Crow vs Grackle

You may remember that in my recent blog post Consider the Grackle … I wondered, given how smart both crows and grackles are, what would happen if both species lived in the same place. Would they squabble, co-operate, avoid each other, form an alliance overthrow humanity, …?

If you were wondering too, read on …..

My first thought, when faced with a crow puzzle, is always to see if Kaeli Swift (crow scientist extraordinare, and author of the fabulously informative blog, Corvid Research) has an answer.

In this case she did not, but she did (naturally) know where to find it.

She took the time to contact the very scientist who’s study about grackle smarts I mentioned in the previous post — Corina Logan.

Corina very kindly wrote back to Kaeli, who passed on her message to me:

“Hello! I just got back from setting up my grackle field site in Arizona, but there weren’t really crows in the city so most of my observations come from Santa Barbara. Crows are generally dominant to grackles (though one of my students saw a grackle displace a crow once), but the crows won’t get as close to humans so the grackle have the advantage there. Grackles often sit on chairs and tables and wait for people to turn their heads or leave the table, and then they steal their food (the cafes have to replace loads of food!). Meanwhile, the crows are sitting in the trees watching all of this. It isn’t until the humans are entirely gone that the crows will come in to eat. I haven’t noticed crows roosting with grackles. And they don’t seem to interact too much in the wild.”

So there we have the answer to my question — scientifically observed in the field.

We also have an illustration of how generous busy scientists can be with their time and information. Thanks so much, Kaeli and Corina!

 

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Last Call at Still Creek

The night’s watch at Still Creek

Crow roost visiting as therapy — I’m not sure it will catch on as a mainstream practice, but it works for me.

The first time I went to the Still Creek crow roost was about ten years  ago. I’d recently received some bad news and, having moped about for a few days,  felt the need to press the “reset” button on my mood.

I’d already been photographing crows for several years, but I had yet to make it to the mythical evening roost. Somehow I thought that seeing it at last might cheer me up.

It did. In fact, it’s not exaggerating to say it changed my world view.

How did it feel?

Like witnessing a massive storm tide at Long Beach.

Like being bathed in a  sea of sound, with significance just beyond my understanding.

Like standing on the edge of another world.

<Please Note: there are videos in this post that will not play if you’re reading this in an email. To see the post in its proper layout, complete with videos, just click HERE. >

All the more amazing for the fact that I was standing in the midst of rush hour Vancouver traffic in a light industrial, urban area about ten minutes drive from my house.

That experience somehow put my troubles into a new and manageable perspective.

Since that evening, I’ve visited many times. I persuaded my husband to come along after the third or fourth trip, and now he’s hooked too. We don’t even have to be depressed to go — mostly we just go to join in the celebratory atmosphere.

Our routine is to arrive at the edge of the Costco parking lot just east of Willingdon about half an hour before sunset. Sometimes we  arrive a bit early and find no crows at all. Has the roost been called off?  Suddenly a single crow materializes in a nearby tree.

In the blink of an eye, there are ten, then twenty crows, in the same tree.

Then you look to the horizon on all sides and you see them coming. On a clear night you can see the mountains far to the east, pink in the twilight, with a corvid river meandering in front of them. They pour in from the west side of town, and from the north shore.

There’s an overpass just to the west of the Costco parking lot. We like to climb up the stairs to the higher level for a better view of them all rolling in, like a black, noisy tide.

One purpose of the roost is the give the crows a “safety in numbers” sleeping spot, but they really seem to have a whole lot on the agenda before they finally go quiet and turn in for the night.

 

Clouds of crows land on every tree branch, power line, lamp stand and roof within view. And they are loud. I mean, really, really loud. Amid the racket, you can pick out many different types of calls. Bossy, sergeant major calls, clicking, cooing, croaking and good old cawing. On our last visit to the roost I heard at least two crows that really seemed to be mimicking Canada geese!

What could be going on here, apart from crows seeking safety in numbers from owls and other night terrors?

Possibilities: a massive gossip session; a round-up of restaurant reviews (the highly coveted five star dumpster rating is given only occasionally); music class; singles club for young, unattached crows … *

With each explosive take-off the crows are generally moving from the east side of Willingdon, over to the west, towards the McDonalds restaurant.

At a certain point in the evening, the grass outside the McDonalds and the roof edges, are crow-carpeted.

Delicious as the smells coming from the McDonald’s may be (to them), that is not their final destination. As the light dims, they all move a little further west into the industrial/office area between Willingdon and Gilmore.

There always seem to be a few single crows, strategically positioned on posts and signs acting like raucous traffic wardens or air traffic controllers.

Last call for good spots on the Yellow Pages office building! Move along there!

As it gets darker, it’s harder to make out the moving crows. They take on a ghostly air as they fly to their chosen resting spots for the night. .

On a less ethereal note, I’m told that you can tell the “ranking” of a crow by how much white they have on their feathers the next day. The top tier crows get the highest spots, so the younger crows at the bottom of the roost are going to be wearing a lot of crow guano by morning.

If you stay until it’s fully dark, things will become a lot quieter and the crows will settle among the herons and other wildlife in the wooded area around the actual watery part of Still Creek.

You will also see their shadowy outlines on top of most of the buildings between McDonalds and the Still Creek/Gilmore intersection, on each of the small boulevard trees, and lined up like clothes pegs on the power lines along the road.

Note: Do not linger under any of these, unless you want to bear the mark of the low ranking crow.

 

Somehow the name “Still” Creek seems perfect.

Although the twilight hours there are some of the noisiest and busiest in the city, you can also find yourself being unusually still and peaceful in the middle of it all.

Still Creek Moon, print available online.

* A study is currently underway at the University of Washington, using recordings of the nightly vocalizations at their local roost, to try to unravel the mystery of what those crows are really on about.

www.junehunter.com

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Consider the Grackle …

You see a loud, smart, black bird, hanging around with his gang of mates, giving you fearless looks, and constantly rummaging through the garbage (or your picnic) for a snack.

Must be a crow, right? Or at least a corvid relation?

But no, the grackle isn’t even distantly related to the crow. It’s a member of the Blackbird family, which includes the Brewer’s and Red-winged Blackbirds that we see in the Pacific Northwest, as well as Cowbirds and Orioles.

We went to Mexico last winter and as soon as we got out of the airport  I started noticing these cheeky, opportunistic birds.

They seemed to be everywhere, always with a beady yellow eye to the main chance.

In the absence of any crows, the grackles began to occupy the part of my brain that is usually filled with corvid observations.

The grackles we saw in Mexico were of the Great Tailed variety (Quiscalus Mexicanus). Locally, they’re called Zanates.

In comparison to crows, they’re a lot more streamlined, with light gold-coloured eyes, and legs that go on forever. The males have a long, impressive (some might say, “great”) tails, and a have vivid blue and violet sheen to their feathers.

The females are much, much smaller (about half the size), with more modest tails and dullish brown feathers.

Her and him doing a bit of foraging in the sand, as  you do …

They’re so different that it took me a while to realize that they’re the same species — I thought for a long time that they were two kinds of grackle that just liked to hang out together.

Female Great Tailed Grackle paddling at the beach.

We did see a dazzling variety of birds in Mexico (pelicans, spoonbills, herons, parrots, hummingbirds, chachalacas, caciques, woodpeckers, buntings, doves, cormorants …) but, for some reason the grackles kept calling to me. I guess I just can’t resist a bird that looks me right in the camera lens and dares me to press the shutter.

Buzz off,  paparazzi!

Look out, make way for the Great Tail.

Like crows, the grackles could be pretty raucous. Here’s one making some sort of statement in the early morning near our hotel. Luckily we were up early anyway, on the search for the elusive red cardinal that paid a fleeting and tantalizing visit on the first day, never to be see again. But that’s an entirely different story.

NOTE: video follows. If you’re reading this in an email, the video won’t play. To see it click HERE to go to the actual blog post.

 

Once I got home to Vancouver I planned to do some more research and write a blog about the grackles, but, what with one thing and another, the cheeky grackles slipped my mind and that mental space got recolonized by corvids.

Luckily I was reminded about grackles last week when I got an email from a friend who’s in Mexico now. She was wondering about the crow-like black birds she was seeing everywhere …

My interest rekindled, I started going through my photos from last year and doing a little more research. I’d looked up Great Tailed Grackles online when we were in Mexico —enough to identify them and glean a few facts — but our internet was a bit dodgy, and there were other distractions of course, so I didn’t get too far.

The ingenious modem set up at our hotel in Mexico.

My recent online search for grackle facts turned up news of  a fascinating study by Corina Logan of Cambridge University. The Great-Tailed Grackles she encountered in Costa Rica  reminded her of crows, and spurred her to wonder if they shared any of that famous corvid intelligence. In 2016, at the university of California, she performed some tests to find out. A series of food acquisition challenges she set for them proved that, like crows, they were very good at deploying a variety of solutions to solve different problems. This particular skill is known, in bird scientist lingo, as “behavioural flexibility” and understanding it is an important piece in solving the bird intelligence puzzle.

Famous crow expert, John Marzluff, commented on the study, saying that Logan’s study “ clearly demonstrated variability that different individuals have when it comes to learning. That’s really cool. You’d see the same thing in people.”

So crows and grackles, apart from the casually observed similarities, also share a special avian ingenuity. I don’t know if they overlap in any territory and, if so, I wonder if they compete, or use their street smarts to divide up the neighbourhood like avian gangs.

Does anyone reading this live in a place where Great Tailed Grackles and crows both reside?

UPDATE: For an answer to the above question,  see Crow vs Grackle.

With brains like ours, the sky’s the limit.

If you’d like to keep reading about grackles, I found an very entertaining article by   John Nova Lomax  entitled Eight Reasons Why Grackles Are Awesome, published by Texas Monthly.  His attitude to grackles reminds me of mine towards crows here in Vancouver.

Postscript

I did see one member of the corvid family when we were in Mexico. The Urraca or White Throated Magpie Jay was sometimes to be found on our early morning bird watching walks. An impossibly exotic looking bird, with a “fascinator” head adornment, it would not have looked out of place at a royal tea party. I’d have liked to spend more time with this bird, but it was a lot harder to spot than the ubiquitous, and always entertaining, Grackle.

www.junehunter.com

SOME RECENT POSTS ABOUT CROWS

Crow Stories

Crow Gossip

 

A Puzzlement of Crows

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Crow Stories

This post will have stories … about crows … eventually.

But first, I wanted to share a few thoughts that have been rolling around in my head about the idea of “story.”

Mostly I look at the world in a visual way. I’m a photographer, so I’m always looking for shapes, colours, light, shade, textures and so on. They do say that a picture is worth a thousand words but, for me, the words hovering behind the picture are just as important. Every photograph I take has at least the inkling of a story behind it.

My academic background is in English Literature — so, naturally I’m a sucker for narrative.  I guess that’s why, even though my work is pictorial, I’ve come to love writing this blog. The thousand words behind the picture.

Crows seem to be the perfect subjects for both pictures and stories.

 

Visually, they are fascinating — whether viewed from a distance as inky calligraphy against the sky …

… or closer up, where you can see the myriad colours in the allegedly black feathers, and the soulful intelligence in their restless eyes.

Story-wise, they’re an endless resource. They’re a minefield of metaphor and motif; a stockpile of symbolism and simile.

And character — don’t get me started! Every time I spend time with a crow, I can’t help but see something in their expression that parallels the human experience.

And I guess that’s the value of story.

It lures you into looking deeper into worlds that aren’t your own, and makes your life richer, funnier and more full of empathy as a result.

OK, enough rambling and, finally (as promised) some crow-necdotes!

Tales of Mavis and Marvin

As winter dug in, it became clear that these two had become de facto king and queen of my back garden. For a while some of the younger crows from the Firehall Five would try and horn in on the action, but there must have been some sort of back room deal, because I now never see them in the yard. Occasionally there is some minor skirmish with Eric and Clara who will make forays into the front garden, but generally detente has been reached in the hyper-local corvid community.

On Christmas Day Marvin and Mavis had the garden to themselves, apart from the chickadees, juncos, song sparrow and lone hummingbird.

Art Appreciation

Marvin continues his fascination with the garden statuary.

Not sure if this was a gesture of affection, or frustration at the failure of his efforts to get a response.

Attempting conversation with the equally taciturn cast iron crows by the studio.

New Year Challenge

The daily offering of peanuts and dog kibble was becoming a bit routine, so I decided to give Marvin and Mavis a bit more of a challenge. Once they’ve had a few easy-picking peanuts and kibble from the back deck, I set up a bit of an obstacle course for them.

There’s a gnarled piece of Hornby Island driftwood in the garden by the picket fence. I wedge a few peanuts in the stick and watch Marvin and Mavis problem-solve how to get them out. First challenge is negotiating a route along the tricky picket fence.

The first few tries had them scrambling and flapping. It’s also a bit of a “beat the clock” affair, since chickadees are snatching them easily from the driftwood while Marvin and Mavis are figuring out how to get to them.

King of the driftwood castle.

After a couple of weeks, they are now experts. This photo of Marvin, showing off his picket fence mastery is now one of my favourites (and available as prints and tiles!).

Winter Weather

As usual in Vancouver, we’ve had a winter mélange of snow, rain and wind. Some of my favourite crow portraits are catching them in seeming response to adverse weather conditions. It’s then that they most remind me of myself, waiting at a bus stop or trudging home with shopping. That stoic and and somewhat exasperated look.

#rainblame

Philosopher Crow — or, Mavis adopts a philosophical approach in the face of inevitable.

Curse, you winter! Actually, this was Mavis’s response to Edgar (the cat) being out on the back deck. More like, “curse you, cat!”

So, the crow stories are endless really. I’m sure I’ll have more I can’t keep to myself soon. I hope they get you to look at the crows in your part of the world with more interest and affection, because life is just more entertaining once you let crows in.

www.junehunter.com

Some Crow Valentines in my shop now.

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Dog’s Life and A New Year Wish

May your 2018 be just like this.

It’s just a quick photo, taken with my phone on a walk in the Seymour Demonstration Forest earlier this week. It captures one second in a dog’s life.

In this moment, he is completely happy.

He is with his people, in the woods, off-leash, with snow (Geordie’s favourite), some mud, and a stick.

He still has the recent happy memory of playing with two big dogs (black and yellow labs, I think they were) just now walking out of the frame with their owners.

He doesn’t know it yet, but just entering the frame is another dog. This one loves to run for the joy of it as much as him, and they’re about to experience several minutes of euphoric woodland racing.

2017 had its ups and downs, but I wish you a 2018 full of times like Geordie’s.

Contentment in the moment . . .

fond memories  . . .

unseen joy around the corner.

Happy Woof Year!

www.junehunter.com

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Christmas Address

It used to be just Edgar who used to offer up, Queen-like, his pithy Christmas thoughts, but this year we’ve got a bit of clamour of creatures willing to share their musings for 2017.

I’ve told them all they’ll need to be brief if we’re going to fit everyone in.

EDGAR

Naturally, my thoughts are the most important.

For maximum efficiency, combine your stretching exercises with relaxation.

Claiming the higher ground always gives you a comforting tactical advantage.

GEORDIE

As a rescue dog I am, by nature, a pessimist — but nevertheless I try to be brave and plunge into new things. Most of the time (except for the baths) it’s turns out pretty well. Also, I like it when everyone is kind to each other.

MARVIN & MAVIS

crow on a fence, photograph by June Hunter

Sometimes life can throw you challenges.

Crow on a fence, photograph by June Hunter

With a bit of perseverance though, you can learn new things.

Sometimes your loved ones will try to do helpful things …

… which will result in a hairdo like this. But, they love you and they mean well, so just keep your beak shut and say thanks.

THE BUSHTITS

Sometimes it’s nice to get together will a bunch of friends over the festive season.

Bushtit photo by June Hunter

… but sometimes it’s nice to spend a bit of quiet time on your own.

THE CHICKADEES

Be bold! Be free! Don’t miss out on the peanuts!

And that’s about it from all of us over here at The Urban Nature Enthusiast. The sparrows and juncos wanted to put their five cents in as well, but I have still got some wrapping to do!

Thank-you so much to everyone who has read the blog this year and sent me so many kind comments.

Have the very brightest holiday season, whether it’s being surrounded by friends and family, or simply enjoying the quiet of the winter season with some good books and walks outside. Much love to all of you.

 

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A Christmas Miracle – with Crows!

This little story has everything — lost dogs, snow, mystery, love, determination, teamwork, social media and Geordie the wonder dog.

But crows are the real heroes of the story!

I had planned a quiet day of wrapping and baking.  I have had the ingredients to make stollen bread for three years now, and not a single loaf has been produced. This year looks as if it might be year four, but I really don’t care.

The story started, as it often does, with a simple morning dog walk with Geordie. We were on our usual route when I saw a dog running towards us, off-leash. Geordie was very excited and I thought for a moment that perhaps it was a coyote. Once it got closer I could see it was a domestic dog, but very scared. Geordie, who assumes all dogs are his buddy, wanted to play and the ginger-coloured dog actually did let him get close enough for a sniff, before scooting off again. She did stay with us as we walked towards home and I was hoping I could lure her into our garden so I could read the tag on her collar.

Things went awry at Slocan and William, when something spooked her and she took refuge under a parked SUV. I couldn’t get her to come out, although she did eat a couple of treats I put near her. Not having an extra leash with me, and Geordie being beside himself with excitement, I decided to rush home with him and come back with a leash.

I drove back and the dog was still there, but definitely unwilling to budge. At that point I took this photo and put it on every social media platform I could think of.

Something scared her again and she took off. I saw her at the intersection of Slocan and Charles, amid a lot of cars and I braced for a horrible thud. Luckily none came, but by the time I got to the corner, there was no sign of the dog. Because of the cars in my line of sight, I couldn’t see which direction she’d gone from there.

There were, however, several crows in a tree, cawing angrily right there on the corner. That made me think that the dog might be hiding in the bushes that border the intersection, so I had a really good look around. No sight or sound of a dog. Maybe the crows were mad about something else.

\

At this point I was beginning to feel a bit dizzy because I hadn’t had breakfast yet, so I decided to drive home, have some oatmeal, and enlist Geordie in the search. Just as I was about to head out again I got a call from Desirée, who was part of a group of people who have been searching for this dog for forty long days and had got my number from all the social media sharing.

The dog’s name, it turns out, is Mika, and she had gone missing from New Westminster (a long, long way from our neighbourhood) in mid-November.

Desirée and I met up near where I last saw Mika and I could see that the crows were still cawing. This time I took Geordie up there and he seemed pretty excited about the bushes. After he sniffed at one spot for a while, I heard a very soft growl. I got down on my hands and knees, and very deep in the hedge, I spotted a flash of ginger fur.

I stepped back and called Desirée. By then  a large group of other volunteers had appeared with all kinds of dog catching equipment. Apparently they had been this close to catching her before, but she was so scared she’d managed to escape.

This time we surrounded the hedge with blankets and — best of all — her actual owner arrived. (***Update — I’m told that the person who arrived was actually her original rescuer who had flow in from Taiwan! Even more amazing.***)

It was a tense ten minutes or so, but finally her owner managed to lure her close enough to get hold of her collar and she was safe at last!

I’m still not sure who all the dedicated volunteers were, but I think that they’re involved with rescuing dogs in Taiwan, and that Mika was one such rescue.

If I never end up making stollen bread again, I really don’t care. Seeing Mika back with her happy owner was far more delicious!

But honestly, if it had not been for the crows, I’m pretty sure she would not have been found today. The hedge was extremely dense and didn’t really look like a plausible hiding spot — but those crows are never to be fooled. Combined with Geordie’s sniffing abilities, we tracked her down!

So, next time you hear the crows making a terrible din, try not to get irritated with them.

It’s never about nothing.

I’ve seen some of the most amazing things (owls, racoons, coyotes … and now long lost dogs) by listening to what they’re on about.

Extra peanuts for the crows at Charles and Slocan next time I go by there. I may even give them some of the Cheezies I got as a special festive treat for Marvin and Mavis!

Geordie, the other tracking hero, has already received chew treats and much praise.

Who’s a good boy, then?

Thanks so much to all the people who spread the story on social media, to the great team of volunteers who showed up to find her, to Geordie for his sniffing prowess and, of course, thanks to the crows — who know everything single thing that goes on in our neighbourhood.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

PS You can read more about Mika and the volunteers who searched so tirelessly for her HERE.

www.junehunter.com

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