George and Mabel – A Love Story

George and Mabel, a Love Story

To celebrate Valentine’s Day, this is a re-post of the popular 2017 George and Mabel: A Love Story 

They say that crows usually mate for life.  George and Mabel have certainly stuck together through good, and some very bad, times — so, in honour of Valentine’s Day, here is their story.

I wrote about some of their trials and tribulations about a year ago in the blog post George’s Tough Year. This is the next instalment of their story.

In spite of babies lost to illness  and a seemingly catastrophic injury, George has kept on keeping on and, with the help of his mate, Mabel, seems to be thriving.

We never did figure out what exactly caused George’s beak to break. Theories have included: crash landing; attack from other birds; and a run in with a rat trap. I don’t think George is going to tell me any time soon. In any case, I hardly think he notices his half-beak any more.

He’s developed his own method of scooping up food, turning his head upside down for a more efficient “shovelling” action.

George the Crow eating peanuts

You would think that other crows would take advantage of George’s disability, but he and Mabel, as a team, are a force to be reckoned with. While George comes down to pick up their breakfast, Mabel stands guard on a higher roof and warns of incoming interlopers.

Fluffy Mabel the Crow

Mabel on Guard

George’s great advantage over other crows is that he’s not afraid of me at all. If I’m present, the other crows are too afraid to come and eat, while George regards me as his personal catering manager. If I forget one of his “snacks” he will perch right by my studio and stare meaningfully at me through the window until I get the message.

George on the Bird FeederIn 2015 they had a baby but s/he was terribly afflicted by avian pox and died as soon as the cold weather came. Last summer I watched carefully to see what would happen. They had two babies. One didn’t make it, but the second is hanging in there. Boy/Girl George, as I like to call him/her has a small foot deformity, but has survived a bitterly cold winter, so fingers crossed.

George and Mabel's Baby Crow

Boy/Girl George

George and Mabel are working incessantly to make sure their offspring thrives. After George has collected the food I put out (and he can cram an amazing amount into his gullet and beak) he flies off to share the bounty with Mabel and the baby. I think George is trying to show Junior the food collecting ropes, but s/he remains skittish about coming too close for now.

Baby Crow and Parent

Mom and Baby

Crow family in silhouette

So this Valentine’s Day, we can celebrate the many kinds of love. From the giddy excitement of first infatuation, to the less dramatic but lifelong kind that George and Mabel enjoy.

George and Mabel Crows in the Snow

 

Crow Love

Happy Valentine’s Day!

2020 Update

Some of these pictures may look familiar. This may be because you read my blog post when it came out in 2017, or it could be because some of these photographs were taken without permission and used in a fabricated crow love story that went wildly viral across the internet. The story here is the true story of George and Mabel, and these (as with all of the images in my blog posts) are my photographs.

Sadly, George passed away the summer after I wrote this story. He is buried in my garden. See: In Memory of George

George and Mabel’s offspring did survive and Mabel is still thriving. She eventually found a new mate and in the spring of 2019 they had three babies, two of which survived and are still hanging around with mom and dad. See More on Mabel

 

 

 

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logo with crow

 

 

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Mods and Rockers

Corvid fashion wars are being fought in our backyard right now.

Luckily the current battle is more about voguing than violence and we’ve seen nothing like the infamous Brighton riot fought by their human counterparts in 1964.

Marvin and Mavis clearly represent the Rockers in this fashion showdown, channeling their inner Marlon Brando at every opportunity.

Marvin - Mean Moody and Magnificent

Mean, moody and always magnificent.

Tougher than the toughest leather motor bike boots.

Marvin on the Roof

Call Of The Wild

While it was the human Rockers who flaunted the pompadour hairstyles, in this corvid context it’s our Mods — the fabulously flamboyant Steller’s jays — who sport the gravity defying up-do’s.

Wet Steller's Jay

Not to mention the spectacular trousers.

Steller's Jay tail feathers

Steller's Jay with Eyebrows

Some of the new visitors have very fashion forward white eyebrows

As I mentioned, the corvid contest has been peaceable and restricted to friendly fashion competition so far.

Two possible reasons for this. First, Marvin and Mavis seem far more concerned about keeping fellow crows, Mabel and her growing family, away from this end of the block. Second, both parties seem to be on board with the established backyard hierarchy. The Steller’s Jays will squawk and strut around the garden like fashion royalty.

Steller's Jay Call

Marvin and Mavis will look at them with a certain curiosity.

Mavis the Curious

But if Marvin and Mavis decide they’re coming in for peanuts, there’s no debate. The small gang of Steller’s Jays will immediately clear the premises, off to squawk at some other neighbours.

I mean, if you have feathers this gorgeous, would you want to mess them up in a brawl?

Stellers Jay on mossy log

Snow Crow

We’ll see how things progress, corvid rivalry-wise, as the season progresses.

Of course, an all-important element of Vancouver fashion is how well your look stands up to the elements. It’s no use heading out looking all put-together and perfect if everything falls apart at the first hint of weather.

When it comes to those blustery days, the Crows probably have a slight advantage over the Jays, not having those extra head feathers to worry about.

Windy Day Marvin

Windy day Steller's Jay

But in Vancouver, the most crucial consideration of all is how good you look in the rain. Here we see Marvin going up against one of the Jays in that very competitive category.

Rainy Day Marvin

Rainy Day Steller's Jay

Well … who do you think wears it best?

 

 

 

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Super Bowl, Floral

Just before the cold snap and snow arrived in Vancouver a couple of weeks ago I went around the garden burying the hellebore plants (many of them already optimistically blooming in mid-January) in drifts of dry leaves, saved from fall especially for the purpose, and topped with old bins, cardboard … whatever came to hand.

When the snow melted, they were still blooming away under their makeshift blankets and huts. Last week, even more varieties came into bloom.

It seems that we could have more snow next week, so I thought I’d better quickly put together my first floral gazing bowl of the season so we could pretend it’s spring for a minute.

I also took the psychic precaution of digging up a few of the garden’s rampant snowdrops and potting them up for indoor cheerfulness … just in case they also go missing in snow action next week. Here they are shown next to my latest treasure from Jane Ryan in Cornwall — a pair of pecking rooks.

As a final nod to #SuperbOwl, here is a video of a really superb barred owl that spent the day in front of our house a couple of years ago.

 

In the immortal words of Van Morrison, “gotta get through January, gotta get through February,” so I hope you’ve found what you need (flowers, owls, football games, knitting, a faithful pet, a good book, uplifting music …) to get there.

 

 

 

 

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© junehunterimages, 2020. 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.

Simple

Brown Creeper

Sometimes life just simplifies things for you.

A slow healing foot and a clunky cast means: no running errands, no snowshoeing, no major home or studio projects, no trips, no February studio sale, not even very many crow walks around the neighbourhood.

But what there is, waiting for me every day, is the garden. And in the garden, the birds. I’ve discovered that between those two things, there’s more than enough to keep me occupied.

Steller’s Jay

For one thing, I joined Project FeederWatch, run by Cornell University and Birds Canada, and started spending time each week counting the birds in the garden and sending the information to help track North American bird populations. Given that recent statistics have shown a terrible decline over the past few decades, it’s important to gather these numbers.

I’ve discovered already that there are two things that will clear a garden of birds in seconds. The first is a hawk in the neighbourhood; the second is a human being out there to count birds. They normally fly around me with not a care in the world, but as soon as I settle in with my FeederWatch App, it’s as if a pterodactyl has cast an ominous shadow. Still, I managed, over two days this week, to monitor 12 difference species in our small space.

Orange Crowned Warbler

While it seems at times that the wider world is going mad, we are lucky enough to have few square feet of our own in which to try and make a small difference. I’m researching how I can make our garden an even better refuge for birds than it is now. More native plants, a brush pile, more water sources …  John Marzluff, bird scientist and author of  Subirdia, recently appeared on the Joe Gardner podcast, chatting about bird population decline and ways in which gardeners can help.

Creatively, I’ve been working on a new series of portraits, all from bird photographs taken in our small garden. While I do like to travel and see birds, somehow it seems to me more miraculous when they make their way here, like feathered messengers.

Varied Thrush

So far, in the 2020 collection, I’m working on chickadees (black capped and chestnut backed), an orange crowed warbler, northern flicker, varied thrush, Steller’s jay, Anna’s hummingbird, spotted towhee, brown creeper and starling.

Chestnut Backed Chickadee

Black Capped Chickadee

Some of these images are works in process. My years old libraries of photographs of flowers, leaves, ancient walls, vintage fabric, lichen, cracked stone, forest landscapes and family letters are used like colours in a painter’s palette. Sometimes I think an image is done, but the next day something doesn’t look right and I start again.

Common Starling

Although I’m confined to home and garden, I feel as if I’m travelling as I go through decades of images looking for just the right scrap of texture or colour. It may be a suggestion of a lupin or a grass shadow. Ancient walls from a church in Wales appear in many of these new images. The barkcloth curtain on our back door which frames my daily view of the garden is usually in there somewhere.

Spotted Towhee

As I work, they layers of the images remind me of people I’ve know, letters I’ve written and received, places I’ve lived, books I’ve read and music I’ve listened to. All of these things come together in how I see the world, so it seems appropriate that they should be part of my work. The bird portraits are my explanation of what the natural world means to me, now — and all of those memories are part of it.

Northern Flicker

Once I’ve finished playing with these images, I will try making tiles with them. Somehow seeing them on stone brings them into focus for me.  Here is a nice little movie in which I talk about my tile making process.

When I’m happy with the images, they’ll be available as prints in my online shop and, eventually, some of them will become textiles like cushion covers and bags.

In the meantime, however, I’m enjoying wandering the virtual hallways of images and recollections, so I may keep creating some more new images for a while.

There’s a small nuthatch that I’m thinking of, and a perhaps a pygmie owl …

Male Anna’s Hummingbird

 

 

 

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Good News, Bad News, Good News

If my personal life looked like a flow chart this week, it would be alpine in aspect.

Monday started very well when eagle-eyed Phillip spotted my ring, lost for over a week, in a melted spot of the snowy garden. I wear the ring, made by Vancouver artist Joanna Lovett Sterling, as my engagement ring. Having lost the central stones from two earlier engagement rings (my own and then the one inherited from my mother) I concluded I was too hard on my hands for rings with parts that could be lost. Joanna’s ring creates sparkle just from the way it’s made, without any gems to go missing, and I love it.

Imagine, then, my dismay as the “invincible” ring slid off my freezing finger and flew in a graceful arc over the deck railing to land out of sight somewhere in piles of fluffy snow that were just beginning to accumulate early last week. Now, you might be wondering what I was doing, flapping my freezing hands on the deck and causing the ring’s flight.  All bird-related, of course. I had put Marvin and Mavis’s breakfast (kibble and peanuts) out for them on the deck railing and then gone to the garden to top up the bird bath and check on the bird feeders. While I did that, the cheeky starlings came and polished off M & M’s food. I went back up to replenish the breakfast bar, but before Marvin and Mavis could get there, the starlings were coming in for second helpings.  I was waving my arms about to  deter them when the ring went on its unscheduled journey.

The snow was so deep and fluffy, the ring just vanished without a trace. And the snow just kept on falling, with about seven inches falling the next day and yet more piled up as we dug out the garden path. Patience was required, and a couple of friends kindly offered the use of metal detectors if necessary.

Luckily no Detectorists were required in the end because Phillip spied the ring, newly freed from its icy prison, yesterday morning. Hooray. Flow chart banks steeply upwards.

Finger and ring, reunited.

I was hoping that my good luck would continue for the whole day, as I was seeing my foot doctor in the afternoon and sincerely hoped he would tell me that my days in an air cast (six weeks and counting) would be numbered.

Unfortunately that’s not the way it went. My foot is still swollen. Apparently I am not that good at staying off my feet, and the doctor sent me for another x-ray with some ominous comments about possibly needing some non-weight bearing equipment (please, not crutches!)

Sadly, this means I won’t be able to host my usual February studio sale, and there will be no snow-shoeing (with ravens) in the foreseeable future. It was in a rather dark mood that I went to bed in last night.

This morning I woke up to a cheery email from the UK about the use of some of my images in a project over there (details later) and things seemed slightly less gloomy.

Then, as I was waiting for the coffee machine to warm up and was staring out of the window into the branches, I saw a varied thrush. Such a beautiful bird, and the first time in 29 years I’ve seen one in our garden. I felt the visit was timed especially to cheer me up, bringing greetings from the forest that I’ve been unable to visit for so long. He was telling me that it’s still there, waiting for me when I’m ready.

And, while I wait (with varying degrees of patience) to get back to where the ravens are, I can keep watching my video of some of them playing with snowballs last winter.

And the flow chart ascends somewhat.

 

 

 

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Tiny Warrior Hummingbirds

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

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.

If you’d like to read more about these amazing birds, this well-headlined Tyee article by Kerry Banks is full of fun facts:
The Amazingly Cool Anna’s Hummingbird Scoffs at Winter|
Vancouver’s official bird is a sex-crazed, smart, supercharged recent arrival.

 

 

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© junehunterimages, 2020. 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.

Crow Therapy, January 2020

 

2020 has left me feeling rather hopeless so far. Everything I’ve thought of writing about seemed trivial to the point of being worthless.

As usual, it took a crow to get me to pull my metaphysical socks up.

It helped, I’m sure, that a day without rain permitted me and my air cast to venture out past the confines of the back yard.

It been early December since I’ve been able to get around far enough to check on the corvid situation and I was happy to get out and see Mabel and family, Art and the gang and Ada the young crow.

I’m not sure why, but it was Ada who adjusted my mindset.

I’d been thinking that posting pictures of crows and other birds on social media, even making art from my bird images, seemed just so inadequate. I should make more impactful, statement-making art.  I should quit taking photographs altogether and devote myself to action for climate, social and political justice.

Possibly all of those things are true, but Ada pointed out that sometimes the best thing you can do is keep on keeping on with the small, hopeful projects.

My photographing and writing about my local crows is unlikely to change the world.

I do have small, subversive ambitions. I hope that my words and images create familiarity with other species … leading to love and protective instincts … leading to action.

So, here is Ada.

She came down to see me and I put some peanuts down for her, but she was being intimidated by some more senior crows. She was tempted, I could see, to fly away and leave them to it, but she stood her ground.

You can see she gives a nervous little wing flap after the other crow caws above her, but ultimately decides to stick it out. She did get the peanuts in the end.

So, there you are. Just another little bird anecdote.

More coming in 2020.

If you feel you need daily #crowtherapy or #birdtherapy you can follow me on Instagram or Facebook, where I try to post at least once a day.

Ada also wanted me to pass this on. If you’d like to help out the countless creatures displaced and injured by the fires in Australia, you can donate to WIRES, an Australian non-profit wildlife rescue association. To help people who have lost everything in the bush fires, you can donate to the New South Wales Rural Fire service.

Festive Greetings and Tips

Wishing you all peace, joy and a reasonable amount of merriment this holiday season.

Geordie and Edgar are, as you can see, anxiously waiting for Santa. There is a rumour that the man in red is bringing them each a cosy new bed.

I am still in my cast of course, so no far-ranging adventures until the foot heals. Luckily Marvin and Mavis come by several times a day to check in and assure me that they’ve both been very good crows this year.

Marvin, the always magnificent

Mavis, the ever-marvellous

Edgar wanted me to share with you some of his top tips for the having the best sort of holiday season …

  1. Do lots of bird watching (or whatever brings you joy)
  2. Keep up with your napping schedule
  3. Listen to “Drinking White Wine in the Sun” by Tim Minchin (or your favourite holiday tune) and sing along
  4. Don’t worry about the dusting, or anything else that seems overwhelming and/or not fun. Domestic triage is key.
  5. Once the gravy is made, you’re entitled to a drink with rum in it

. . . OK, so those last few might have been me . . .

You can actually make up your own rules. I’m pretty sure Edgar’s good with that.

Best Laid Plans

One of my most vivid childhood memories is sitting beside my mother where she’d tripped and fallen on the sidewalk while rushing for the bus to go shopping. “More haste, less speed,” she said, through gritted teeth. She had a pithy saying for every occasion, my mum, and most them were/are very true. We never did go shopping that day, or for many days thereafter, as she’d sprained her ankle quite badly.

I had great plans for this festive season. Finish up the local sales events early,  leaving lots of time to update my online shop, go for long walks and catch up on the local crows and maybe even get some snowshoeing (ravens!)  in before Christmas. Leisurely holiday shopping in the local shops, baking,  …

Well, you can see how I was asking for trouble.

Like Icarus flying too close to the sun, here I am this festive season.

It seems to be a family tradition now, the pre-Christmas disaster. The worst was Phillip’s concussion from a bicycle accident a few years back. The most hilarious (although only in retrospect) was 2016 when Lily’s dog got sprayed by a skunk at 11pm on Christmas Eve.

The sore foot I noticed the week before the studio sale turned out to be a stress fracture. What with one thing and another, it took quite a while for the x-ray results and to get fitted for the stylish new boot, with a few days when I really could hardly get about at all.  I was starting to feel pretty sorry for myself.

But, another one of my mother’s favourite sayings was “worse things are happening at sea,” and this seems to fit well into that category. We do have the Christmas tree up, and as long as I can hobble as far as the garden, or even the deck, I have some spectacular company.

It was a bit wet this morning, but Marvin and Mavis were, as always, on hand to say hello.

Moist Marvin

Mavis

I think Mavis holds me partially responsible for the change in weather.

In the garden on the weekend, there was a positive Who’s Who of bird visitors coming by to cheer me up.

The most handsome Spotted Towhee

Towhees are new to the garden this year. Always a thrill to see that oh-so-stylish and dotty colour combination.

The world’s most winsome White Crowned Sparrow.

Sweetest Song Sparrow.

Cheery Chestnut-Backed Chickadee

Jolly Junco

I’m noticing that some of the juncos I’m seeing lately have more chestnut on their hoods than I remember in the past. I always thought they were more uniformly grey or black, so I wonder if there is some sort of avian gene pooling going on there.

Heavenly Hummingbird

For years we’ve had one single Anna’s Hummingbird visit the garden all year round. Recently she has found a friend with whom to squabble about the hummingbird feeder.

Natty Nuthatch

I’d never seen a nuthatch until this one started frequenting the garden a couple of months ago. I can always tell when he’s around by the honking sound. At first I thought it was someone’s car alarm going off!

Rosy House Finch

A couple of weeks ago I noticed a couple of house finches with eye problems in the garden. Internet research revealed that there is a very contagious eye disease that spreads among finches, and advice was to bring the bird feeders in for a week or so, meanwhile cleaning them thoroughly with a bleach solution (rinsing well.) I just put the feeders out again a couple of days ago and the birds are celebrating, but I’m keeping a close watch on the finches — and planning on cleaning the feeders every week from now on.

Fabulous Flicker

Flicker Face Off

Probably a stern Flicker look for her old nest rival, the starling.

And, when my foot is starting to throb and it’s time to head inside for a sit down, there’s even more great company in there.

Can I get you a cup of tea …?

Festive Feline

The human company is pretty good too!

Finally, in late breaking news, Marvin has declared that the City Crow Calendar, 2020 Edition has passed the all important corvid taste test!

Hmm, could use a little ketchup, but otherwise, not bad …

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© junehunterimages, 2019. 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.

Crow Collective

In spite of local squabbles, crows will come together for a crisis. Instantly.

Border skirmishes, crow etiquette lapses, hereditary rivalries  — all forgotten in a corvid heartbeat when the alarm call goes out.

Peregrine falcon in the ‘hood!

People sometimes consider crows’ mobbing behaviour towards larger birds as somehow mean. The collective noun, a “murder” of crows, is referenced, darkly.

To me, it’s one of their more admirable features — having the sense to know that they’re stronger together, and the ability to put aside individual differences in the face of a common danger.

Raccoons, coyotes, eagles, hawks, falcons, owls and even their own cousin, the raven, are considered enemies by crows. All of these creatures will snatch and eat juvenile crows and/or crow eggs, thus earning themselves a permanent spot on the crows’ “naughty” list.

It’s not that they’re really naughty, of course — just doing what nature dictates — going out grocery shopping for the family. The same applies to crows when they feed on smaller birds, and on through the spiralling circle of life.

While nesting season is over now, and most juvenile crows are now smart and fast enough to stay out of the way of the falcon (who is more likely on the lookout for a tasty pigeon) the crow response to a “sometimes-crow-predator” in the neighbourhood is automatic.

Every crow drops what they’re doing and flies off to join the collective effort to repel the enemy. Their job is to convince the “threat” that crows are just way too much bother and get them to move along and become someone else’s problem.

Individual crows will swoop very close to the offending predator. Sometimes too close for their health. Generally, however, the bird of prey will make a pragmatic cost/benefit calculation as to whether it’s worth the caloric output to chase a provocative crow. Most often they decide to wait out the mob for a while and eventually move on to a quieter spot.

All in all, I think “collective” is a much better, and more descriptive, word for a group of crows than a “murder.”

Apart from group defence, another advantage of crow mobbing behaviour is that, if you pay attention, you can catch glimpses of things that would otherwise go unnoticed.

For other posts about crow-revealed nature sighting:

Raccoons: Wall of Sound

Owls: Owl Dreams

Owls and Poets: Owls, Crows, Rooks and Poetry

Ravens: Raven Tutor

Missing Dogs: A Christmas Miracle — With Crows

 

 

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© junehunterimages, 2019. 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.