(Will be accompanied by a raucous soundtrack of quarking begging cries from baby crows.)

The parent crows are grateful for a few brief moments of peace in the summertime.

By early autumn the baby crows are independent, and the post-summer socializing and harvest festival begins.

And then — here we go again — the leaves are gone and we  see the crow couples settling back into their quiet winter routine.

Some miscellaneous messages from crows:

A sidelong glance at distant crow’s antics can make you laugh aloud.

Sometimes they can tell quite a long story in a fleeting moment.

So, some humans came this morning and cut down all of my trees, but they did leave this one branch, so I’m making a statement here about crow resilience and adaptability and how crows will likely inherit the earth …

The faraway and anonymous crow that inspired this whole post is in the photo below.

This bird performed a whole poem for anyone who happened to be looking up.

Flying very high, she suddenly dropped ten feet in a smooth barrel roll.  For a moment I thought something was wrong, but she repeated her trick and I noticed she was dropping something from her beak and catching it over and over.

At last, she caught it for the last time and flew off to enjoy her prize.

The poem, as I interpreted it, covered subjects of exhilaration, skill, freedom, speed, risk, rushing air and pure fun.

The joy, on a hard day in a hard year, was contagious.

Crow therapy from afar. Keep an eye open for the signs!

 

 

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New Year’s Eve

This vintage wooden roller coaster at East Vancouver’s Playland is often ringed with crows as they enjoy a little sub-party on their way to or from the big roost at Still Creek.

When we walked by this morning, on this the last day of 2020, there was only a solitary crow. It sat alone with the whole row of coloured light bulbs all to itself.  No roller coaster cars rattling by. No other crows.

Perhaps because I tend to view almost everything through a crow-shaped lens, our solo crow seemed an apt symbol for New Year’s Eve 2020.

No big parties. Many of us sitting at home viewing the world from a lonelier vantage point than we’re used to, especially on this night of the year.

Many of us with twinkly lights for mood lifting company.

To be honest, I always find New Year’s Eve to be a bit of a melancholy celebration. The lyrics to Auld Lang Syne make me feel a bit weepy. It’s early in the evening still here, so I’m not sure how I’ll be feeling by midnight.

Possibly more weepy than usual.

Possibly less, as the end of 2020 leaves little to regret.

However you’re feeling, remember (yet another treasure from my mother’s kit bag of handy sayings) “tomorrow is another day.”

And, also, another year.

And that day/year will have crows in it.

Crows you may know quite well,  and other crows you may admire from afar and rashly imbue with symbolic importance.

For auld lang syne, my dear
For auld lang syne
We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet
For days of auld lang syne

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Tiny Points of Light

Sometimes it’s just the smallest thing that illuminates your day.

I was walking the dog the morning before the winter solstice when an urgent crow meeting convened in the treetops. Crows were flying in from the whole neighbourhood to share their opinions.

I took quite a few photographs in an effort to see what the cause of the commotion was. While I never did figure that out, I did notice that the frail morning light struggling through the clouds at the base of the trees, combined with the darker overlapping of branches and crows at the top, made a rather pleasing composition.

As it seemed to capture the tentative return of the light, I chose the one at the top of this post to share on social media yesterday to mark the solstice.

But that wasn’t the tiny thing that really made me smile.

That came later, when I was sorting through some of the other photos and realized that, of all those crows in the trees, I actually recognized one of them!

See that crow sitting at the top, just right of the one taking off? That’s White Wing!
Recognizable from a hundred feet because of her distinctive silhouette, her wonky wing feather sticking out.

I can’t say exactly why that little observation made me so happy. I was listening to a CBC Radio show earlier today in which they talked about how popular complex jigsaw puzzles have been this year. They mentioned the contentment of being fully immersed in a project that has a fixed end in mind. Flow state, they called it.

When I’m out walking every day I’m also working on a puzzle — the endless mystery of what’s going on in the crow world. I don’t suppose there’s an actual end to this project — no single piece that will dramatically pull every element together.

But picking out White Wing —one small, distinctive component in the giant crow jigsaw — was a moment of pure delight.

White Wing, closer up, December 14

White Wing alone in a tree, December 8

The only other crow I’ve been able to reliably identify by silhouette was George. After his beak was broken, that subtle step down on the upper beak was his signature.

George and Mabel: Love’s Delicate Balance

There’s been a lot of darkness this year, and so much uncertainty.

Perhaps that’s why each small answer — even if it’s just one tiny puzzle piece coming home to its rightful place — seems like a comforting ray of light.

 

 

 

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Raven Anecdote

Earlier this week I wrote about a new study into the impressive range of raven intelligence. Lots of people wrote to me or commented on Raven Reasoning with their own first hand stories of raven cleverness.

So now I’m inspired to tell my favourite raven story …

The ravens of Mount Seymour are well known for their lunch and snack stealing prowess. On almost every hiking or snowshoeing trip there we’ve witnessed a skilful heist of one sort or another, with prizes ranging from sandwiches to chocolate bars to full party-sized bags of chips.

But this one incident stands out.

It was winter and we’d snowshoed to a poplar destination where people always rest to take in the view out over Vancouver and eat their lunch.

We’d eaten ours and were about to head back down, but we stopped to talk to a group of six people who were still eating. A pair of ravens were nonchalantly strolling about nearby.

One of the men in the group fixed the ravens with a stern gaze and recounted how they’d stolen his sandwich on the last trip. “Never again,” he asserted. With a flourish, he took the remaining half of his sandwich and pushed it well into the depths of the backpack lying close beside him.

As we were chatting I had one eye on a raven (as I always do) and was just halfway through uttering the phrase, “I think this raven is casing the joint,” when …

In a move too quick for human eye to follow, the raven darted right through the middle of this large group of raven-suspicious humans, unhesitatingly plunged his head far into the man’s backpack, and flew off with his prize. There may have been a raven cackle as he disappeared into the distance.

The skill and daring took our collective breath away. Once we recovered the power of speech, most of us (excluding the theft victim) declared it pretty hilarious. And definitely very impressive.

The reason I’d been about to say my bit about “casing the joint” was I’d noticed his raven eyes darting back and forth, measuring the distance between the people, gauging how distracted we were by the conversation and the view and, all the time, remembering exactly which compartment of the backpack contained the sandwich.

We really didn’t stand a chance.

I can’t count the times I’ve been impressed by raven shrewdness, but that was one of the funniest.

Another incident: raven solves a banana problem, see following photos.

This is going to be delicious, but it’s hard to carry like this …

The theme tune of a banana company’s ad campaign from my childhood comes to mind, “Un-zip a banana!”

That’s better!

Play is a well known indicator of intelligence and social sophistication in a species so, for further proof that ravens are geniuses …

I’ve posted these ravens playing snowball videos before but I didn’t think you’d mind seeing them again. I could watch them over and over, particularly if I need cheering up!

Lastly, a rousing rendition of Joy to the World, raven style …

 

 

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Raven Reasoning

A meticulous study recently published by scientists in Leipzig, Germany, concludes that the intelligence of ravens rivals that of the great apes.

Other studies have come to similar conclusions, but this one was especially exhaustive, employing a complex combination of tests designed to measure various aspects of intelligence.

They found, among other things, that  four month old ravens have already developed the impressive skill and knowledge of adults, making them incredibly quick learners.



It’s an interesting study in many respects — another step away from older science  that assessed all species using, what we are now beginning to see, are very limited human criteria. It was long thought that birds, because of the small size of their brains relative to those of primates, couldn’t possibly be that smart.

Birds and mammals have been travelling down divergent evolutionary paths for lo these hundreds of millions of years. It’s now becoming evident that the mammal/bird development routes may well have ultimately led them to comparable destinations, intelligence-wise. While bird brains are indeed much smaller that our primate ones, it turns out that the many kinds of intelligence are far too complicated to be simply measured in weight and volume.

The German study is also interesting in that it questions the limitation of how valid our human assessment of other species’ intelligence can really be. We inevitably filter the results of our experiments through our particular type of intelligence. The ravens perform the tasks set by the human scientists, but how would humans perform in a test set for us by ravens?

Indeed, it has often occurred to me that I’m proving to be a rather disappointing subject for the ongoing experiment being conducted by our local corvids.

I often see myself reflected in crows and ravens. Not just literally …

… but also in the way I tend to see my own feelings and thoughts reflected back at me. Because I’m not  bound by scientific rigour, and because I spend so much thinking about them and watching them, I often lapse into formulating little human-corvid parallels.

Corvids remind me of humans in so many ways — from how we both look sad on wet days to how we care for those we love.

It brings me joy to see these familiar things reflected back at me — but at the same time I realize I really have no idea of what they’re truly thinking and feeling.

They are a deep mystery and that is, in itself, marvellous.

 

 

Read about the research mentioned at the beginning of this post in Scientific American or read the full report here.

You can also see, hear and read about more raven amazements in some of my earlier blog posts.

 

 

 

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Meet The Walkers

To be perfectly accurate, only one of the Walkers is a keen hiker.

Even then, his perambulations are purposeful, laser focused on a specific destination.

The origin of this routine have been lost in the mists of time.

Who trained who here will forever remain a mystery.

Mr. Walker has no fear of the dog, walking beside him with equanimity.

Mr. Walker’s promenades occur in all weathers …

… and at speeds ranging from dawdle to dash.

Ms. Walker prefers to leave the strolling to her mate, and remains aloft in the tree until the prize is in place.

Ms. Walker on lookout.

Ms. Walker this morning. On the other side her eye is rather damaged, like Mabel’s, but it doesn’t seem to slow her down.

Both of the Walkers will follow me to the end of their block to see me on my way.

Bye-bye, Walkers. See you tomorrow.

 

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The Mabels

Mabel has gone from being a solitary bird after the death of her mate, George Brokenbeak, in 2017, to the matriarch of an unusually massive crow family.

From what I’ve observed over the last few years, such large families remaining together over multiple seasons is somewhat rare. Usually one juvenile crow might stick around for a season or two to learn the ropes, and help the parents with nesting season. In Mabel and her new mate’s case, two of the 2019 juveniles are still with them — plus two more from this season — adding up to a rather rowdy gang of six.

Back in March 2020, when Mabel only had two apprentices.

Among this boisterous bunch it is only Mabel with her distinctive right eye, that I’m regularly able to identify. Hence, I think of them, collectively, as “The Mabels.”

The Mabels, by their sheer numbers, have become a bit of a dominant local force. As I mentioned in last week’s post, the large group has the extra crowpower to have lookouts posted everywhere, making it hard to give our “house crows,” Marvin and Mavis, a few quiet peanuts without bringing the Marauding Mabels into the picture.

To be fair, Mabel and the late lamented George ruled our garden long before Marvin and Mavis, so I’m sure there are some valid territorial claims to be made under Crow Law.

George Brokenbeak and Mabel, our back deck, winter 2016.

Also, this summer, during the hot dry months, I put out a bowl of water in front of the house for the use of any thirsty critters. Mabel, of course, brought the whole family down regularly for refreshment and recreation.  I wrote about this in Fledgling Fun.

So it’s hardly surprising that The Mabels of all generations consider our house to be part of their daily routine.

The heart of their territory lies, however, at the other end of the block— part of a local elementary school. Central to the ancestral seat are two old metal yellow posts with rings on top that are used to mark, and sometimes block off, the entrance to the school parking lot.

The right ring has, for time immemorial (well at least for the few years I’ve been watching) been important to this crow family.

The feet of George upon the yellow throne in 2016.

His Georgeship.

Mabel seemed to inherit the “ring of power” once George was gone. Until quite recently I never saw another crow rest there for very long, including her new mate, Gus.

Don’t even think about it …

The chains of office, claimed by Mabel.

Signs she may be willing to relinquish her iron grip began this spring.

The younger crows, after first practicing on the less prestigious left hand side yellow post …

… were occasionally allowed to take the one true throne for a short test drive.

They always look a little nervous as Mabel’s tolerance for such impertinence is variable.

Sometimes she perches on the lower railing and supervises.

Other times, she wants her spot back and it’s time for a quick exit …

Recently, one of the Mabels has been standing out from the crowd by sheer force of personality.

The smallest of the family, one of the 2020 batch, is proving to be the boldest. I started thinking of her as Chip (as in “off the old block”) and I notice that she will follow me for several blocks on the dog walks, even when the rest of The Mabels have lost interest.

Chip doesn’t have any distinguishing features, other than being the smallest and the cheekiest, but there is just something about her face.

Wet Chip

She’s already got the posing thing down to a fine art.

Recently, she’s been mimicking her mother on the golden throne.

Mabel demonstrates the proper regal attitude …

… while Chip has a ways to go in the poise department …

Mabel (left) and Chip (right) practicing the stone lion pose.

Whether the Mabels will stay together for much longer remains to be seen, but I can’t help hoping that Chip will stick around.

Chip practices multitasking

 

 

 

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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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