This vintage wooden roller coaster at East Vancouver’s Playland is often ringed with crows as they enjoy a little sub-party on their way to or from the big roost at Still Creek.
When we walked by this morning, on this the last day of 2020, there was only a solitary crow. It sat alone with the whole row of coloured light bulbs all to itself. No roller coaster cars rattling by. No other crows.
Perhaps because I tend to view almost everything through a crow-shaped lens, our solo crow seemed an apt symbol for New Year’s Eve 2020.
No big parties. Many of us sitting at home viewing the world from a lonelier vantage point than we’re used to, especially on this night of the year.
Many of us with twinkly lights for mood lifting company.
To be honest, I always find New Year’s Eve to be a bit of a melancholy celebration. The lyrics to Auld Lang Syne make me feel a bit weepy. It’s early in the evening still here, so I’m not sure how I’ll be feeling by midnight.
Possibly more weepy than usual.
Possibly less, as the end of 2020 leaves little to regret.
However you’re feeling, remember (yet another treasure from my mother’s kit bag of handy sayings) “tomorrow is another day.”
And, also, another year.
And that day/year will have crows in it.
Crows you may know quite well, and other crows you may admire from afar and rashly imbue with symbolic importance.
For auld lang syne, my dear
For auld lang syne
We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet
For days of auld lang syne
Sometimes it’s just the smallest thing that illuminates your day.
I was walking the dog the morning before the winter solstice when an urgent crow meeting convened in the treetops. Crows were flying in from the whole neighbourhood to share their opinions.
I took quite a few photographs in an effort to see what the cause of the commotion was. While I never did figure that out, I did notice that the frail morning light struggling through the clouds at the base of the trees, combined with the darker overlapping of branches and crows at the top, made a rather pleasing composition.
As it seemed to capture the tentative return of the light, I chose the one at the top of this post to share on social media yesterday to mark the solstice.
But that wasn’t the tiny thing that really made me smile.
That came later, when I was sorting through some of the other photos and realized that, of all those crows in the trees, I actually recognized one of them!
See that crow sitting at the top, just right of the one taking off? That’s White Wing!
Recognizable from a hundred feet because of her distinctive silhouette, her wonky wing feather sticking out.
I can’t say exactly why that little observation made me so happy. I was listening to a CBC Radio show earlier today in which they talked about how popular complex jigsaw puzzles have been this year. They mentioned the contentment of being fully immersed in a project that has a fixed end in mind. Flow state, they called it.
When I’m out walking every day I’m also working on a puzzle — the endless mystery of what’s going on in the crow world. I don’t suppose there’s an actual end to this project — no single piece that will dramatically pull every element together.
But picking out White Wing —one small, distinctive component in the giant crow jigsaw — was a moment of pure delight.
White Wing, closer up, December 14
White Wing alone in a tree, December 8
The only other crow I’ve been able to reliably identify by silhouette was George. After his beak was broken, that subtle step down on the upper beak was his signature.
George and Mabel: Love’s Delicate Balance
There’s been a lot of darkness this year, and so much uncertainty.
Perhaps that’s why each small answer — even if it’s just one tiny puzzle piece coming home to its rightful place — seems like a comforting ray of light.
Earlier this week I wrote about a new study into the impressive range of raven intelligence. Lots of people wrote to me or commented on Raven Reasoning with their own first hand stories of raven cleverness.
So now I’m inspired to tell my favourite raven story …
The ravens of Mount Seymour are well known for their lunch and snack stealing prowess. On almost every hiking or snowshoeing trip there we’ve witnessed a skilful heist of one sort or another, with prizes ranging from sandwiches to chocolate bars to full party-sized bags of chips.
But this one incident stands out.
It was winter and we’d snowshoed to a poplar destination where people always rest to take in the view out over Vancouver and eat their lunch.
We’d eaten ours and were about to head back down, but we stopped to talk to a group of six people who were still eating. A pair of ravens were nonchalantly strolling about nearby.
One of the men in the group fixed the ravens with a stern gaze and recounted how they’d stolen his sandwich on the last trip. “Never again,” he asserted. With a flourish, he took the remaining half of his sandwich and pushed it well into the depths of the backpack lying close beside him.
As we were chatting I had one eye on a raven (as I always do) and was just halfway through uttering the phrase, “I think this raven is casing the joint,” when …
In a move too quick for human eye to follow, the raven darted right through the middle of this large group of raven-suspicious humans, unhesitatingly plunged his head far into the man’s backpack, and flew off with his prize. There may have been a raven cackle as he disappeared into the distance.
The skill and daring took our collective breath away. Once we recovered the power of speech, most of us (excluding the theft victim) declared it pretty hilarious. And definitely very impressive.
The reason I’d been about to say my bit about “casing the joint” was I’d noticed his raven eyes darting back and forth, measuring the distance between the people, gauging how distracted we were by the conversation and the view and, all the time, remembering exactly which compartment of the backpack contained the sandwich.
We really didn’t stand a chance.
I can’t count the times I’ve been impressed by raven shrewdness, but that was one of the funniest.
Another incident: raven solves a banana problem, see following photos.
This is going to be delicious, but it’s hard to carry like this …
The theme tune of a banana company’s ad campaign from my childhood comes to mind, “Un-zip a banana!”
Play is a well known indicator of intelligence and social sophistication in a species so, for further proof that ravens are geniuses …
I’ve posted these ravens playing snowball videos before but I didn’t think you’d mind seeing them again. I could watch them over and over, particularly if I need cheering up!
Lastly, a rousing rendition of Joy to the World, raven style …
A meticulous study recently published by scientists in Leipzig, Germany, concludes that the intelligence of ravens rivals that of the great apes.
Other studies have come to similar conclusions, but this one was especially exhaustive, employing a complex combination of tests designed to measure various aspects of intelligence.
They found, among other things, that four month old ravens have already developed the impressive skill and knowledge of adults, making them incredibly quick learners.
It’s an interesting study in many respects — another step away from older science that assessed all species using, what we are now beginning to see, are very limited human criteria. It was long thought that birds, because of the small size of their brains relative to those of primates, couldn’t possibly be that smart.
Birds and mammals have been travelling down divergent evolutionary paths for lo these hundreds of millions of years. It’s now becoming evident that the mammal/bird development routes may well have ultimately led them to comparable destinations, intelligence-wise. While bird brains are indeed much smaller that our primate ones, it turns out that the many kinds of intelligence are far too complicated to be simply measured in weight and volume.
The German study is also interesting in that it questions the limitation of how valid our human assessment of other species’ intelligence can really be. We inevitably filter the results of our experiments through our particular type of intelligence. The ravens perform the tasks set by the human scientists, but how would humans perform in a test set for us by ravens?
Indeed, it has often occurred to me that I’m proving to be a rather disappointing subject for the ongoing experiment being conducted by our local corvids.
I often see myself reflected in crows and ravens. Not just literally …
… but also in the way I tend to see my own feelings and thoughts reflected back at me. Because I’m not bound by scientific rigour, and because I spend so much thinking about them and watching them, I often lapse into formulating little human-corvid parallels.
Corvids remind me of humans in so many ways — from how we both look sad on wet days to how we care for those we love.
It brings me joy to see these familiar things reflected back at me — but at the same time I realize I really have no idea of what they’re truly thinking and feeling.
They are a deep mystery and that is, in itself, marvellous.
Mabel has gone from being a solitary bird after the death of her mate, George Brokenbeak, in 2017, to the matriarch of an unusually massive crow family.
From what I’ve observed over the last few years, such large families remaining together over multiple seasons is somewhat rare. Usually one juvenile crow might stick around for a season or two to learn the ropes, and help the parents with nesting season. In Mabel and her new mate’s case, two of the 2019 juveniles are still with them — plus two more from this season — adding up to a rather rowdy gang of six.
Back in March 2020, when Mabel only had two apprentices.
Among this boisterous bunch it is only Mabel with her distinctive right eye, that I’m regularly able to identify. Hence, I think of them, collectively, as “The Mabels.”
The Mabels, by their sheer numbers, have become a bit of a dominant local force. As I mentioned in last week’s post, the large group has the extra crowpower to have lookouts posted everywhere, making it hard to give our “house crows,” Marvin and Mavis, a few quiet peanuts without bringing the Marauding Mabels into the picture.
To be fair, Mabel and the late lamented George ruled our garden long before Marvin and Mavis, so I’m sure there are some valid territorial claims to be made under Crow Law.
George Brokenbeak and Mabel, our back deck, winter 2016.
Also, this summer, during the hot dry months, I put out a bowl of water in front of the house for the use of any thirsty critters. Mabel, of course, brought the whole family down regularly for refreshment and recreation. I wrote about this in Fledgling Fun.
So it’s hardly surprising that The Mabels of all generations consider our house to be part of their daily routine.
The heart of their territory lies, however, at the other end of the block— part of a local elementary school. Central to the ancestral seat are two old metal yellow posts with rings on top that are used to mark, and sometimes block off, the entrance to the school parking lot.
The right ring has, for time immemorial (well at least for the few years I’ve been watching) been important to this crow family.
The feet of George upon the yellow throne in 2016.
Mabel seemed to inherit the “ring of power” once George was gone. Until quite recently I never saw another crow rest there for very long, including her new mate, Gus.
Don’t even think about it …
The chains of office, claimed by Mabel.
Signs she may be willing to relinquish her iron grip began this spring.
The younger crows, after first practicing on the less prestigious left hand side yellow post …
… were occasionally allowed to take the one true throne for a short test drive.
They always look a little nervous as Mabel’s tolerance for such impertinence is variable.
Sometimes she perches on the lower railing and supervises.
Other times, she wants her spot back and it’s time for a quick exit …
Recently, one of the Mabels has been standing out from the crowd by sheer force of personality.
The smallest of the family, one of the 2020 batch, is proving to be the boldest. I started thinking of her as Chip (as in “off the old block”) and I notice that she will follow me for several blocks on the dog walks, even when the rest of The Mabels have lost interest.
Chip doesn’t have any distinguishing features, other than being the smallest and the cheekiest, but there is just something about her face.
She’s already got the posing thing down to a fine art.
Recently, she’s been mimicking her mother on the golden throne.
Mabel demonstrates the proper regal attitude …
… while Chip has a ways to go in the poise department …
Mabel (left) and Chip (right) practicing the stone lion pose.
Whether the Mabels will stay together for much longer remains to be seen, but I can’t help hoping that Chip will stick around.