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”.
It’s been such a long time since my last post about the wonderful Long Eared Owl sighting! It’s not that there hasn’t been anything to write about — the crow world provides notable events of one kind or another every single day. Sometimes I think I should just do a daily crow diary and perhaps that will be a 2023 project.
Right now things are a little crazy for daily blog posts as I’ve started on the slippery luge track into the holiday season (a process inevitably ending with me in a crumpled heap on on Boxing Day wondering how I got there.)
No matter how busy I get, however, Geordie has to be walked three times a day. The last walk of the day is now after the crows’ bedtime, but that still leaves two crow watching expeditions a day to keep up on the parallel crow universe.
As a way to organize ALL the news, I’m going to try and write some updates on the seven crows I wrote about earlier this year in my City Crow Stories book.
I’m starting here with Pearl and Echo, who were briefly introduced in a recent blog post, The Young and the Restless — which was mostly about their rather mischievous youngster, Dennis.
This little family is a great example of finding small differences between crows to tell them apart from others and thus being able to follow their unique crow story.
First we have Pearl. She (or he) is so named because of a passing resemblance to Vermeer’s famous portrait, Girl With A Pearl Earring.
Please tell me you see it too …?
While you may not be able to afford a Vermeer for your hallway, the crow version is very affordable …
Anyway, she (or he) became Pearl in my somewhat random crow naming process. I am prepared, if it becomes necessary, to rename her Earl.
While her similarity to an Old Dutch Master comes and goes, depending on the tilt of a head and the direction of the light, Pearl has a more reliable “tell.”
I can spot her from a distance purely by a very distinctive pigeon-toed pose, which is caused by her right leg being a bit crooked. One foot is usually folded over the other in a rather pensive-looking position.
Never far from Pearl is her mate, Echo.
Echo appears to be blind in the left eye.
I’ve known other crows with impaired vision over the years, but Echo is the only one I’ve noticed who appears to try and compensate by using head movements. Her constant head bobbing, which reminds me a little of an owl, echolocating in the twilight, makes her easy to identify — and gave me the name.
In the video below you can see Echo trying to extract information from the air … and getting a bit confused by a wasp.
I had hoped that this last spring would offer a clue as to actual gender within the Pearl-Echo team by seeing which of the two would disappear for a few weeks in a row to sit on eggs in the nest. Only the females are equipped to incubate the eggs during the nesting process, developing a custom-purpose brood patch. This is an area of skin under the body that loses feathers, allowing heat to transmit, unimpeded, from the mother’s body to the eggs.
Careful observation revealed … drumroll … not much. Neither Pearl nor Echo went AWOL for more than a day or so at a time, so I’m not sure if they didn’t nest this year, or if something went wrong early in the season. Gender distribution remains moot.
But, as we know, Pearl and Echo are far from lonely with Dennis still around from spring 2021 to keep things lively.
Dennis could well be Denise, in fact, as I’m told that female fledglings are more likely than the males to stick around with the parents as “helpers” for more than the first summer.
Dennis/Denise spends a lot of time hanging out with P/Earl. This is partly, I think, because Echo prefers a higher perch, the better to read the audio signals from afar.
Dennis amusing himself by testing the edibility of the ornamental fence
Dennis finds this fancy fence endlessly entertaining.
Occasionally Pearl has to put her foot, bent or otherwise, down with Dennis.
In the scene below Dennis was pushing his luck with Pearl over some mutually coveted treasure. An angry flamenco-like scene ensued.
But, really, who could stay mad at a face like this …
Generally, the three of them seem to form a united team against other crows and general hazards — cats, raccoons, eagles, owls etc.
Dennis showing off aeronautical skills for mom and dad
You will see that most pictures of Pearl and family are set against similar landmarks — an old wooden blue fence or that fancy gold-topped ornamental railing. This is because they usually stay in their half block or so territory.
Knowing that urban crows generally stay within their territory during daylight hours is an important clue to crow detective work.
It’s also good to know that rules are made to be broken, especially in the fall and early winter seasons when crows are more likely to challenge other crow in “their” territory.
I noticed earlier this week that a the whole Pearl family defied crow etiquette by following me all the way home, right into Marvin and Mavis’s territory.
This anomaly confirmed by a positive Pearl ID on the stone gate post across the street from our house …
So, crow watching (see I’m already working on my presentation) calls for using all the clues at our disposal — territory, behaviour, tell-tale quirks.
Honestly, it’s like Suduko — a good brain workout every day!
City Crow Stories — a perfect crow lover holiday gift!
The gifts most often talked about are the tangible kind — little bits and bobs left by crows for their human friends, seemingly in gratitude for peanuts or other treats.
But the bigger gift they give, for me at least, is their habit of yelling at me “Oi, you! Yes — you! Come over here and have a look at this, right now!” on a regular basis.
When I hear the crows making a ruckus I always, if I possibly can, change plans and go see what it’s all about.
Invariably, it’s something.
Occasionally, it’s something amazing.
Always worth the diversion!
Yesterday, Geordie and I set out on the morning walk, following the usual route to say hi to the Walkers and Wings when crows from near and far started flying over us to a tree a couple of blocks north. They were kicking up a crowcophany audible around the neighbourhood.
Naturally, we immediately made a sharp detour to see what was going on.
I peered at the tree from a variety of angles but couldn’t see what the fuss was about until a woman walking by on the other side of the road said she could see something —maybe an owl!
Not only was it an owl, it was an owl with what looked like ENORMOUS ears. I had a quick look at my Sibley’s bird guide phone app and thought that ears of this magnitude could only belong to the aptly named Long-eared Owl. But, reading on, I saw they were “rare or uncommon” — so that didn’t seem too likely for an urban East Vancouver street tree.
Various other neighbours, of the human variety, stopped by to see what the crow noise was about and we all gazed up into the branches. It was a “Where’s Waldo” situation as the owl was so well camouflaged, and the tree so big, that if you took your eyes off it for a moment it was really hard to locate again.
After about half an hour, most of the crows moved on to other crow business, leaving just the local family to keep an eye on the owl interloper. They would ignore the visitor for a while, pecking around nearby lawns in search of worms and then come back every 15 minutes or so for some pro forma cawing — just in case the owl was getting ideas.
Long-eared Owls are lanky owls that often seem to wear a surprised expression thanks to long ear tufts that typically point straight up like exclamation marks. These nocturnal hunters roost in dense foliage, where their camouflage makes them hard to find, and forage over grasslands for small mammals. Long-eared Owls are nimble flyers, with hearing so acute they can snatch prey in complete darkness. In spring and summer, listen for their low, breathy hoots and strange barking calls in the night.
Surprised expression … check!
All owls excel at looking surprised, but this one definitely earned top marks for channeling pure astonishment.
Long ear tufts like exclamation marks … check!
These aren’t the owl’s real ears — just rather spectacular feather tufts (called plumicorns) that are used to funnel sound into the actual ears, which are cavities asymmetrically positioned on each side of the head. This asymmetry enables the Long-eared owl to hone in on prey by sound alone. The location of the tiniest sound (a leaf or blade of grass rustling, a small movement under a foot of snow) is narrowed down by the way the sounds arrive at each ear cavity at minutely different times, telling the bird whether dinner is to the left or right, up or down.
If you’d like to read more about the marvel of owl hearing and navigation, there are all kinds of amazing articles available. Owls and Owl Hearing is one of them.
Hey, check out my groovy plumicorns!
Owls always seem relatively relaxed when mobbed by crows. This owl was pretty small — about the same size as the crows, so you’d think they might feel threatened.
A glance at the heft of the their feet and the dagger-like sharpness of those claws may give a clue to why they seem so unworried by the crow clamour.
I’m not sure why this lovely owl was caught out in the open in the daylight like this. Perhaps they got carried away with hunting the night before and didn’t leave enough time to get to a more private place for day-time rest. We went back this morning to see if he or she was still there — which would have been worrying — but saw no sign of them.
I hope, like the barred owl that rested in a tree in front of our house for a whole day a few years ago, this Long-eared relative just waited until dusk until it was time to fly off into the darkness and become a hunting ghost — and that, today, they’re sleeping peacefully in a more tranquil location.
Oh, and I’m pretty certain now, rare or not, this was in fact a Long-eared owl, bringing an amazing day to our rather urban little neighbourhood.
Sibley’s Field Guide to Birds section on Long-eared owls
This owl was so well camouflaged in the tree there’s no way at all I would have spotted him or her without the crows leading me.
I know the crows had their own reasons for kicking up a fuss — owls are on the crow “naughty list,” along with any other creature that will prey on adult or fledgling crows or eggs — and so will be mobbed by the well organized Crow Cooperative in order to encourage the danger to move on to less rowdy prey.
Crow don’t waste their energy on these loud protests, so it’s always worthwhile to go check them out. While helping us with birdwatching isn’t their goal, it’s a service they do offer if we’re willing to take the help.
Just happening to see amazing birds while watching crows is a little different from “regular” bird watching in that you have to wait for the sighting to come to you, rather than seeking it out.
And, when it does come, out of the blue, it feels more like a gift that a personal achievement.
Other “gifts” I’ve been given by following crows include a juvenile eagle, other owls, coyotes, raccoons, a peregrine falcon, hawks, ravens and, one especially miraculous day, a runaway dog that had been missing for six weeks.
You can read about some of these special events in earlier blog posts:
In the many years I’ve been photographing and following crows I had never actually had one make physical contact — until this week.
It was predictable in two ways.
It’s THAT Time of Year.
I never get close to being dive bombed in nesting season, which you’d think would be the riskiest season of all.
Nope, it’s early fall, when the local crows are giddy with new freedom, that seems to be the most perilous time for me. The adult crows are free of parental responsibility and the young crows are (literally) spreading their wings and testing the limits of what they can get away with.
These crows, the young and the restless, are unbound by the conventions of who’s territory is whose and general good manners.
Anyway, Dennis the Menace (or possibly Denise the Menice) has always been a little bit cheeky, following me to the end of his family’s territory and often swooping very close — enough for the occasional rush of wind from a wing against my face. While last year he was kind of scrawny and generally stayed close to his parents, this year he seems to be full of boundless confidence.
Perhaps a little too much confidence …
He keeps a close eye on me as I walk by.
Dennis … and a few of his closest friends (none of them being his parents) following me beyond the normal Pearl family territorial boundaries …
I’m used to Dennis swooping after me, wondering where his peanuts are, and I usually turn around in time so that he’ll swerve off to left or right.
Crows, according to crow scientist John Marzluff, won’t fly at you from the front and he recommends affixing fake eyes to the back of your hat if necessary.
A couple of days ago Dennis actually managed to make contact. I think it was the touch of a claw on the back of my head. Very light and no damage done, but it just shows what a determined little character this particular crow is. No meanness on his part, just a spot of over-enthusiasm.
What worried me much more than Dennis was a time when another clever crow, realizing that swooping close to me didn’t faze me, started to try and find my Achilles heel by flying at Geordie from behind. Geordie (my dog) has always been extremely relaxed around crows, but it would only take one crow landing on his back to change all that — forever!!! Luckily he never noticed how close the crow got as I managed to turn around in time to ward off actual contact and we changed walking route for a couple of weeks, just in case.
Back to Dennis. We had a good talk last time I saw him and he hasn’t managed to catch me out over the last few days. I also turn around a lot when I’m in his neighbourhood.
I was recently thinking of taking up my needle felting again to make some new birds, but now I’m wondering if I should first felt myself a couple of large “eyes” for the back of my head!
* when I gave the name Dennis the Menace, I’m thinking (and giving away my age in saying so) about the comic strip, Dennis and Gnasher, from the UK children’s comic, the Beano — very popular in the 50’s.
Once the nutty attractions of the Hazelnut Happening are exhausted the crows still just wanna have fun — and seem to know it’s now time for the …
A temporary evening scene of colour and sound, the Dogwood Disco is a kaleidoscope of rosy berries, golden leaves, flapping black wings and excited crow calls.
The whole thing lasts for under half an hour between the arrival of the party guests and their departure for the roost just before sunset. They leave behind a bit of a red carpet situation on the sidewalk …
Dogwood trees run for several blocks along Charles Street and, for some reason, the crows seem to start at the west end and, each evening, move a little to the east. They leave quite a lot of berries uneaten. Some sort of mysterious crow etiquette … ?
Perhaps they’re leaving some of the berries for the humans. Apparently they are edible, though from what I’ve read, it would take quite a lot of work to make something palatable from them. These are Kousa dogwoods, and apparently the pulp of the berries tastes a little like persimmon, but to get to that, you first have to deal with a bitter skin and a lot of hard seeds within the fruit. If you’re interested in doing a little urban foraging, I found this helpful blog post with some tips from T. Abe Lloyd. He aptly describes the berry as “a pink soccer ball on a stick.”
You could also view them as teeny, crow-sized disco balls!
And here’s what the blooms look like in early summer when the street is a river of white …
But back to the crows …
They are clearly undeterred by any finicky concerns about bitter skin or seeds as they dig in for their evening snack, which seems to be as much competition as fine dining.
The leaves are still so thick on the branches, it often looks as if the crows are swimming along the surface to get to their prize.
Almost there …. I can already taste it!
Sometimes the berries are consumed in the tree, while others prefer a more stable surface for consumption.
Unless there’s too much competition …
Giving new meaning to the phrase “Fall Launch.”
Like the Hazelnut Happening, it seems that the event is partly about food but, like all good parties, it’s about much more — mixing and mingling, marking the end of summer, and teaching those fledglings about group etiquette — all while making as much noise and mess as possible. Woohoo!
Over the course of a week they seem to be getting the the eastern edge of the dogwood feasting area, so I’m not sure how many more nights they’ll be stopping. I expect there’s probably another important Crow Fest venue in their fall itinerary but, if there is, it must be out my walking range.
Who knows where they’re headed next, but keep your eyes open — it might be your neighbourhood!
Although my last post was about how miserable the local crows are as they go through their annual moult, don’t feel too bad for them — this season is also their most social and joyful.
Several things come together in the the crow world to make fall time the best time:
Parent crows are mightily relieved that their fledglings are (mostly) independent
Fledgling crows, like teenagers everywhere, are busting to get out there, meet their peers and show off a little
Crows, even the still-moulting ones, look fabulous in the golden fall light and glowing autumn leaves
There are feasting opportunities/excuses for crow parties all over town
Crow Fest in our neighbourhood begins with …
The Hazelnut Happening
Around the autumn equinox a couple of local hazelnut trees become ripe, and many crows seem to have this date carefully noted in their social calendar. Hundreds of them, and dozens of intrepid squirrels, show up for the event every year.
A few years back a human bravely tried to harvest their share of nuts, wisely wearing a bicycle helmet as protection from the competition. This year, even more wisely, they seem to have left it all for the wildlife.
Normally the crows fly over our neighbourhood at dusk, headed to the roost a few miles east of here with only a few distant caws to mark their passing.
But it’s reliable as clockwork — the very day the hazelnuts are ready, our normally sedate area becomes an evening Crowstock venue, complete with rousing musical accompaniment.
The cawing is accompanied by the random percussion of nuts hitting the tarmac as crows drop them to break the shells.
There are other seasonal delicacies on the menu too …
While the raucous crow chaos is the big story here, as with all big events, it’s made up of so many small and personal sub-plots.
I love to pick out small groups or individuals in the crowd and watch them for awhile, trying to parse out the individual stories.
In the seemingly undistinguishable line of crows on the wires, you can often detect a family group — parents and fledglings, or just couples taking a quiet moment in the midst of it all.
The other night I spotted a personal acquaintance on the wires.
I’ve been worried about the Wings as they’ve not been in their usual spot for most of the summer. As if to confirm this was indeed her Wingship, she came down and landed by my feet …
The party rages on, but still full of individual little crow vignettes.
One young, ambitious and agile crow takes a moment to show off the Cirque du Soleil skill set they’ve been working on.
Look, Ma, only one foot!
I’m an a-crow-bat!!!!
Another independently-minded crow in the crowd decides to add a distinctive yip to the chorus of cawing.
A quiet young crow whiles away the time by catching and playing with one of their own recently moulted underfeathers before it floats away on the evening air …
And so the nightly Hazelnut Happening hurtles on for a few days until, finally, the nuts are devoured and relative quietness returns to the ‘hood.
Don’t worry though — the fall festivities are far from over. It’s just time to move on to the Dogwood Disco up the street.
While this looks rather like a sea urchin, or some other mysterious spiny undersea creature, it’s actually the back of poor Marvin’s neck.
Mr. Walker, as you can see below, has a similar situation going on.
It’s moulting season — that time when our local crows shed their old feathers, worn out by a year of constant use — to grow their very own shiny new wardrobe.
The new and waterproof feathers usually arrive just in time for the winter rain and wind — a miraculous feat, but an itchy and uncomfortable few weeks for the moult participants.
Apart from looking like low budget pirate movie extras, the whole moulting and regeneration process is physically and psychologically taxing for birds. Luckily the fledglings are pretty independent by now, as mom and dad’s supply of patience is even shorter than usual.
The young ones seem to instinctively end the summer-long begging for food just before the moulting crankiness sets in, though I suppose the odd parental peck may also have something to do with it.
Do not mess with this parent …
Those “sea urchin” spikes on the back of Marvin’s back are new feathers poking through the skin. Curious as to what exactly is going on, I looked up a few articles about new feather growth.
Apparently these little barbs are called “pin feathers” — I imagine because the poor bird feels like a pin cushion. They’re also called “blood feathers” because they have a blood supply and nerves, making them super sensitive and delicate ( empathetic wince.) They look even more spiky because they have a protective keratin* sheath around them.
Even Marvin’s new fledgling, the lovely Lucky, can’t escape the process. You can see here the “reverse mullet” effect of the missing feathers.
Lucky, September 2022
Another moulting fashion phenomenon is the “straggly beard” effect caused by the temporary loss of throat feathers.
Lucky with an Elizabethan style ruff of moulting neck feathers
Moulting usually begins with an overall fluffy, almost glamorous look as first feathers start to float away …
… and ends up like this, with even tiny “eyebrow” and “nostril” feathers going AWOL …
The remaining feathers are dull, and often display moody shades of sepia, grey, indigo and mauve.
The only real comfort to be found before the new finery comes in is in the loving attention of family members, like Mavis allopreening Marvin in the video below. I like to think she’s simultaneously offering words of encouragement — “no, honestly dear, you don’t really look THAT bad …”
All in all, it’s a trying time of year to be a crow, but luckily they, as a species, seem to have the chutzpah to carry off whatever outlandish look nature sees fit to bestow upon them.
As with all avant-garde fashion statements, confidence is key.
*Keratin is a lightweight protein. Different types of keratin form everything from feathers to fingernails, hooves to horns.