A Tale of Two Robins

It seems that nostalgic European settlers have long been prone to naming any bird with a flash of red on the chest “robins” after the beloved little birds they remember from home.

The European, and seemingly original, robin is a small bird — part of the flycatcher family, with a red orange breast and face. The North American robin is an entirely different bird. Part of the thrush family, it’s much bigger, with a yellow beak and striking white markings around the eyes. Really the only point of commonality is that red breast.

Further afield, in Australia you can find the Flame Robin, Scarlet Robin, Red-Capped Robin — none of which are related to either the European or American varieties, except in that little flash of red breast. More homesick settlers, I’m thinking.

I grew up in the UK, so I have tended to think of the British robin as the “real” one.

In reality, the only birds I was actually familiar with as a child growing up on the industrial docks of the Tyne,  were gulls and pigeons. Lots and lots of pigeons!

But robins did loom large in my imagination. Each Christmas my mum decorated the snow-peaked ( and rock hard) royal icing on the Christmas cake with with a small flock of plastic robins, to accompany the rather frightening plaster Santa with mis-matched eyes.

Somehow, I still have a single one of these little robins, although most of his red breast paint has now worn off.

Robins were, and still are, as far as I know, featured on cards and stamps to celebrate the Festive Season in Britain. In the Victorian era, when the sending and receiving of festive greeting cards first became fashionable, the mail carriers wore red tunics and were nicknamed robin redbreasts — bringers of winter cheer, just like the birds.

The British robins stay put all year round, but are less obvious in the summer months — probably being busy with nesting and all, and are more associated with chirpy, charming and colourful company through the winter months.

Whenever I go back to Britain I’m constantly on the lookout for a robin. For some reason, the only place I ever see them close up is at the tea rooms of Portmeirion village in North Wales.

Portmeirion Tea Room robin, 2010

Welsh robin on a picnic table

Portmeirion Tea Room robin, 2019

I like to imagine they’re all there, just waiting for me, one robin generation after another.

British robins are very, very territorial, so that’s just about possible. They are so very fierce about defending their home turf that 10% of mature male birds actually die doing just that.

Welsh robin and stone wall photo collage by June Hunter
Having been in Canada now for most of my life, my Robin Reality has now switched to the North American variety, which has its own charm.

American robin in cherry tree photograph

Seasonally, the robins here are most associated with spring, when they’re the first birds to sing in the morning, and the last to fall quiet at night.

Although we think of them in connection with spring, when their courting song fills the air, they’re actually around all winter here in Vancouver. Perhaps we don’t notice them so much because they behave very differently during the colder months.

American robin camouflaged in gum tree photograph by June Hunter

Spot the robin …

In spring they form pairs and are territorial like their European namesakes, but in winter they live rather cooperatively in large nomadic flocks, sometimes with starlings and other birds, like Cedar Waxwings. They pop up in large groups whenever they find a good source of fruit on trees. Holly, juniper, crabapples and hawthorn are all robin-approved winter fare.

American robin and crabapples photograph by June Hunter

Fun fact: American robins have an extendible esophagus, which allows them to store berries harvested in the daytime for an evening snack to help survive the cold nights.

(I am reminded of the rather terrifying Horlicks TV ads of my youth, where a scientific looking graph traced the worrying arc of “night starvation” — a fate that could only be avoided by imbibing a nice cup of pre-bed Horlicks. I expect night starvation is much more of a reality for a wild robin than for a well fed child of the 1960’s.)

Once spring arrives, the flocks disperse and robins break into pairs, staking out and aggressively defending nesting territory.
When the berries are finished they’ll happily switch to yanking worms out of lawns.

One of my favourite things about the spring and summer robin, apart from the singing, is the gusto with which they take a bath. If the birdbath is suddenly empty, I assume that an enthusiastic robin has just used the facilities.

The folklore around how robins of all types first acquired that fiery red breast is strikingly similar on both sides of the Atlantic. In all versions of the tale,  the brave little robin saves sleeping humans from freezing, using their wings to fan the embers of a dying fire, in spite of the heat and danger. As a reward for their heroism, the robin is awarded the red breast as a badge of honour.

Here’s a beautifully illustrated version of the Sechelt People’s version of the story by Charlie Craigan.

Click fo enlarge

It’s nice to know that however far you travel, they’ll always be some sort of robin to fall in love with.

Echoes of If You Can’t Be with the One You Love, Honey, Love the One You’re With.

Here’s lookin’ at you …

 

 

For more posts on the joy of watching robins, and other birds, bathing:

 

 

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© junehunterimages, 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to junehunterimages with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Along for the Trip

Good companions can make or break any travel experience.

Of course, very few of us have been doing any real traveling lately — but the past year and a bit have felt strangely like a long voyage through strange lands. Witness the popularity of seafaring shanties and the marmalade craze. I theorize that the latter was a subconscious urge to ward off psychic scurvy as we scour the horizon for post-Covid land. That could have just been me though.

This trip we’re on has involved a lot of sitting around and waiting. Waiting for new graphs and statistics, waiting for test results, waiting for vaccination appointments, waiting to see people we miss, waiting for things coming by mail, waiting for second vaccine appointments …

It reminds me of train trip gone awry, leaving you stuck in a dusty waiting room on an obscure rail line you hadn’t meant to travel on. Every once in a while the public address system crackles to life and emits a very urgent sounding, but totally incomprehensible, announcement; its purpose only to add to the generalized anxiety.

But I digress. I’m writing in praise of my travel companions, Edgar and Geordie.

There have been a couple of humans in the covid rail car too — my husband and my adult son. It’s really in no small measure thanks to the pets that we are still speaking to each other. It’s often easier to “hear” things from the animals.

“Edgar feels  that you’re freaking out and that listening to the news less would help.”

Or, “Geordie is really worried that you’ve forgotten it’s you turn to make dinner!”

Over the last few months I’ve gotten into the habit, being up first among the humans, to spend a quiet half hour with Geordie and Edgar. In part it’s “snuggle training” for Geordie, who’s early months as a stray seem to have put him off cuddles and such nonsense. I encourage him to sit by me on the couch while I have my coffee (treats are involved) and we have a quiet chat that might approach a snuggle. Inevitably Edgar wants in on the action and the three of us end up having our lovely moral boosting coffee meeting each morning before attempting anything more challenging.


I sometimes suspect that Edgar is briefing Geordie on plans for a world wide pet takeover.

Of course, even the best of friends are apt to fall out from time to time during this difficult time …

Sometimes it’s good to have another friend to share your problems with …

At the other of the day, there is entertainment to be had in seeing how Edgar and Geordie sort out their sleeping arrangements.
They each have a bed — a big one for the dog and a smaller one for the cat.
I’m sure you can see where this is going.

On rare occasions, things are arranged in a logical manner …


But much more often the arrangement is something like …


Inevitably leading to …



Once Geordie is resigned to the cat bed, Edgar, having made his point, often vacates the dog bed and wanders to his second luxury cat bed by the fire in the living room.


If I happen to be awake in the night and come upstairs for a cup of Ovaltine and some reading and ruminating, then Edgar is always up for company. He will gradually purr me back to sleepiness.


All in all, you really couldn’t ask for better cabin mates on the Covid Cruise ship we’ve been adrift in.

I hope your voyage is going tolerably, or perhaps even nearing its conclusion, but in case you’ve hit a choppy patch, perhaps Geordie and Edgar can offer companionship from afar.

 

You may also enjoy:

For yet more on Edgar, just put his name in the search bar at the top of the blog.

 

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© junehunterimages, 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to junehunterimages with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Birds of Judgement

I hope you will enjoy my new Birds of Judgement series, if only because it makes you smile and because you may, or may not, see yourself or someone you know in those  faces.

But if you’re interested in the events and thinking that went into these particular images, read on. 

In a practical sense, I first started compiling a collection of angry looking birds when I was making my placard for the first of the 2019 Climate Action rallies initiated by young people rightfully worried about the future of the planet they are inheriting. The timing of the first rally in Vancouver coincided with the publishing of new research showing that bird populations across Canada and North America had declined by a whopping 29% (or 3 BILLION birds) in the preceding 50 years. Birds are, quite literally, the canaries in the coal mine of climate change and environmental degradation.

This brilliant cartoon by artist Dave Parkins, captures the issue perfectly.

I wanted to try and combine words and images in the same way, and give birds a small voice in the overall cry for Climate Action.  Anyway, see below for my sign in action at one of the demonstrations.


Earlier this year I read Esther Woolfson’s brilliant latest book, Between Light and Storm: How We Live With Other Species.  In the chapter titled “Souls” she writes:

“Throughout history, ideas about who possesses a soul and who does not, have constituted part of the bedrock of the way we’ve thought about and treated other species.”

From Between Light and Storm: How We Live With Other Species
by Esther Woolfson

The firm conviction that Nature is hierarchical — a pyramid with humanity at the top, and the rest of the creation below us, at our behest, is very ancient. This view of the world has led us, in many ways to to the ledge on which we currently find ourselves teetering. Apart from the looming issue of climate change, there is the small and humbling matter of how human society has been recently brought to its knees by a tiny microbe . . .

If all human project planning was preceded by the question “how would birds judge us for this?” I really think we’d all be much better off.

As I was searching through my many photographs for images of birds staring directly at the camera, I realized that I really do have a lot them.

Why is that? I wondered.

While it’s often thought that best bird photography practice is to have the bird look more “natural” by capturing them going about their business and gazing off to the side as if oblivious to human presence, I’m always happier to capture the fleeting connection (good or bad) between us.

Besides, they do say that the eyes are the window to to soul, bird or human, and we know how important these souls are in assigning importance to a species.

Looking at the birds boldly staring out of the frame reminds me of the of the late art critic, John Berger. I read a lot of his work in my 20’s and it changed my world view.  He often challenge us to consider the “gaze” in art— the gaze of the artist, the gaze of the subject and the gaze of the viewer. In other words, who’s looking at who, and how, and why?

He posed a lot of other questions too, but I often ask myself why I’m looking at birds the way I do, and why I take the kind of photographs I do.

Well, maybe not often.

But sometimes.

Every image is a sight which has been recreated or reproduced. It is an appearance, or a set of appearances, which has been detached from the place and time in which it first made its appearance and preserved — for a few moments or a few centuries. Every image embodies a way of seeing. 

From Ways of Seeing by John Berger

I take photographs of birds, basically, because I feel a real connection with them and I want to try and convey that to the viewer in the hope that they can feel it too.

Sometimes it’s beauty that makes the connection. Sometimes it’s laughter.

And sometimes it’s just those eyes, staring from one soul to into another.

And if you do read into this series that birds are judging us … they probably are.

 

 

 

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© junehunterimages, 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to junehunterimages with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

Ravens At Play

Watching ravens is always wonderful.

Watching them play has an element of the magical.

I feel really lucky  to have witnessed them playing in snow on several occasions. The lovely moment captured in the photo at the top of this post is a still from my 2019 video of ravens playing with snowballs in which one of them seems to be holding a perfectly heart-shaped snowball at about the 9 second mark.

While I’m usually out there to take photographic portraits, sometimes it seems as if moving pictures are needed to capture the moment — hence my rather amateur attempts at emergency videography. My focus is never quite 100% stable, there is often the sounds of blowing wind, or me breathing after holding my breath in order to stay still (no tripod.) Occasionally there will be a dramatic camera move. This is not an attempt at artistry on my part. It’s the dog, who is often attached to me, deciding that something elsewhere urgently needs his attention.

As we reach the end of the Snow Raven season for this spring, I thought I’d share some of my latest videos and also some of my (unscientific) theories about raven play.

First of all, sometimes people don’t really believe they’re playing at all. It’s true that part of the reason birds will roll in snow is to take a kind of bath, but I do think it’s clear that they’re also messing around and teasing each other in the process. Others have suggested that perhaps the ravens are digging around in the snow because they’re starving. In this context I know that can’t be the case, because they’re at a ski hill and if they were peckish, I know they’d be smart enough to just hop over to the nearest parking lot trash bin, or simply steal an unwary snowboarder’s sandwich.

Based on watching the ravens playing with snowballs in 2019 (see Raven Games) I can tell that the ravens in the latest video (below) are actually “mining” for suitably beak-sized ball of snow to play with. At the weather warms in March the clumping snow seams to create just the right conditions for these pre-made snowballs. Eventually one raven finds the perfect lump of snow and flies off with his buddy in hot pursuit.

The other magical thing — it’s foggy and kind of mysterious — and just listen to the other worldly raven calls coming from the forest behind the play zone.

I’ve noted that this kind of raven play often seems to happen later in the day, and mostly on days with really poor visibility. The early morning time is more about the serious business of finding food and holding motivational raven meetings. Sunny days seem to invite more soaring fun   — chasing each other, eagles or hawks, high in the sky or performing lazy, breath-taking arial acrobatics on the thermal lift of warm air rising.

But the later hours of a snow-stormy or foggy day seem to invite fun on the ground — the equivalent of a cozy snow day at home doing puzzles, perhaps. I usually see several groups playing at once. While there are only one or two ravens in my videos, it’s because I’m only focussing on  a single raven or pair of ravens — but there are usually other small gatherings and some solo ravens doing similarly goofy things in the area. And there is often a back-up band of ravens experimenting with making ethereal sound in the trees nearby.

The couple shown below are taking a break on the sidelines, with other playing ravens flying over.

One of them finally found a snowball (see top photo) and immediately flew off with it, hotly pursued by the other.

One last question I ask myself — why is watching ravens at play so darn enchanting?
At first I thought it might just be me, but the response every time I post a video of this kind is overwhelming. The snow-rolling ravens I filmed in February have been all around the world a few times by now. See below to for when they were weaving their spell on the home page of the Weather Network. The Weather Network!

How they got there I have no idea, but obviously they were popular.

So why is that? I think it’s partly because being goofy in the snow is, for people who don’t already know ravens well, very much out of character. Somehow you can’t imaging Poe’s dour raven visitor* mucking about with snowballs and doing face plants in the snow.

I think the other reason is that play on the part of any species — just they sheer reckless joy of it — is something that we could all watch a lot of these days. I know from comments on the video that many people wistfully tag friends, remarking that they look forward to similar carefree times together in a more relaxed, silly and sociable human future. It’s nice to see ravens as harbingers of joy rather than ill omen.

 

NOTE: If you feel pressing need to zone out of the endless zoom meetings and analysis of Covid curves and waves, I’ve put a collection of some of my favourite raven and crow videos all together on my hithero rarely used  YouTube page and on my web site

* See my post Edgar Allen Poe and the Raven Mix-U for a tongue in cheek analysis of the famous poem.

 

 

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© junehunterimages, 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to junehunterimages with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.