Last week I wrote a post on social media about Ben, the crow with a bent foot, in which I mentioned that Marvin and Mavis seem to allow him to get first dibs on the nuts and kibble I put out in the morning.
I immediately started to worry that I’d over-sentimentalized their behaviour.
Crows, much as I love them, are not generally known for their charitable works.
It’s true that they’re extremely loyal to their family members (see George and Mabel: A Love Story.) At night they’re very co-operative and social when they come together at the roost for mutual protection, information and general fun.
But, during the day, crows stick pretty closely to their own territory — usually half a city block or so — and defend it against other crow visitors.
So why do Marvin and Mavis put up with Ben’s intrusions? I have a couple of theories, none of which include pure crow altruism on their part.
But first, the story of Ben, as far as I know it.
I noticed him last spring when he started following me on dog walks. I assumed he must be a local crow with a recently sustained injury, as I’m sure I’d have noticed his badly deformed foot if he’d been like this for a while.
He would pop up on my walks and, while doing my best to avoid conflict with other crows, I’d try to slip him a few peanuts.
As BC’s terrible fall weather made international news, with floods and even a small hurricane, I worried about all the birds — but especially Ben.
I could imagine him out there, clamped to a branch with only one functional claw while the rest of him was flung about in the gales.
Sometimes I wouldn’t see him for a few days after a big storm and I’d think he’d been swept away, but then there he’d be again.
That one good foot must be extra, extra strong.
By then he’d started showing up at my house. I think his territory is a block or so away, but he must have a line of sight to see when I first poke my head out of the back door in the morning.
A picture of Ben looking at me from the roof early one wet morning became the print, Frazzled 2/Too.
The fact that Ben was now showing up for peanuts in Marvin and Mavis’s territory was a further breach of Peanut Diplomacy protocol.
But that face … what to do?
So, back to my theories of why Marvin and Mavis seem to have come to terms with Ben’s visits.
Theory One: Crows Are Trainable
I decided to see if I could try keep both Ben and M&M happy by trying my hand at some rudimentary crow training techniques. I mean, not much else was going on, so why not?
Ben’s great advantage is that he’s willing to come for snacks while I’m still standing nearby. Like other crows with injuries (e.g. George Brokenbeak) the risk/ benefit calculation of getting close to people shifts more into the “worth the risk” side of the ledger as it gets harder for them to get their own food.
I decided to use this fearlessness “superpower” in Ben’s favour.
When the snacks go out in the morning, several sets of crow eyes are watching. Marvin or Mavis usually sound the breakfast call from their favourite Hydro pole.
Normally M & M would immediate swoop in and summarily scatter the competition — but I found if I stood right beside the peanuts and fixed them with a stern look and said “wait” in my best dog training voice, it bought Ben and his mate time to stuff a few peanuts and kibble in their beaks and take off.
After a couple of weeks of this everybody seemed to have got the hang of things.
Occasionally a tail tweak from Mavis is needed to reinforce the “taking turns” etiquette, but generally Ben and friend seem to know when their time is up.
Theory Two: Not Worth the Hassle
Another risk/benefit calculation, this time on the part of Marvin and Mavis, might be further explanation for their forbearance.
In spite of his limping gait, Ben is fierce. If attacked by other crows I’ve seen him respond with impressive force. Perhaps Marvin and Mavis, knowing their food supply is generally secure, figure it’s not worth the risk to life and wing to take him on.
The M’s know, after all, that they can always come back later in the day, when things are less competitive, for a quiet visit and some extra peanuts.
Both theories, I guess, boil down to “crows are smart,” which is hardly news. I do know that I’ve spent countless hours watching crows, and the one thing I’ve learned is that they always have another surprise tucked up their wing feathers.
Anyway, I’ll keep you posted on how Ben makes out, and how long we can keep the Golden Age of Breakfast Co-operation going.
As a sequel to yesterday’s post, here are some photos from this morning’s walk — just a few crows in an autumn landscape.
Most of today’s crows are not close acquaintances, but part of the mysterious entourage that follows me along the dog walking route.
As I mentioned yesterday, the autumnal rowdiness is kept in check by an absence of peanuts and a few kind words of thanks after I take their photos.
I’m not sure why they follow me, but I always get an especially warm welcome at the corner where (almost two years ago now) crows played a pivotal role in the finding of a lost dog. I always thank them when I walk by and they seem to remember me still.
This character, photographed close to home, is one of Mabel’s offspring. I can’t tell it’s one of the 2020 batch, or one of two 2019 youngsters who still hang around.
It’s a very grounding feeling to walk your own neighbourhood and see familiar faces, human and corvid, and exchange daily pleasantries.
It makes me feel that the world is still spinning on some sort of stable axis.
For humans, the 2020 autumn season is bringing with it — along with pumpkin spice — a sprinkling of existential dread.
For crows, however, it’s the normal rowdy, rollicking, freedom-from-fledglings social season.
No social or physical distancing for them.
In fact, the normal territorial boundaries are being blithely crossed in search of seasonal bounty. Any block with a nut or berry tree is a “go-zone” this month.
Contributing to the mayhem is the fact that the excitable new fledglings have yet to learn the finer points of corvid etiquette.
A certain amount of chaos inevitably ensues.
I find it’s best to employ my special autumnal version of Peanut Diplomacy at this unruly time of year.
Instead of stopping on my fall morning walks to exchange pleasantries and a few peanuts with each set of crow acquaintances on their territorial corners, a far more parsimonious peanut distribution system is in order.
Normally token offerings are made, accepted with grace, and I move on to visit new crows on new corners.
At this time of year, however, the dog and I seem to be claimed as territory-to-go and crows will follow us from their own domain and into their neighbour’s. This can result an accumulation of dozens of boisterous crows following us for blocks and/or unseemly crow brawling.
Fall Peanut Protocol is best deployed at this point.
Upon leaving the house, I offer a few peanuts to Marvin and Mavis, if they happen to be waiting, then a few more for Mabel and her gang at the other end of the block. From that point on I exchange only kind words with my crow (and human) walking acquaintances. I’m still followed, but it’s a much less fractious group.
Harmony restored …
I generally find that, by December, things will have settled down again and normal Peanut Diplomatic Relations may resume.
Besides, at this time of year, my paltry peanut offerings pale beside the bounty that nature has to offer.
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.
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.
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.
In 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 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.
Mom and Baby
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.
Happy Valentine’s Day!
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
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:
Somewhere between harvest festivals and soccer riots, these autumnal corvid gatherings are a sure sign of the seasonal shift.
A quiet street corner that is normally the domain of a one crow family is suddenly full of noise and dark feathers. It’s usually early evening when they come, making a stop on the longer trip to the nightly roost.
Wires that are normally punctuated by only two or three crow silhouettes are suddenly sagging under the weight of dozens.
And it’s loud. Not, I grant you, as spectacularly cacophonous as the Still Creek roost — but enough to make itself heard over the indoor household noises.
Enough to make you put on a jacket and go outside to see what’s up.
Often there are additional sounds among the cawing. Crack, plop, bang.
Like giant hail, nuts are falling from above.
In our neighbourhood, two hazel and one walnut tree produce their bounty at about the same time. It seems that the crows of Vancouver have those dates indelibly written in their mental calendars, because every late September/early October (and I’ve been watching for several years now) they come.
The crows leave many nuts on the roads so that cars can do the heavy nut cracking work for them. Because it’s not a very busy street, they entertain themselves between vehicles by dropping the nuts themselves. This seems to have little effect, but they do look as if they’re having fun.
And it’s not only the crows that have this time of year noted in their “things to do” list. Squirrels are darting about amongst the crows, determined to get their share of the seasonal windfall.
Last year (alas, I did not have my camera) there was a human vying for his portion of the nut harvest. Clearly he knew what he was up against as he headed out for his task wearing a bicycle helmet.
I managed to harvest these two, without a bicycle helmet.
The nuts are the focus of all this celebration, but it really feels as if more is going on.
There’s a real party atmosphere when they gather in these loud unruly groups.
The long, hot, dry summer is finally over. Life is easier now. There are puddles to splash in, and worms to dig out of the dirt again.
Crows that have been busy — first nesting — and then trying to keep fledglings alive —since early spring, finally have some time to themselves. The young ones are big enough to forage for themselves and join in the harvest festival fun.
Young Erica, Eric and Clara’s fledgling from this year.
Another reason for celebration — the endless molting season is nearing an end. Crazy bald-patch zombie crows are starting to revert to their true sleek selves and that has got to feel really good.
Baby crows that have survived their first couple of months are now able to fly to the roost every night so the big nightly party is back on. These “block parties” are just the warm up to the main event at Still Creek.
Getting in tune for the roost later on.
Just as the sun goes down a crow somewhere in the mob sounds the signal.
The wires erupt into a clatter of shadowy wings and commentary.
Then suddenly they’re gone. All of them.
The wires are vacant and the nut-strewn street is silent.
A small tributary of crows trickles through the stand of poplars, golden in the last light of the day.
We spent our Earth Day morning mounting a small neighbourhood search for George.
From late summer to spring, George and Mabel come by our garden several times a day without fail.
Then, one day each spring, they just seem to disappear. They don’t come to the house. They don’t greet me on my dog walks. I’ve noticed this happen for a couple of years and I assume that they are off doing top secret nesting work somewhere.
But, still, I worry.
A fellow George-watcher in the neighbourhood contacted me on Instagram yesterday to see if I’d seen him lately. She mentioned that she’d seen Mabel and their baby from last year at her end of the block. It worried me a bit that Mabel was around, but not George.
Since the two are usually pretty inseparable, that seemed strange.
This morning, my neighbour contacted me with the news that she’d seen George — several blocks away from where he usually hangs out. She included a silhouette photo of him on a lamp stand with the distinctive broken beak profile.
This morning’s dog walk naturally took us on an exploratory expedition to this distant intersection in search of George. It seemed a little odd that he’d be so far away, but how many broken-beaked crows could there be in one neighbourhood?
Geordie and Nina, fellow George seekers.
As soon as we got to the corner in question, there he was. But wait a minute.
This crow had a broken beak, just like George, but showed no sign of recognizing us. George usually zooms low all down the street to make a dramatic landing right beside me. This crow just continued his diligent turf-turning project on someone’s lawn (looking for chafer beetle grubs.) No interest in us whatsoever.
Although he looked pretty identical to George, I knew it couldn’t be him. It made me realize two things.
One: this sort of beak injury can’t be that rare after all.
Two: crows look pretty identical to our undiscriminating human eyes. We have to use all the clues available to us — behaviour, location, which other crows they’re hanging out with, as well as little physical differences, to figure out who’s who. I figure it’s good exercise for the aging brain. Corvid Sudoko.
I gave our new acquaintance a few peanuts, wished him well, and headed back to our street.
As we got to the area where George and family usually gather, I saw what looked like George Junior. No sign of dad anywhere. Sigh.
Then, like Batman dramatically arriving at a crime in progress, all of a sudden there he was! I think it was only because I was approaching his still-dependant offspring that he broke his cover to come and greet us.
Peanuts were served. Virtual champagne was quaffed.
So, now I’m back to my original theory, which is that George is occupied on some high security nest-related project and won’t be visiting, or swooping down regularly until that job is completed.
Leaving me more time for my other worry project, Eric and Clara.
Their nest is at the other end of the block, high up in the poplars. My concerns for them are, first: the poplar leaves are taking so long to come out that the nest is very visible to predators. It’s too high up for racoons, but just the right height for eagles, hawks and ravens.
Eric and Clara’s nest is about 50 feet up there. The leaves are slowly, slowly providing camouflage.
Which brings to me to my second and latest worry. If the babies do hatch successfully, how are they going to get to the ground safely. Baby crows often leave the nest before they can really fly. They hop around, do a bit of clumsy gliding, but real flying skill usually takes a couple of weeks to develop. So, what happens when you’re born in a high rise??
Once you start getting attached to wild birds, there really is no end to the list of things to worry about!
I’ll keep you posted.
STUDIO SALE COMING UP
I’ll be having my annual pre-Mother’s Day studio sale in a couple of weeks. If you’re in the Vancouver area, come on by and you can find out the latest news first hand.
Sometimes I wonder if there’s a crow memo circulating, directing slightly invalided birds to my place. There’s George Brokenbeak and also Hop-Along Hank.
Hank walks with a limp because of a problem with his right foot that he’s had for as long as I’ve known him. Flying is no problem for him, but I can spot him on a roof top from quite a distance because of his distinctive stance, favouring the sore foot. That and his slightly hooked beak.
Hank and Vera have been around since last spring. I wrote about them in an earlier blog, Here’s Hank, charting their failed effort at parenthood last year. I have a feeling that Hank is one of Eric’s offspring. Eric has seemingly ceded our backyard territory to Hank, in favour of a superior nesting spot in the tall poplars at the end of the street.
Hank and Vera paying an early morning visit. You can see Hank’s slightly deformed foot on the far right.
Now Hank and Vera and George and Mabel vie for my attentions. The four of them often sit together peaceably on the wires in the alley, but as soon as there are peanuts, it’s game on. The two pairs will never cooperate and share the food. Much ferocious cawing and occasional dive bombing ensue if I put nuts out when both couples are nearby.
We seem to have worked out a more or less harmonious system where Hank and Vera come first thing in the morning. George and Mabel take the later shift, coming later in the morning , and sometimes in the afternoon too, for a last minute snack before the nightly journey to the Still Creek roost.
Hank (left) and Vera (right) vociferously stake out their claim to the peanuts.
Most of the time, Hank doesn’t seem too bothered by his foot problem, but when the weather is cold and wet, I sometimes see him standing forlornly on one leg.
Another one of Hank’s characteristics is that he seems to like to yawn. I don’t know if crows actually do yawn, but he often opens his beak very wide without any sound coming out — so it looks very much like a yawn.
Hank’s limping gait gives him a rather model-like pose. Auditioning for a part in Zoolander 3?
So, this is Hank, as I know him. I’m sure Vera could tell some tales too!