Already it seems as if we might just have dreamed it.
Once upon a time, one Saturday morning in February, we woke up in a crystal palace.
A thick and flawless blanket of snow had fallen silently through the Vancouver night. The sun had come out. Everything looked like a fairy tale.
Photo of me, like a kid on Christmas morning, out in the garden in my dashing plaid housecoat.
The landscape itself was breathtaking so we just stood around, being robbed of breath.
Movement in my the trees made me think “… and there are birds.”
Not only is there landscape, but there are BIRDS in it. It felt like a surprise gift.
Of course I know this — given that I think about, follow, write about, and photograph the darn things every day of my life. But somehow it just struck me then that birds are like an extra dimension. Like a new hue in the colour spectrum. A huge bonus.
Northern Flicker in a white landscape
It made me remember that I didn’t really notice birds much until my 50’s.
In my twenties, I lived in a cabin miles from anywhere, and there must have been many birds in my solitary world. Somehow I remember the trees, the moss, lichen and wild flowers in great detail, but no birds. There must have been ravens, for heaven’s sake, but I just didn’t register them.
Intrepid song sparrow
People often ask me how I came to start taking pictures of crows and other birds.
When both of my parents died within a couple of years of each other (almost twenty years ago now) I started photographing as a form of home-made therapy. I obsessively made very closely observed portraits of plants for several years, eventually turning it into my profession.
I can’t remember what year it was, but I was out in the garden, hunched over a hosta (as per usual) when I heard some crows making a terrific racket above me. I’m sure this was not the first time, but for some reason that day my head, tilted for so many years towards the earth, turned to look at the sky. In my mind, there was a creaking sound as I made the adjustment.
There are birds.
I finally noticed.
Better late than never, I guess.
Marvin and Mavis in the coral bark maple
And, as many of you know, once you start noticing crows, there’s no going back.
And they’re just the thin end of the wedge. Once you start watching crows, the next thing you know, there are house sparrows and starlings and robins and chickadees and flickers. And, good grief, was that a hummingbird …?
So, the snow day, beautiful as the scenery was, also served to make me appreciate the bird dimension of landscape all over again.
It was as if I’d forgotten about them all for a minute and then remembered.
Marvin “snow swimming” on the neighbour’s roof.
A robin and a flicker share the heated birdbath facilities.
A junco enjoys the pool to himself.
Marvin and Mavis enjoying some welcome sun.
Chickadee on one leg, trying to warm up one foot at a time.
Snow covered crow’s nest.
Marvin, having looked at snow from both sides now …
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!
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.
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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.
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.
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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?
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.