On Monday I jokingly posted the suggestion that crows would make excellently determined school zone speed limit enforcers.
I’ve often thought that an intense corvid stare might help bring home all kinds of messages.
Room for 28 crows more up here
The Wings enforcing their local stop sign
Today’s crow thought: why stop at traffic signs?
Put crows where the big decisions are made!
Instead of stuffy CEO portraits or generic landscapes, let’s see crows adorning the walls of the centres of power. We need giant judgemental crows gazing down at the humans sitting down to set policy in government and corporate settings.
A thoughtful corvid presiding over a meeting might help decision makers remember that any new plan should meet the objectives of that most important of all stakeholders — Nature.
At the very least, it would remind meeting attendees to not take themselves too seriously.
The Walkers and their nest have got me puzzled this year. As you know, the Wings have also got me scratching my head, so it’s generally a perplexing time of year.
The benefits of watching several crow families over a number of years include (1) always having things to wonder about and (2) seeing the endless variety of crow story plot lines.
Mr. Walker, corvid matinee idol, June 8 2022
The story of the Walkers’ nesting season so far:
Unlike the Wings , who live on a street with a big tree canopy, the Walkers have smaller trees to work with, so I was able to see the location of their nest.
Wanda sitting on the nest, early May 2022
A slight wrinkle in the Walkers’ nesting plans appeared a few days after I took the previous photo. The City tree crew hung signs on every tree on their block announcing imminent trimming work.
I know the City crews struggle to keep up with all the maintenance work but I do hate to see the trees disturbed during nesting season. On behalf of Wanda, who was unable to get to a phone, I called and emailed the City and requested that they delay the work until later in the year. Somewhat to my amazement, the signs were removed the next day. Small victories!!
Things seemed to be coming along nicely with the nest. Last week I heard what sounded like at least one fledgling in the nest and Wanda was out and about collecting food with Mr. Walker. I was expecting little Walkers any day.
Instead, I was baffled to see Mr. Walker busily carrying twigs to the next tree down the street a few days later.
At first I wasn’t even sure it WAS Mr. Walker as, in the rain, he looked rather like a Mr. Pants impersonator!
But no — definitely Mr. Walker, as he proceeded to jog along beside me in his inimitable style. Here he was more recently, clearly working on the soft furnishings stage of Nest #2.
Confirming that something must have gone amiss with Nest #1 is the fact that Wanda has reverted to the early nesting season female behaviour of begging for food. They do this to get their mates into the habit of bringing them food when they’re confined to the nest incubating the eggs. Again, in this case.
Wanda adopts begging posture
Mr. Walker obliges with peanuts …
… having first thoughtfully dunked them in gutter water for extra succulence and flavour.
So there we are … I have no idea what befell of Nest #1.
It could have been any number of things … raccoons, cats, hawks, cars, operator error …
Sadly, it’s not uncommon, and clearly the Walkers are wasting no time in getting to work on a second go. The story, therefore, continues and we hope we have some new little Walkers before the summer is out.
Detail from Mr. Walker’s section of City Crow Stories, showing 2021 fledglings
I always have mixed feelings about this time of year when the baby crows, still in the nest, are getting oh so close to checking out the pros and cons of gravity.
Sometimes, if the nest is too high and the wings too fragile, this is their first and last adventure. However, most will make it to the ground and then the crow parents’ work really begins.
Fledgling crows are a little like feathered disaster machines — hopping blithely into roads, napping under parked car tires, wandering innocently up to cats, crashing into garden fences, ignoring crow territorial boundaries and antagonizing the neighbours — I’ve watched each one of these scenarios every spring.
My breath is bated for the entire month of June … and I’m just a spectator to all of this.
As I always like to advise people at this time of year, try and put yourself into the mindset of the very tired and very tense crow parents.
Yes, they may swoop at your head if you get too close to their precious offspring. There will definitely be a lot of sound and fury, signifying something.
But try not to think of this as an adversarial, crow vs humanity type of situation — rather just another way in which crows, as devoted parents, are very like us.
Lots of the cawing isn’t even directed at us. Sometimes, I’ve noticed, the parents make a huge amount of noise just for the purpose of making the vulnerable little baby crow calls less obvious to listening predators.
Sometimes they’re just delivering a loud and endless stream of advice for the fledglings’ benefit: “flap harder,” “get off the road,” “sshh!”
And, if you MUST let your cat outside, please, oh please, at least keep them in during nesting season. Baby birds are, literally, sitting ducks for recreational feline hunters.
Also, take a moment to check around your parked car before driving off!
I haven’t actually seen a fledgling yet this year, but any day now …
I heard some quiet fledgling burbles coming from Marvin and Mavis’s nest a few days ago. Listen carefully after the car noise …
Marvin and Mavis were running a full time Uber Eats service between my deck (and an hourly peanut supply) and this tree a couple of days ago.
Here I am again …
They’ve also been fiercely defending our garden against a new crow couple in the area. Marvin’s feathers have been in fluffed out warrior mode for so long I wonder if this may be his permanent new look.
Now Marvin and Mavis’s visits are much more sporadic and I have the feeling that the fledglings are on the move, so the parents just have to go wherever their waddling, falling or flapping takes them. This is the most nerve wracking and disaster prone stage, so we can only wait and see what happens next.
More updates soon on other local crows’ nesting progress!
Here is something of what I wanted to write last week, which ended up being a whirlwind of packaging and shipping pre-ordered City Crow Stories books in the middle of having the floors in the main part of our house re-finished.
“Before” floors with baffled pets
I’d hoped that the launching of the book and the floor project would fall at different times but they seemed pulled inexorably together like catastrophically aligned meteors. Luckily the convergence was more along the lines of domestic chaos than planetary cataclysm.
Outdoor kitchen set up — almost like a camping holiday!
Because the pre-orders came in as we were madly trying to get the house emptied, and I was still waiting for the books to be printed and bound, it was only when I was actually physically picking up each printed order and placing it with the book to put in an envelope that I saw all the names of people who had purchased one.
The “camping at home” might have been a little nicer if it wasn’t the coldest May in recorded history!
As I packed each book I smiled at all the names I recognized, ranging from old friends to people I’ve come to know online.
I wished I could write a little note with every order, but things were so overwhelming at that point I felt I just had to keep going and get the hundreds (yes, hundreds!) of books on their way.
So here is, with apologies for the generalization, the note I wished I’d been able to include:
Thank-you so much for ordering the book.
Thank-you so much for your support over the years (some of you since the first studio sale in the small garden shed I shared with squirrels!)
Thank-you all the encouraging, funny, touching, fascinating emails you’ve sent about your own experiences with crows and ravens and about what my work has meant to you.
Amid the general madness, I’ve felt very grateful to know so many lovely people.
And a PS — many thanks to those of you who’ve received your City Crow Stories, read it and written back with such kind comments.
Lily was miraculously available to help with some of the packaging. Couldn’t have done it without her!
The Story Behind the City Crow Stories
I first started thinking of creating a book some time in 2020, but the thought just rattled around in my mind, month after month.
The downside of self-publishing is that you don’t have an editor telling you what to do — the book can be anything you want it to be, which is actually rather terrifying.
By the start of 2022 I was determined to get started, but January and February consisted of more mental flailing, as I became convinced that I had to write a book to Save The World via crows.
Relief came when I realized that I just needed to write a few stories about some crows I know — and let the crows do the saving on their own!
Some of my goals in creating City Crow Stories were to:
make a book that is full of beauty and humour
create a lot of visual space to let the crows’ beauty and character speak for themselves
tell the story of how I came to love crows
help people realize that “my” crows are not the only special ones
offer some tips on how to recognize and make friends with crows
encourage people to take a break from the meta-verse
inspire curiosity in other lives
as stated earlier, save the world, via crows (a girl can dream …)
Meanwhile, on the home front, the floors look lovely. They’re still full of character, but with a lot fewer splinters. In fact, they look SO good we’ve now got to re-paint the walls to match their splendour, meaning we’re still semi-camping out.
Crow watching is an ultra slow version of birdwatching; instead of darting about in search of new species to add to a list, you find yourself looking at things more closely and seeing the wonder there. My mother had an extensive repertoire of handy sayings, and when I’m enjoying time with the local crows I can always hear her saying, “Wherever you go, there you are.”
The truth of this saying has become more apparent to me as I get older. It also seems profoundly linked to the increasing need for us all to start finding more real joy in what we already have, and where we already are.
I was reminded this week about the many, many other sayings my mam (as we call moms in Newcastle) used every day when our local morning radio show had a call-in contest for remembered maternal aphorisms. There were some great ones and the more I thought about it, the more of my own mother’s surfaced like flotsam in my cluttered brain.
We knew she was really, really mad if “hells bells and buckets of blood” was uttered. The ultimate sanction for misbehaviour was, luckily, never enacted as it sounded gory: “You’ll get your head and your hands and your brains to play with.” Since she was a very gentle woman, we did not live in nearly as much fear as you’d think such a statement might engender.
Some of her sayings bring back in cinematic detail the occasions when they were deployed. The day she was running to catch the bus with me and my baby brother in tow and tripped on the stairs, spraining her ankle, muttering from a prone position on the sidewalk, “more haste, less speed.” I was quite impressed that she was managing to be so philosophical, but looking back I think she was trying not to scare her kids by crying or swearing, or both.
As a teenager I moved to a faraway town to go to university. During my first term I suffered that inevitable first romantic heartbreak and was feeling pretty crushed. In response to what must have been a tearful phone call, I received a letter from my mom exhorting me to remember that “it’s always darkest before the dawn” and that “every cloud has a silver lining.” She brought it all home with the always popular “it’s all part of life’s rich tapestry.”
Of course, I was still heartbroken, but my mom’s borderline unhinged efforts to give me a long distance boost and a virtual hug did make me laugh and cry at the same time.
And I remember that letter as if it was yesterday, while I can’t even remember the name of the boy I was shedding tears over.
My lovely mom’s been gone now for 25 years, but I think of her every day.
The reason I love the hellebores I post about so often, is that she had them in her garden, and looking at them reminds me of her.
Her death was unexpected and I was a mess. As I was sobbing quietly at home, trying to get an emergency passport renewal to fly to England, my son came to offer some advice. For a four year old more usually to be found ricocheting off walls and furniture, he spoke with quiet authority. He had prepared a “to do” list for me:
Remember her behind your eyes
Remember everything she showed you
Paint your house beautiful colours and fill it with pictures of her.
I try, still, 25 years later, to follow that wise advice every day — and that seems to include having all those handy sayings rattling around in my brain and seeing how they fit into my life as I get older … even on those days when I feel like “the Wreck of the Hesperus” or as if I’ve been “dragged through a hedge backwards.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about crow calls after being obliged to make my own rather terrible approximation of one last week — on CBC radio no less! I made an attempt at the most common of crow calls — your basic “caw!”
There are, of course, many more linguistic arrows in the corvid quiver — from their lovely gentle “rattle” to the sharp barking alarm call warning of eagles or other aerial danger.
I’ve written quite a few posts about the amazing language of ravens, but crows have some expressive surprises up their feathery sleeves as well.
In fact, just yesterday I heard one of the local crows making a new call.
It sounded rather like “boing,” but I think it may have been a crow version of the beeping sound of a reversing truck. Due to the huge amount of construction our neighbourhood has seen over the past three years, this noise may have been an influential soundscape element for this crow’s formative years!
This next crow lives near some urban backyard chickens and I think I detect a bit of a clucking overtone to their caw.
Finally, White Wing stole the show last spring with her dog woofing with really impressive cat meow finale.
So, if there is ever another occasion when I’m asked to do a crow impersonation, maybe I’ll go for one of these!
The crow nesting season goes through various phases, some quiet, others much louder.
Right now we’re in a seemingly tranquil phase
All is secretive and low key as the parents try to keep the nest locations hidden from predators. Sometimes the game is given away when the female, sitting on the eggs, makes begging sounds to remind their mate to hurry up with the food delivery, but generally it’s as if the whole neighbourhood is made up entirely of of very quiet bachelor crows.
Marvin going solo while Mavis sits on the eggs, spring 2022
The mother crow will remain on the nest, incubating 2-6 eggs, for between two and three weeks. Once the eggs hatch, both parents will leave and return to the nest frequently to bring food. Another parental duty is carrying away the babies’ fecal sacs to keep the nest clean. A sure sign of hatched babies is seeing a poop-splattered adult crow — evidence of one of those sacs having failed in the disposal process. The love of a parent truly knows no bounds …
Mr. Walker on dad duty, Spring 2022
This is, of course, the calm before the storm. Soon things will start to get more exciting as dive bombing season begins.
This is such an issue in Vancouver that, a few years back, a Langara College professor created an open-source Geographic Information System called Crowtrax, allowing people to report where they were attacked by crows and thus contribute to a map of the most “crow-terrrorized” parts of the city.
I’m happy to report that there’s been a positive change in the way this part of the crow nesting season in covered by the local media over the past few years. It used to be all Hitchockian horror, with eyeball grabbing headlines about “savage” crows swooping from the sky and randomly mauling innocent pedestrians. In recent times there has been more curiosity about what’s really happening here, and much more thoughtful pieces have been written.
Last year, Georgia Strait reporter, Martin Dunphy, wrote such an article and one of my images was on the front cover.
The article included comments from Vancouver crow scientist, Rob Butler, and myself and was a refreshingly pro-crow look what can be a slightly hysterical time of year.
I have some tips on avoiding getting dive-bombed this year, but first of all it’s helpful understand what’s going on from the crows’ perspective.
The crow parents have been working on this nest since late February, carefully building it, sitting on eggs in secret, carrying bags of baby poop hither and yon, fighting off hawks, raccoons, cats and eagles. They are tired, stressed to the max, and very, very committed to the success of their little families. Now the precious babies are about the leave the relative security of the nest.
These “babies” are almost the same size as the parents at this point, so some people don’t even notice that they’re not adult crows. Sometimes they’re difficult to spot at all as they rest on the ground, camouflaged with dust and leaf litter. They’re often earthbound because, in what seems to be a bit of a design flaw, they come out of the nest before they can fly.
The young crows are curious and eager to explore, but have no idea what might be fun as opposed to fatal. The only things standing between the helpless fledglings and getting stepped on, run over or attacked by animals or birds of prey are good old mom and dad. These exhausted and very tense parents and are the “savage” dive bombers — and it’s really nothing personal, they just want you to STAY AWAY from their precious offspring until they can fly.
In my experience, sometimes the raucous cawing isn’t even directed at us humans. Often they seem to be screaming instructions at their fledging and/or making a lot of racket just to drown out the baby crow noises that might attract real predators.
So try to remember, you’re not in a Hitchcock movie — just a small domestic drama.
TIPS FOR KEEPING YOURSELF AND THE CROWS SAFE
Avoiding the nest area if possible.
If you can’t stay clear, wear a hat or use an umbrella when you walk by.
Try pinning fake eyes (paper drawings, or make some with felt) on the back of your hat or hood. Crows only attack from the rear and if they see a pair of eyes “looking” at them they won’t swoop — according to Seattle crow scientist John Marzluff.
Earn some trust with a small offering of unsalted peanuts. Not a big pile — just 3 or 4 peanuts as a gesture of friendliness.
This might just be me, but I always speak softly to the parents and tell them what a great job they’re doing.
If you see a crow fledgling alone on the ground, don’t assume it needs rescuing. There will be a parent crow nearby watching over things and, unless the baby is obviously injured, it’s always best to leave it alone.
This following little diagram is something I put together years ago as an easy guide to telling fledgling crows apart from adults …
Once the baby crows are able to fly the parents will become a lot more relaxed and spend a lot of time feeding, grooming and showing the young ones the ropes of being a successful city crow.
Spending time watching this process will reward you with many laughs as you see yourself reflected in the behaviour of the parents, kids, or both.
“Wherever you go, there you are” was just one of my mother’s vast repertoire of Handy Sayings For All Occasions.
It sounded a bit eye roll inducing when I was young, but gets increasingly profound as I age.
Which brings me to travel.
Most of my journeys, especially over the past two years, have been of the internal variety, moving from one state to another. Sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly.
We’re all confined our own little vessels, one way or another.
This has limitations and does take a toll — leaving us at the mercy of time, wind, rain and whatever passing reflections come to visit.
Things become worn and begin to fall apart.
Colours fade — but then others become richer and more transparent.
I’ve always had a fondness for travelling in place, perhaps dating back to the time I lived alone in my little cabin.
My studies of bowls in the garden are like small, eagerly anticipated, annual journeys.
I love the hellebore bowls in spring, which are always beautiful when first arranged, but often become far more interesting when left to their own devices — week after week, or even month after month.
Some of the images here are of the glass bowl hellebores from last week’s post, left to drown in a week of heavy rain since then. Others are one of last year’s collections, left in the garden to make their fading journey from March until May 2021.
Each fall there’s always the adventure of the gazing bowl to look forward to. Starting off as a rather pedestrian dog’s water bowl in September … by late November, who knows where it might have taken me?
I believe that my interest in watching the crows in my neighbourhood falls into the same category of static travel— spending so much time watching, not just a single bird species, but actually the same individual birds, year after year, is a bit like gazing into a solitary bowl.
It never gets boring.
The longer you look, the more ways of seeing you find.
The crow world is also full of reflections — yourself reflected in the eyes of the birds is the simple version. It becomes a hall of mirrors as you consider the infinity of crow reflections, real and imaginary, in the looking glass of your own eye and brain.
So there you have it: the future of modern travel lies with crows, reflections, faded foliage, and is always far more about the journey than the destination.
I’m sorry I haven’t been posting a lot here lately.
This is partly because, like everyone else, I’m struggling with the enormity of what’s going on in the world.
Also, I’m finally, finally making a little progress with my book about crows, and I need to keep my head involved in that as much as I possibly can.
These two things are still standing in my way— but I thought I could at least send you a few flowers.
I traditionally post images of some of the early blooming hellebores in my garden on social media around this time of year — offering a little hope of spring around the corner. They are always displayed in a little green vintage bowl I picked up at a thrift shop many years ago.
Today, however, I suddenly felt that this bowl was no longer big enough for all the good wishes I needed to send, so I took myself off to my local thrift store especially to find a bigger vessel.
I found a big, beautiful, shallow glass bowl that was just perfect.
So here, just for you …
As I was photographing the bowl from different angles, the flowers kind of reminded me of a party … remember those?
Everyone all dressed up …
All the different types of people you might meet in a big gathering of strangers …
How you might hesitate and try to decide who looks most approachable in the crowd …
Colour, joy, friends, love, festivity … wishing us all more of these.
I started to write this post about my song sparrow friends last week, but then world events, already dark, turned even more grim and made writing about small birds seem ridiculous.
Now I’m back to thinking that small things are sometimes the best subjects to hang onto at certain times. Also, their tiny determination seems somehow even more appropriate at this moment.
While Ben (the crow with broken foot I wrote about last time) is always the first crow to greet me in the morning, the very first birds there, every single day, are the song sparrows. Half a dozen or so seem to be in our garden at all times — more reliable companions than any other birds this winter.
Song sparrow on his favourite perch, as close as possible to the back deck..
The trees begin to rustle as soon as I open the door and small, drab, brown shapes emerge. At first it looks as if sad winter leaves are being blown loose, but it’s always the song sparrow gang.
They see the crows gathering but they always dive in fearlessly first, grabbing at least one peanut each before melting swiftly and seamlessly back into the foliage.
I always cheer them on.
And when I said they were drab — that is ONLY upon the most cursory of glances. Give these birds a single moment of inspection and it’s obvious that they’re one of nature’s more complicated works of art — and all created with a palette of infinitely varied browns, creams and a touch of pearl grey.
I’ve been spending time making simple bird figures by needle felting wool. Mostly it’s just an excuse to relieve stress and spend more time thinking about birds, but it’s also practice in noticing things about them that I might not properly see when photographing them. When I look at the intricacy of a song sparrow from the point of view of trying to reproduce it I am both defeated and filled with joy at their modest and complex beauty.
A pair of needle felted Mountain Bluebirds.
I have reference binder of my own photos to work from, and so far I’ve tackled rudimentary versions of bushtits, chickadees, a spotted towhee, a ruby crowned kinglet, mountain bluebirds and a whiskey jack — but, honestly, I don’t think I know where to start with the quiet but infinitely elaborate patterns in a song sparrow!
Song Sparrow with an acorn cup
While the feather markings seems truly daunting, I’d love to have a go at the facial expression of a song sparrow. They have, I would submit, the very best “judgemental” faces of all the small birds.
Midweek brought terrible news from Europe, and also a skiff of snow here.
That morning the sparrows left some cryptic messages. They looked like a combination of frost patterns and a more intentional series of documents in a forgotten script.
So many big and very small things to think about these last few days and, as usual, no real wisdom to be found aside from trying to find wonder where and when we can.