The Unbearable Itchiness of Moulting

While this looks rather like a sea urchin, or some other mysterious spiny undersea creature, it’s actually the back of poor Marvin’s neck.

Mr. Walker, as you can see below, has a similar situation going on.

It’s moulting season — that time when our local crows shed their old feathers, worn out by a year of constant use — to grow their very own shiny new wardrobe.

The new and waterproof feathers usually arrive just in time for the winter rain and wind — a miraculous feat, but an itchy and uncomfortable few weeks for the moult participants.

Apart from looking like low budget pirate movie extras, the whole moulting and regeneration process is physically and psychologically taxing for birds. Luckily the fledglings are pretty independent by now, as mom and dad’s supply of patience is even shorter than usual.

The young ones seem to instinctively end the summer-long begging for food just before the moulting crankiness sets in, though I suppose the odd parental peck may also have something to do with it.

Do not mess with this parent …

Those “sea urchin” spikes on the back of Marvin’s back are new feathers poking through the skin.  Curious as to what exactly is going on, I looked up a few articles about new feather growth.

Apparently these little barbs are called “pin feathers” — I imagine because the poor bird feels like a pin cushion. They’re also called “blood feathers” because they have a blood supply and nerves, making them super sensitive and delicate ( empathetic wince.) They look even more spiky because they have a protective keratin* sheath around them.

Even Marvin’s new fledgling, the lovely Lucky, can’t escape the process. You can see here the “reverse mullet” effect of the missing feathers.

 

Lucky, September 2022

Another moulting fashion phenomenon is the “straggly beard” effect caused by the temporary loss of throat feathers.

Mr. Walker, September 2022

For a glossary of crow Fall Fashion terms, see my blog post from 2018 — Red Hot Fall Fashion Tips

Lucky with an Elizabethan style ruff of moulting neck feathers

Moulting usually begins with an overall fluffy, almost glamorous look as first feathers start to float away …

… and ends up like this, with even tiny “eyebrow” and “nostril” feathers going AWOL  …

The remaining feathers are dull, and often display moody shades of sepia, grey, indigo and mauve.

The only real comfort to be found before the new finery comes in is in the loving attention of family members, like Mavis allopreening Marvin in the video below. I like to think she’s simultaneously offering words of encouragement — “no, honestly dear, you don’t really look THAT bad …”

All in all, it’s a trying time of year to be a crow, but luckily they, as a species, seem to have the chutzpah to carry off whatever outlandish look nature sees fit to bestow upon them.

As with all avant-garde fashion statements, confidence is key.

 

 

*Keratin is a lightweight protein. Different types of keratin form everything from feathers to fingernails, hooves to horns.

 

 

 

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A Crow’s Narrow Escape

This week has started with a hawk heart attack.

Barely awake, and with freshly brewed and highly anticipated coffee in hand, I chanced to look out of our back window to the Hydro pole where Marvin, Mavis and Lucky usually perch.

A bird landed on that pole. “Not a crow,” my sluggish brain remarked as I grabbed the ever-handy camera.

A hawk — the first I’ve seen around here all summer.

I looked at the hawk. The hawk looked at me.

Then he or she bent over to preen their feathers …

At that moment another bird landed on the other end of the pole’s cross beam. A crow — Marvin or Mavis!!

My heart stood still. You can see the hawk, still bent over at the bottom left of the the next photo.

Time stood still.

It seemed as if neither saw the other for a micro-second … and then they did!

The hawk dove at the crow and both tumbled off in a flurry of feathers and claws — stage right and out of view behind the shed roof.

Coffee forgotten, I raced outside, very much expecting to find a scene of carnage in the alley.

Instead I found Marvin and Mavis on the next Hydro pole down doing some stress preening and stamping around.

No sign of the hawk.

Marvin quickly returned to the original pole as if to reclaim it, fluffy moulting feathers and all.

Mavis moved to our roof to continue preening …

… and also keep an eye on the sky …

My coffee was a bit cold after all this, but I hardly needed it — heart thumping as if I’d just downed an entire carafe of espresso.

Phew, crazy crows!!

 

PS In case your mind, as mine did, immediately went to Lucky’s whereabouts, I have seen him, safe and sound, since this incident.

 

 

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Crow Parenting, Summer 2022, Part 4


Removing The Training Wheels

Just look at how grown up and fully crow-like he is already!

It’s been about twelve weeks since I first saw Lucky out of the nest, and he’s come such a long way since those first helpless days.

The first time I saw Lucky, back on June 11

Now that he’s going to the mix and mingle at the roost every night, I can’t help thinking he must be starting to feel the temptation to fly off to see the world with some fellow teen crows.

On Monday and Tuesday of this week I didn’t see or hear him at all, so I was beginning to think that was that for our little family of three.

Marvin and Mavis having a quiet morning to themselves

But no — it seems he’s not quite ready to ditch those training wheels yet. As grown up as he’s looking now, he (or she, just a guess at this point) is wise enough to know he’s still safer when mom and dad have his back.

In the photo below, Lucky looks just like a fully independent crow coming for snacks, but further investigation reveals a watchful mom, waiting in the wings in case of emergency.

I think she’s also making sure he’s following all the protocols he’s been taught over the past few weeks:

  • look left, look right, look up, look down, look left again and right again and up again, etc.before taking a moment to grab a snack … and repeat
  • grab the highest value snack items first in case this is your only chance
  • dunk snacks in water to add hydration boost
  • pack beak and gullet with maximum efficiency before take off

Nice work, but remember, look left, right, up …

Efficient snack packing starts with careful planning

I noticed that the constant begging (feed me, feed me, feed me) sounds that filled the air all summer have recently ceased.

The photo below, taken on August 18, was the last time I witnessed Lucky begging from his parents — and you can see the somewhat cynical and unobliging look he’s receiving in response.

He still calls for his parents, but it’s more of an “I’m here. Are you there?” type of communication.

From a distance, Lucky looks just like a grown up crow.

His eyes are no longer grey or blue — they’re now close to the same brown as an adult crow.

The pink gape at the side of his mouth is now quite subtle when his beak’s closed.

Still goofy, but then aren’t all crows, regardless of maturity?

However, as soon as he opens his mouth, especially when the sun hits it, that pink gape lights up like a stained glass window!

His mouth HAS been open a lot this week — not for begging purposes, but for keeping cool in the ongoing hot weather.

Aside from expelling heat via the open beak, he also sits with his wings held out from his body to let the heat out that way too, and catch any hint of a cooling breeze — just like mom and dad showed him.

I have so many photographs of Lucky now — partly because he’s so darn photogenic and partly because there are weirdly few other bird models around at the moment. That’s another, rather anxious, story for another day.

Suffice to say, at this point I have so many pictures of Lucky, he could easily have a calendar all to himself.

I have to stop and watch and photograph every time I spot him because I can’t shake the feeling that each time might be the last.

Of course, I’d be so thrilled if Lucky turned out to be one of those fledglings that sticks with mom and dad to help out and learn the ropes of nesting next year, but I can hardly bring myself to hope for that much.

Any day now he could decide to take off to complete his crow-ducation at a faraway institute of corvid higher learning.

I just hope he’ll remember to look left, right, up, down etc and to always take the good bits first.

 

 

 

For more Lucky:

 

 

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7 Reasons Why You Need a City Crow Calendar

I’m hoping to pick up the 2023 City Crow Calendar from the printer in the next couple of days — and then will begin the mad flurry of mailing out all the pre-ordered copies.

In the calm before the storm, I’ve been thinking of the reasons why you, or someone you love, might find you really need one … if you haven’t already booked your copy, that is.

Like all calendars, they’re handy for jotting down birthdays and dentist appointments and the usual day to day stuff, but here are a few more reasons to consider dedicating some precious wall space to a City Crow Calendar.

If you’ve owned one of my earlier versions, you may have thought of other uses, so if you have suggestions (polite ones only, please!) send them to me and I’ll write a sequel to this post!

FOLLOW THE SEASONS CROW-WISE

Sometimes, living in the city, you start to recognize the passing of the seasons only by the changing nature of the items on display in local shops, or in our social media feeds (back to school items … must be July, Halloween décor … what, August already?)

I like to think that City Crow Calendar owners will:

(a) be inclined to get outside to see what their own local crows are up to, and thus witness first hand what the sky and vegetation have to say, and

(b)  start to see the crows themselves as messengers of seasonal change.

Crow seen with sticks in their beaks … aha, must be the beginning of nesting season.

Croaking duck-like sounds, followed by slightly strangled cries of ecstasy … obviously summertime with crow parents feeding their insatiable fledglings!

Raucous gangs of crows roaming the neighbourhood … yup, it’s the beginning of fall and the crow parents are feeling their first freedom since nesting season started, and the fledglings are now teenagers meeting other teenagers, and the suburban trees are dripping with fruit and nuts — it’s party-time!!!



GET IN TUNE WITH THE MOON

When everyone is saying “that moon looks amazing — is it a full moon?” you will be able to answer sagely “not quite, but tomorrow night will be the Full Crow Moon” and your friends will be duly impressed by your one-ness with the universe.

(Really, you just had a quick look at your City Crow Calendar, but I won’t say anything if you don’t. )


BE AN URBAN NATURE ENTHUSIAST

There are any number of calendars you can own that will show you breath taking scenery on the coast, in the mountains or in the deep woods. The City Crow Calendar (the hint is in the name) is specially designed for those of us who, for one reason or another, spend most of our time in the urban jungle.
It’s a daily reminder that you don’t have to wait and wait until you can finally get out of town to experience really being in tune with Nature  — you can find those moments any day, any time by just going outside (or even just looking out of your window) and checking in on what your fellow city dwellers, the crows, are up to now.

Of course, in addition to the calendar, you can also subscribe to this blog, and/or follow me on social media for regular reminders on the wonders of urban nature.

 

 


CONVINCE THE “CROW CAUTIOUS”

We all have at least one friend who has not yet realized (poor benighted soul) how amazing crows are, and how worthy of watching every single day.

Buy them a City Crow Calendar and see if it can sway them.

It HAS been known to happen!


ENHANCE YOUR COCKTAIL PARTY CONVERSATION

Now that people are starting to attend social gatherings again, it’s time to dust off those small talk skills. Looking for a conversation opener?

Try, something like this …

“Did you know that if you see a crow in springtime with white goop on their beak it’s probably because they’ve been removing their offsprings’ fecal sacs from the nest?”

Just watch those jaws drop!


MAKE SOME NEW FRIENDS

If, for some inexplicable reason, the party poop chatter doesn’t earn you a mass of new human friends, you can always be inspired by the City Crow Calendar to get out there and get to know some of your corvid neighbours on a personal level.

Like Marvin here, most local crows will at least pretend to be impressed by your wit and wisdom if you happen to have one or two peanuts in your pocket.


WALLPAPER WITH CROWS

Of course, I LOVE IT when people buy my signed crow prints as it keeps the wolf from the door, but I’m also happy to know that City Crow Calendar owners don’t usually chuck their copies out at the end of the year, but keep them — and sometimes put the pictures up around the house.

If you’d been collecting my calendars from the beginning, you’d have enough crow portraits by now to wallpaper a small room!!!

 

 

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Crow Parenting, Summer 2022 Part 3

Family life with a pre-teen. I think I remember those days myself.

One minute they’re all grown up and don’t need their parents AT ALL, next — they just need a snuggle and some comfort food.

At least, when I was raising my kids, I didn’t have moulting to deal with as well.

A moulting crow is a cranky crow, and the whole family is starting that process now.

At least the fledgling can entertain himself with his own escaping feathers

At the same time, Marvin and Mavis are dealing with a pre-teen (Lucky) who is going through the two steps forward, three steps back process of learning to feed himself.

Lucky can definitely come and get his own peanuts from our deck. He has demonstrated prowess (well, competence, at least)  in this field.

At first he’d just get one peanut and then wonder what exactly to do with it, but now he’s on to the advanced level of stuffing his gullet to capacity before flying away and hiding some for later, just like mom and dad do.

Other advanced skills include perching on the water bowl and dipping snacks to moisten them.

For most of the day, the family is off on adventures around the neighbourhood, while Marvin and Mavis are presumably teaching Lucky the skills needed to grab more “in the wild” food.

Yet several times a day I still hear Lucky making his begging calls, and every once in a while see one of the parents wavering in their determination to get him self sufficient by stuffing a snack into his waiting beak.

More often the scenario plays out like this …

… and even …

 

 

 

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Crow Parenting, Summer 2022 Part 2

As with all families, there are fractious days when Marvin and Mavis get frustrated with their fledgling — and yet there are just as many peaceful days when the family bumbles along in (relatively) quiet domestic companionship.

I call the following series of videos, Wind in The Wires.

There are no moles, badgers and or rats (though I’m sure some of the latter may be scurrying about down below somewhere) and there’s a noticeable dearth of meandering rivers and lush green woodland in these mini-tales

Instead, I offer you a soothing urban nature bedtime story featuring  East Van alleyways, crows, family bonds, Hydro wires and a stiff breeze.

(Note: There’s a bit of wind noise on the videos because, as the title suggests, it was rather blustery and muting those sounds, while keeping the crow voices, is beyond my technical ability. )

Wind in the Wires One

In which baby crow hangs out with mom while she preens and stretches and finds a stray bit of feather fluff.

 

Wind in the Wires Two

In which baby crow finds his own foot quite entertaining.

 

Wind in the Wires Three

In which baby crow hangs on in a gale and wants to be just like mom.

 

 

Other posts about Marvin and Mavis’s 2022 fledgling:

 

 

 

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Crow Parenting, Summer 2022 Part 1

Since I am spending most of my time watching and photographing Marvin and Mavis and their fledgling  …

… and since it’s so hot …

… and since I can hardly type now, having given myself tennis elbow by holding my camera with long lens for so many hours …

… how about some short, word-light blog posts to show you what’s going on with the family?

More like these to come over the next few days!

As I mentioned last time, Lucky the fledgling is perfectly able to get his own food from our deck, but seems to prefer to badger his cranky, starting-to-moult parents instead.

One little interaction from yesterday …

Have lessons been learned here? Stay tuned …

 

 

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Fledgling’s Progress

I try to resist naming fledgling crows until at least September, given the myriad ways in which disaster can befall them in the first few weeks of life. Marvin and Mavis’s young one is tempting me though — and I seem to have started thinking of him as Lucky, rather that just the “safer” Baby M.

Of all the crow parents who built nests this spring, Marvin and Mavis seem to be one of the very few around here with a fledgling surviving into August.

In years gone by all the other crows had much more success at child rearing, with up to three or four fledglings in one season to show for their efforts. Marvin and Mavis’s every nesting attempt met with disaster, until last summer when they successfully raised not one, but two fledglings.

Through a Heat Dome, no less.

This year they only have one, rather doted upon, offspring. His little begging voice is the only one I hear in the neighbourhood. I have to walk a few blocks to find another family with a single fledgling. I’m not sure if this is a Vancouver-wide phenomenon, or just a local quirk.

The Wings suffered some sort of early catastrophe and seem reconciled to a fledgling-less summer

In this area the other crow regulars seem to have resigned themselves to a year off from parenting. They all built nests in spring but, for one reason or another, no fledglings appeared and now there seems to be little appetite for a second, late season, attempt. I wonder if they’re learning to anticipate how dry the summers are getting to be, and remembering how challenging that makes the job of fledgling rearing.

It’s a worrying thought, but it makes me feel all the luckier to see Marvin and Mavis come by most days with little Lucky in tow. It’s such a privilege to watch him figuring the world out, one day at a time.

You can almost see his quick brain absorbing and analyzing every new sign and sound in his rapidly expanding world.

Earlier in July, he spent quite a bit of time napping in the shady Katsura tree in front of the house …

… allowing mom and dad a few precious moments to themselves …

Each parent gets to choose their own self care priority.

Spa treatment … meditation … each follows their own bliss.

I’ve realized that there are few things more peaceful than watching a sleeping bird, riding the gentle waves of the wind-wafted branches and dreaming bird dreams.

These photos were all taken earlier in July, before we went away for a short holiday.

You can see that. his beak was still that bright “feed me” pink, but the eyes had already faded from the bright blue of the first few weeks to a rather lovely soft grey. Marvin and Mavis were still mostly feeding him via “direct deposit” before we left, but also starting to encourage him to pick up his own food.

Worm for the win!!

By the time we came back from our ten day holiday, my first concern was whether Lucky was still with us. I was very happy to hear him squawking from a distance on our first morning back. Phew.

Seeing the family together, I note that Marvin and Mavis are getting incrementally more determined to have him get his own food. While his beak looks less dramatically pink when closed, you can see in the photo below how it still lights up like a beacon when he adopts the “feed me, feed me” pose and the sun catches it.

The begging still works some of the time, but mom and dad are getting a little less indulgent every day.

This morning I noticed Lucky hounding Mavis to bring her some peanuts from our deck railing, a few feet from where they both were. Mavis was having none of this.

Lucky: Mum, mum, mum, mum … peanuts, peanuts, peanuts ….!

Lucky: MUM! MUM! MUM! PEANUTS! PEANUTS!! PEANUTS!!!

Mavis: @#$%&!!!!

Mavis retires to a quiet branch to regroup

If all goes well, Lucky will be pretty independent by September and ready to either stick around with mom and dad until next year to help with nesting chores, or take off on his (or her) own to make their own (exciting, risky) crow way in the city.

Either way, I feel almost as lucky as Marvin and Mavis to have had his entertaining company this summer.

And, by the way, Lucky is already quite capable of getting his own peanuts. For all the fuss this morning, here he was calmly collecting his own food just the day before.  Like all skill acquisition, it’s one step forward and one step back, but there IS progress!

 

 

 

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The Quietness of Crows

“Quiet” and “crow” are, let’s face it, rarely used in the same sentence.

We tend to think of crows as stridently outspoken and rowdy birds, bringing a racket wherever they go.

Crow nesting and fledging time can be especially raucous, with parent crows cawing wildly at fledglings, and at potential threats to fledglings; and the babies begging loudly and unreservedly for food.

Our attention is mostly drawn to them when they are being loud, but crow do spend a lot of time pursuing more secret, secluded and silent crow pastimes.

The large Katsura trees by our our house are never chosen as nest sites, but they do seem make for a perfect crow creche. Often, especially in the afternoon, Marvin and Mavis will come by with their babies and just chill for a couple of hours.

One of my very favourite things to do is peer up into those leafy rooms and see what exactly it is that they get up to during their “down time.”

Here are some of the things I’ve watched Marvin, Mavis, and this year’s fledgling get up to in there over the past few days.

Usually one crow parent takes the opportunity to go off for some “me time” while the other keeps a quiet eye on junior.

Parent on duty.

As the world roars along outside, Junior finds a number of things to pass the time in the peaceful green chamber.

There’s quite a bit of snoozing going on.

When nap time is over, it turns out there are a ton of other things to keep a baby crow amused in a Katsura. Playing with leaves is a lot fun, perhaps because the leaf stem looks just enough like a worm to be interesting …

Also bits of moss are quite entertaining. I imagine this is all part of the important “is this food?” learning that needs to be mastered in these early weeks.

The whole world is a classroom for a baby crow.

Then there’s a lot of s-t-r-e-t-c-h-i-n-g to do, preferably without falling out of the tree.

Risky shot of fledging undercarriage …

All those lovely new feathers need careful preening …

Baby M is a few weeks old now so their eyes have moved from that early blue colour to a soft grey now

Learning to be a “covert crow” just like dear old mom.

Mavis, model for Secret Crow image, 2017 … a definite family resemblance

And, of course, there’s trying to figure out what’s up with that strange creature down below with a camera.

Hope you’ve enjoyed this oh-so-quiet little look into the more hidden world of a crow fledgling.

Sneaking away now and maybe baby will go back to sleep and give mom or dad a little more time to regroup before things get rowdy again.

S-s-h-h-h ….

 

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Gazing Bowl’s Summer Gift

The gazing bowl (AKA Geordie’s outdoor water bowl) normally only provides consoling insights and quiet focus in the autumn months when it becomes a kaleidoscope of spent leaves and shifting reflections.

Perhaps it sensed that quiet moments were especially needed this week as it’s putting on a rare summer performance.

The floral patterns in the bowl are only subsidiary gifs — the main one is that the snowbell (Styrax japonicus) tree itself is in full magnificent bloom for the first time for years.

I’d begun to accept that it would never flower again, but this summer it seems to be trying to make up for every lost opportunity. At times the tree is so full of bees that standing under it is like sticking your head into to a hive (but less dangerous.)

That soothing bzzzzz and the dappled light are the essences of summer.

But back the gazing bowl.

It’s summer message seems to be something of the lines of … take a break from the endlessly dire news cycle.

Like the wise flight attendant, it’s reminding me — put your psychic oxygen mask on first, or you’ll be no good at helping anyone else. If your beauty tank runs dry, how will you find the energy to fight for what needs fighting for?

So, just in case you need a deep breath of stillness yourself, please take your own reading from the gazing bowl.

You can hum-m-m-m a bit to yourself to mimic the sound of the bees.

As Geordie actually needs the bowl to drink out of at this time of year, the important messages do need to be dumped and rinsed every day.

For now, there are fresh scrying bowl memos each morning — but soon we’ll have to wait until fall for the next hydromancy installment.

Mavis stops by for a visit with her own messages

 

 

 

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