Actually, I didn’t write about anything at all for a while after we came down with Covid between Christmas and New Year. Basic sentence construction was beyond me for a few weeks.
Our daily routine consisted mostly of sipping soup and napping. What little energy we had left over was for rewatching the Lord of the Rings trilogy (extended edition) and taking the dog for short walks.
Naturally, we had zero expectation of (or desire for) New Year’s Eve festivities.
We were indeed all tucked up well before midnight, but during the day we were guests at the best sort of party — the surprise kind hosted by Bohemian Waxwings.
Just saying the name “Bohemian Waxwing” creates a party atmosphere.
The impossibly fancy outfits, the chatting, the feasting!
All so very bohemian, like a festive flash mob.
And, like any good flash mob, they were here … and then they were gone.
I’d never seen a Bohemian Waxwing before and have not seen one since.
It was just as if they came by our neighbourhood that day just to cheer us up and make us feel part of the New Year’s Eve soirée set.
By New Year’s Day they’d moved on to party pastures anew.
I wish you all the perfect New Year’s Eve company this year — whether you’re attending a glittering gala, snuggling at home with a cat, watching a favourite TV show solo, getting together for board games with a friend or two, hanging out with a special crow pal or lucky enough to be invited to a Bohemian Ball — may it be just right for you.
The last few weeks of “crazy-for-Vancouver” snow has given me the opportunity to do one of my favourite things — photographing crows in snow.
So much snow!
So many crows!
In the snow!
Consequently I’ve been spending most of the extra time I gained by closing my shop for the holidays trudging about in sub zero temperatures taking pictures.
The house is not cleaned for Christmas dinner or anything like that, but I DO have lots and lots of snow crow photos. I think the 2024 City Crow Calendar may have a disproportionate number of winter scenes!
Now, as quickly as it arrived, the snow is melting in great rivers of less-than-photogenic slush. A perfect day to stay inside and write a blog post.
But, what’s that you say? it’s Christmas Eve??? Yikes.
Still so much to do, so it’s going to be a picture heavy post of Crow Snow Angels and feathery festive good wishes to you all.
Snow-weighted bamboo blocking a local alley way
Marvin and Mavis hanging out in the snowy snowbell tree in the back garden
Mavis testing the edibility of the snowbell seeds
White Wing in early December — the day after this photo was taken, she lost her distinctive feather, as she does regularly
By mid-December, White Wings feather is starting to show again
The Walkers at our appointed meeting place
Pearl and Echo on their usual corner
Fluffy feather pantaloons are deployed to keep crow legs warmer in the freezing weather. I’m often asked how their feet don’t freeze. It’s because bird feet are mostly bone and tendon, with few nerves and also because they have a special circulation system, described here by Birdnote.org
Have you ever watched ducks walking around in freezing temperatures and wondered why their feet don’t freeze? And how do birds, including this Northern Flicker, sit on metal perches with no problem? Birds’ feet have a miraculous adaptation that keeps them from freezing. Rete mirabile — Latin for “wonderful net” — is a fine, netlike pattern of arteries that interweaves blood from a bird’s heart with the veins carrying cold blood from its feet and legs. The system cools the blood so the little blood that goes down to the feet is already cold, so the birds don’t lose much heat. The small amount that goes to the feet is likely just enough to keep the feet from freezing.
A touch of Nordic noir yesterday morning. Hard to believe how much warmer and wetter it is today!
Some crows keeping their eyes open for Santa …
Hope Santa makes it to your house and merry wishes from all of us at ours!
The “more is more” school of festive interior décor!
The Anna’s Hummingbird is Vancouver’s Official Bird, elected to the post in 2017.
I imagine they won by simply staring at the competition like this . . .
. . . until they withdrew their applications.
All of that avian attitude is certainly in play this week as temperatures plunge far below seasonal norms and snow blankets the Vancouver landscape.
Every morning when I open the back door, I hear a loud and indignant tutting.
I would not be surprised to hear an accompanying request to speak to the manager.
You can see why the Anna’s Hummingbirds might be a bit exasperated. Over the past 70 years, milder winters, flowery gardens and well-tended hummingbird feeders have convinced them to expand their range from southern California to southern BC.
Some time in the 90’s they started to forgo the southern migration and stay here all winter. This week, however, I think they’re wondering if it’s too late to book that package holiday to the sun. They are not alone in that.
Luckily, they’re remarkably tough little birds. Delicate as they look, they have a few winter survival tricks up their iridescently-feathered sleeves.
Unlike other hummingbirds, the Anna’s isn’t solely reliant on nectar for sustenance. Insects, spiders and tree sap broaden their dietary options.
During the cold nights they enter an “energy save” mode, called torpor. During this mini-hibernation, their heart rate slows from a daytime rate of 21 beats per second to a mediative one beat per two seconds. At the same time their body temperature lowers from a toasty 107 degrees to 48.
In spite of their toughness, they could use our help this week.
While temperatures are below freezing for days on end, the insect and tree sap supply is out of commission. Waking up from their night-time torpor, they need breakfast ASAP to top up the energy banks and, right now, hummingbird feeders are their only option. Equipped with formidable memories, these little birds can remember the location of each food source in their territory, and if they get to the feeder in your garden and it’s empty or frozen, they will be very, very disappointed in you . . .
. . . and you certainly don’t want that!
Some tips for keeping your hummingbird feeder thawed and snow-free:
Keep at least two feeders so you can keep one in the house thawed and ready to replace the frozen one outside
Hang the feeder under cover if possible, or with a bird feeder dome over it to stop the nectar ports from getting snow-covered
External heat sources will help to keep the nectar thawed. Ideas include: a trouble light hung nearby, incandescent (the old-style heat-producing) Christmas lights hung around the feeder, hand warmers, mug warmer or aquarium mat (for lizards) taped to bottom of feeder
Insulating the feeder with old socks or bubble wrap can help
A 2022 update on hummingbird feeder heaters …
I have the one shown in the video below, available at some Wild Birds Unlimited shops or online.
There are various models available and here’s a review of some of them — most seem to use the same basic method of holding a bulb under the feeder to raise the temperature just a bit. I found mine kept the nectar from freezing unless temperatures get down to about minus ten, in which case it’s back to getting up early and putting out fresh nectar before dawn.
If the worst happens and you find a hummingbird in distress and too cold or tired to fly, contact your local wildlife rescue. More information here from Wildlife Rescue BC.
‘Tis the season of starry, spangled things and thus seems a good time for a post in praise of the humble starling.
Many find starlings to be a bit of a problematic bird here in North America.
Invasive, too many of them etc.
I could explain how it’s not their fault that some enthusiastic but misguided human immigrants to 1890’s New York thought it would be a great idea to try and introduce every one of the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays to North America by releasing them in Central Park.
Also not the starlings’ fault that they proved to be by far the scrappiest and most adaptable of all the birds involved in this ill-conceived project, going on to colonize most of the continent and reaching their current population of more than 200 million.
But, you know (as one of my favourite authors, Lyanda Lynn Haupt, noted in her book Crow Planet) we humans do end up with the birds we deserve. Often we end up with much more than we really deserve, in fact.
Starlings at the Still Creek crow roost, winter 2022
People have been a lot more invasive and destructive than any bird, and as we continually modify the landscape for our own purposes we crowd out a lot of the more sensitive and specialist birds, leaving more room for the opportunist and generalist starlings.
And crows, of course.
Starling and crow, sharing the view
While we mourn the decline of many native birds and do our best to lobby for the maintenance and restoration of their habitat, we can also keep our spirits up by enjoying the rabble rousing birds we do see every day.
Lyanda Lynn Haupt also wrote about starlings.
Her book Mozart’s Starling is about the bond between the composer and his pet/muse starling; about Carmen, Lyanda’s rescue starling and much loved family member; about the incredible personality and vocal complexity of the starling; and (a theme running through all her books) about wonder …
“But the earth and its beings are extravagantly wild, full of unexpected wonders. It is time to turn from our textbooks and listen to the birds themselves.”
― Lyanda Lynn Haupt, Mozart’s Starling
So let’s have a look at the joy to be found in these starry, fizzy birds.
As always, poet Mary Oliver says it perfectly …
Chunky and noisy,
but with stars in their black feathers,
they spring from the telephone wire
they are acrobats
in the freezing wind.
And now, in the theater of air,
they swing over buildings,
dipping and rising;
they float like one stippled star
becomes for a moment fragmented,
then closes again;
and you watch
and you try
but you simply can’t imagine
how they do it
with no articulated instruction, no pause,
only the silent confirmation
that they are this notable thing,
this wheel of many parts, that can rise and spin
over and over again,
full of gorgeous life.
Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us,
even in the leafless winter,
even in the ashy city.
I am thinking now
of grief, and of getting past it;
I feel my boots
trying to leave the ground,
I feel my heart
pumping hard. I want
to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.
While many think of starlings as rather drab brown or black birds, their colours are actually among the most spectacular of our local birds — once you see them in the right light.
Indigo, aquamarine, periwinkle, lavender and midnight are all there, tipped with stars of white and pale ochre, all shifting and threatening to vanish as the bird moves in and out of shadow.
As with crows, you can almost always spot an anonymous starling somewhere in the landscape — looking reasonably poetic for a “pest.”
Often, you can see hundreds of them at once …
Visitors to the Burnaby crow roost at Still Creek will notice that the thousands of crow visitors have now been joined by a large starling contingent.We don’t seem to get quite the volume of starlings necessary for the breath-taking murmurations I’ve only seen in videos.
The changing shape of starling flocks comes from each bird copying the motions of the six or seven others around it with extreme rapidity: Their reaction time is less than a tenth of a second. Turns can propagate through a cloud of birds at speeds approaching 90 miles per hour, making murmurations look from a distance like a single pulsing, living organism.
— Helen MacDonald, The Human Flock
Now, zooming back in from the thousands of starlings to one particular bird …
… this is Sparky, a lame-footed fellow who’s been visiting me for over a year now. He manages to grab the odd peanut when Marvin and Mavis aren’t looking and always has a lot of bubbly and vaguely pinball-arcade-sounding things to say.
Sparky last spring. Note the grey tinge to the base of the beak which is a clue that he’s a male. The females get a more pink colour during breeding season.
This focus switch from the the anonymous flock to the individual bird takes me back to Helen MacDonald’s essay in which she reminds us that even what looks like “a single pulsing, living organism” is also, miraculously, made up of many individuals, each with their own story.
“in the face of fear, we are all starlings, a group, a flock made of a million souls seeking safety”.