Snow Crows

There’s something magically transformative about snow. I’ve amassed a large collection of vintage snow globes, and even made some of my own featuring quirky local landmarks. In summary, I’m a bit of a sucker for snow.

We had what looks to be this winter’s only snowfall here in Vancouver in mid-February. I was excited to write about it then, but since Texas and other US states were undergoing very real suffering from unseasonably cold weather, snow and ice at that point, it didn’t seem tactful to be waxing lyrical about it. I’m feeling that it might be OK to indulge now …

We get very few days of snow in a typical Vancouver winter, so when the flakes start to fall I’m out of the house with my camera as much as possible. On top of the beguiling alliteration, the combination of “crow” and “snow” is pure enchantment.

Here is a crow with snow, folk music and starling accompaniment …

From a technical point of view, snow is both blessing and curse for crow photography. The camera wants to focus on each falling snowflake rather than the bird, so that’s a challenge. The contrast of the black feathers and the all white landscape also needs considerable over-exposure to reveal the detail in the crows.

But the light! The light is magic — beautifully soft, no harsh highlights, bouncing back into those dark feathers and bringing out the shades of mauve and indigo, pearl and navy. It’s as if the whole world is a light box designed especially for photographing crows. Woohoo!!!

White Wing in the snow

The Wings in a Winter Wonderland

And you just never know what might happen. I accidentally found the snow version of a four leafed clover when photographing Mavis in the back garden this year.

Not yet …

Be patient …

Keep looking …

Bingo!

For just one microsecond a snowflake kept its perfect crystalline form on her face. And I got a photo of it!!

Particularly amazing to see this in Vancouver, where the temperature is usually too warm for snow crystals to remain intact long enough to be visible. It’s the little things that make a photographer’s day!

Another fun thing about a snow day is seeing how the crows adapt to it.

The Walkers not only dealt with the weather conditions, they also gave me instructions on how to do so.

Instead of walking along with me to the bump at the bottom of the tree where I customarily leave a few peanuts, as he normally does, Mr. Walker flew over my shoulder and landed on a higher, slightly less snow covered burl on the tree as if to say, “this will be a better spot to leave them today.”

So I did as instructed and everyone was pleased.

It was young Chip’s first snowfall.

A puzzling development,  but she shook it off with aplomb.

Now the flowers are coming up, birds are collecting nesting materials and spring is very much in the air, but I had fun looking back at our brief yet magical period of Crows in a Winter Wonderland. Hope you did too.

 

 

 

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Chip’s Tips For Hanging Around

It would seem that the local corvids took exception to the title of my “Boring Walks” series and have been pulling out all the stops to prove me very wrong.

Young Chip must have been especially offended, as she’s been starring in her own production of Cirque du Corvid this week.

Remember I said in Boring Walks Part One that Chip is fast and cheeky? It seems that she read that and thought, “you ain’t seen nothing yet!”

At first I didn’t notice Chip at all. It was Marvin, sitting on the fence and staring intently up at the sky.

So I looked up to see what he was watching …

In all my years of watching crows, I’ve only ever seen this hanging upside routine once before.

But Chip wasn’t JUST hanging around. Oh no.

She hung there for a minute or so and then let go, prompting Marvin to give chase.

That was so much fun, so she did it again. And again.

Looking to see if Marvin is watching

 

A head tuck and fiddle with the feet

 

And down she goes

Marvin cannot look away

Chip apparently decided that the “hang and drop” routine was too simple, and added to her routine by clambering, using feet and beak, between the multiple rows of wires.

But with the same end goal — flip, hang, drop and get chased. Woohoo!!

Down on the ground, I was literally gasping at the acrobatic skill. At the same time, I was laughing out loud at her determination to draw Marvin, who was trying to look very dignified, into her vortex of fun and games.

Chip’s family, The Mabels, weren’t even around — it was just her, having a laugh with the neighbours. She often visits the garden when Marvin and Mavis are there. They’re pretty territorial and have spent months trying to chase her off, but they seem less fussed about her presence lately.  After all, she is pretty darn entertaining — and way too fast to catch anyway.

Chip’s lesson for me this week — you can just be hanging around, being bored and a bit grumpy — or you can go ahead and make an art form out of it.

 

 

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Crow Signals

While, it is lovely to have particular crow friends and to have eye to eye contact, they also communicate with you from afar. You simply have to tune into the crow wavelength.

It’s not always possible to have close encounters of the corvid kind.

You might live in place where peanut diplomacy is strictly forbidden, or maybe you’re in a rural area where crows tend to be a lot less trusting of humans than they are in the city. You may be away from your familiar crows in a new town.

But that’s OK — because their very presence, however distant,  makes a difference. You just have to start start looking for the shapes they make against the sky.

Once you start noticing them they become like elegant punctuation, making sense of a garbled, run-on sentence of a world.

Exclamation point!

Full stop.

Crow signals can also guide you through the seasons.

In winter you’ll see couples snuggling close and building their bond in advance of the challenging nesting season to come.

You might also see some scenes like this as competition for the best nesting sites heats up . . .

Followed shortly by my favourite crow messages of hope and endeavour . . .

Later in the spring or summer, look for scenes like the one below.
(Will be accompanied by a raucous soundtrack of quarking begging cries from baby crows.)

The parent crows are grateful for a few brief moments of peace in the summertime.

By early autumn the baby crows are independent, and the post-summer socializing and harvest festival begins.

And then — here we go again — the leaves are gone and we  see the crow couples settling back into their quiet winter routine.

Some miscellaneous messages from crows:

A sidelong glance at distant crow’s antics can make you laugh aloud.

Sometimes they can tell quite a long story in a fleeting moment.

So, some humans came this morning and cut down all of my trees, but they did leave this one branch, so I’m making a statement here about crow resilience and adaptability and how crows will likely inherit the earth …

The faraway and anonymous crow that inspired this whole post is in the photo below.

This bird performed a whole poem for anyone who happened to be looking up.

Flying very high, she suddenly dropped ten feet in a smooth barrel roll.  For a moment I thought something was wrong, but she repeated her trick and I noticed she was dropping something from her beak and catching it over and over.

At last, she caught it for the last time and flew off to enjoy her prize.

The poem, as I interpreted it, covered subjects of exhilaration, skill, freedom, speed, risk, rushing air and pure fun.

The joy, on a hard day in a hard year, was contagious.

Crow therapy from afar. Keep an eye open for the signs!

 

 

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New Year’s Eve

This vintage wooden roller coaster at East Vancouver’s Playland is often ringed with crows as they enjoy a little sub-party on their way to or from the big roost at Still Creek.

When we walked by this morning, on this the last day of 2020, there was only a solitary crow. It sat alone with the whole row of coloured light bulbs all to itself.  No roller coaster cars rattling by. No other crows.

Perhaps because I tend to view almost everything through a crow-shaped lens, our solo crow seemed an apt symbol for New Year’s Eve 2020.

No big parties. Many of us sitting at home viewing the world from a lonelier vantage point than we’re used to, especially on this night of the year.

Many of us with twinkly lights for mood lifting company.

To be honest, I always find New Year’s Eve to be a bit of a melancholy celebration. The lyrics to Auld Lang Syne make me feel a bit weepy. It’s early in the evening still here, so I’m not sure how I’ll be feeling by midnight.

Possibly more weepy than usual.

Possibly less, as the end of 2020 leaves little to regret.

However you’re feeling, remember (yet another treasure from my mother’s kit bag of handy sayings) “tomorrow is another day.”

And, also, another year.

And that day/year will have crows in it.

Crows you may know quite well,  and other crows you may admire from afar and rashly imbue with symbolic importance.

For auld lang syne, my dear
For auld lang syne
We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet
For days of auld lang syne

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Tiny Points of Light

Sometimes it’s just the smallest thing that illuminates your day.

I was walking the dog the morning before the winter solstice when an urgent crow meeting convened in the treetops. Crows were flying in from the whole neighbourhood to share their opinions.

I took quite a few photographs in an effort to see what the cause of the commotion was. While I never did figure that out, I did notice that the frail morning light struggling through the clouds at the base of the trees, combined with the darker overlapping of branches and crows at the top, made a rather pleasing composition.

As it seemed to capture the tentative return of the light, I chose the one at the top of this post to share on social media yesterday to mark the solstice.

But that wasn’t the tiny thing that really made me smile.

That came later, when I was sorting through some of the other photos and realized that, of all those crows in the trees, I actually recognized one of them!

See that crow sitting at the top, just right of the one taking off? That’s White Wing!
Recognizable from a hundred feet because of her distinctive silhouette, her wonky wing feather sticking out.

I can’t say exactly why that little observation made me so happy. I was listening to a CBC Radio show earlier today in which they talked about how popular complex jigsaw puzzles have been this year. They mentioned the contentment of being fully immersed in a project that has a fixed end in mind. Flow state, they called it.

When I’m out walking every day I’m also working on a puzzle — the endless mystery of what’s going on in the crow world. I don’t suppose there’s an actual end to this project — no single piece that will dramatically pull every element together.

But picking out White Wing —one small, distinctive component in the giant crow jigsaw — was a moment of pure delight.

White Wing, closer up, December 14

White Wing alone in a tree, December 8

The only other crow I’ve been able to reliably identify by silhouette was George. After his beak was broken, that subtle step down on the upper beak was his signature.

George and Mabel: Love’s Delicate Balance

There’s been a lot of darkness this year, and so much uncertainty.

Perhaps that’s why each small answer — even if it’s just one tiny puzzle piece coming home to its rightful place — seems like a comforting ray of light.

 

 

 

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Meet The Walkers

To be perfectly accurate, only one of the Walkers is a keen hiker.

Even then, his perambulations are purposeful, laser focused on a specific destination.

The origin of this routine have been lost in the mists of time.

Who trained who here will forever remain a mystery.

Mr. Walker has no fear of the dog, walking beside him with equanimity.

Mr. Walker’s promenades occur in all weathers …

… and at speeds ranging from dawdle to dash.

Ms. Walker prefers to leave the strolling to her mate, and remains aloft in the tree until the prize is in place.

Ms. Walker on lookout.

Ms. Walker this morning. On the other side her eye is rather damaged, like Mabel’s, but it doesn’t seem to slow her down.

Both of the Walkers will follow me to the end of their block to see me on my way.

Bye-bye, Walkers. See you tomorrow.

 

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The Mabels

Mabel has gone from being a solitary bird after the death of her mate, George Brokenbeak, in 2017, to the matriarch of an unusually massive crow family.

From what I’ve observed over the last few years, such large families remaining together over multiple seasons is somewhat rare. Usually one juvenile crow might stick around for a season or two to learn the ropes, and help the parents with nesting season. In Mabel and her new mate’s case, two of the 2019 juveniles are still with them — plus two more from this season — adding up to a rather rowdy gang of six.

Back in March 2020, when Mabel only had two apprentices.

Among this boisterous bunch it is only Mabel with her distinctive right eye, that I’m regularly able to identify. Hence, I think of them, collectively, as “The Mabels.”

The Mabels, by their sheer numbers, have become a bit of a dominant local force. As I mentioned in last week’s post, the large group has the extra crowpower to have lookouts posted everywhere, making it hard to give our “house crows,” Marvin and Mavis, a few quiet peanuts without bringing the Marauding Mabels into the picture.

To be fair, Mabel and the late lamented George ruled our garden long before Marvin and Mavis, so I’m sure there are some valid territorial claims to be made under Crow Law.

George Brokenbeak and Mabel, our back deck, winter 2016.

Also, this summer, during the hot dry months, I put out a bowl of water in front of the house for the use of any thirsty critters. Mabel, of course, brought the whole family down regularly for refreshment and recreation.  I wrote about this in Fledgling Fun.

So it’s hardly surprising that The Mabels of all generations consider our house to be part of their daily routine.

The heart of their territory lies, however, at the other end of the block— part of a local elementary school. Central to the ancestral seat are two old metal yellow posts with rings on top that are used to mark, and sometimes block off, the entrance to the school parking lot.

The right ring has, for time immemorial (well at least for the few years I’ve been watching) been important to this crow family.

The feet of George upon the yellow throne in 2016.

His Georgeship.

Mabel seemed to inherit the “ring of power” once George was gone. Until quite recently I never saw another crow rest there for very long, including her new mate, Gus.

Don’t even think about it …

The chains of office, claimed by Mabel.

Signs she may be willing to relinquish her iron grip began this spring.

The younger crows, after first practicing on the less prestigious left hand side yellow post …

… were occasionally allowed to take the one true throne for a short test drive.

They always look a little nervous as Mabel’s tolerance for such impertinence is variable.

Sometimes she perches on the lower railing and supervises.

Other times, she wants her spot back and it’s time for a quick exit …

Recently, one of the Mabels has been standing out from the crowd by sheer force of personality.

The smallest of the family, one of the 2020 batch, is proving to be the boldest. I started thinking of her as Chip (as in “off the old block”) and I notice that she will follow me for several blocks on the dog walks, even when the rest of The Mabels have lost interest.

Chip doesn’t have any distinguishing features, other than being the smallest and the cheekiest, but there is just something about her face.

Wet Chip

She’s already got the posing thing down to a fine art.

Recently, she’s been mimicking her mother on the golden throne.

Mabel demonstrates the proper regal attitude …

… while Chip has a ways to go in the poise department …

Mabel (left) and Chip (right) practicing the stone lion pose.

Whether the Mabels will stay together for much longer remains to be seen, but I can’t help hoping that Chip will stick around.

Chip practices multitasking

 

 

 

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Marvin and Mavis: 2020 in Review

Marvin and Mavis have had a pretty stressful 2020.

They’re far from alone, of course, but spare an extra thought for these two.

Spring was looking pretty good. Several years of effort had paid off and they’d finally driven all other crows out of “their” row of poplar trees on Kaslo Street.

I like to think they had a couple of weeks of feeling satisfied with their achievement before the trees were all felled in June.

Left with a blue construction fence instead of 22 stately trees, they tried at least two different nesting sites in smaller street trees. At one point it seemed that they did have a single fledgling, which came to the house a few times and was spotted on the construction fence.

It’s always hard to keep track of the crows during this period as they change their habits, protecting their young ones and chasing off in unpredictable directions after their novice flyers. All that, combined with the summer of noise and dust on the construction site, caused me to completely lose sight of Marvin and Mavis and the young one.

Unfortunately, by the time the literal and metaphorical dust settled at summer’s end, there were just the two of them again, looking a bit glum on the blue fence and starting to moult.

Fall feathers came back in and I was looking forward to getting back to the normal routine of them coming by the house a couple of times a day and  having some quiet chats about world events.

Trouble on this front too, though.

For new readers, a short crow history lesson may be needed here.

Before Marvin and Mavis became our “house crows”, our place “belonged” to George and Mabel. When George died in summer 2017, Mabel moved to the other end of the block and eventually started a new family there.

Mabel and just a couple of her clan.

In 2019  Mabel and her new mate had three fledglings, with two of them staying with mum and dad. This spring they had three more, and the two survivors of that batch are with them now as well — creating a large family unit of six crows.

Six is a lot of beaks to feed, and Mabel seems to have now remembered that our house was once her territory. Consequently, we have a bit of a power play going on, with Marvin and Mavis seriously outnumbered.

Mabel on the garden gate post, back to her old haunt

I have tried to apply the Peanut Diplomacy method to the problem, scouring the scene for the Mabel gang before putting a few discreet peanuts out for M & M.

But, with six pairs of sharp crow eyes on lookout, it’s very rare that anything gets past them — and Marvin and Mavis are constantly having to fend off interlopers.

It’s rare to see either of them these days without fully deployed head or pants feathers, trying to look as fearsome as possible.

Or ducking …

Anxious to avoid crow riots, and potential crow injuries when they dive bomb each other,  I’ve stopped putting peanuts out for anybody for now. When the dog and I leave our gate and I find eight crows waiting, I just walk off and try to lure Mabel and company back to their usual territory at the other end of the block, before rewarding them with a small nut offering.

At the end of the walk, I arrive by a different route at the back of the house and, if I’ve succeeded in losing my “tail,” I can usually find Marvin and Mavis and we can have a bit of discussion about how 2020 is going for each of us.

Suffice to say, sympathy is offered on both sides.

 

 

 

 

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Mabel the Matriarch

Nest building triptych with blossom

Mabel and her mate began their 2020 nesting odyssey way back in April when I photographed the series above, written about in A Message in the Sky.

A nest was duly built in a nearby ornamental plum tree, and Mabel sat on it for a while, settled in a pretty pink world.

Blossom Crow's Nest

It seemed like a good early start, so I was all ears for baby crow sounds by mid-June. Sadly, something must have gone wrong with that nest location, as it was was abandoned sometime in June, and it looked as if Mabel and her partners might be deciding to take a year off from the parenting business. They did have an extremely busy time last summer with three demanding fledglings, two of which were still with them this spring.

Mabel the Crow on Favourite Perch July 2020

She surprised me again last week when I heard not one, but two, and possibly three fledglings calling from her neck of the proverbial urban woods.

And there was one …

Mabel baby crow Jul 18 2020

… and another …

Mabel baby crow with railings

I’m pretty sure I heard a third, but I haven’t seen all three together yet, so hard to say for certain. Either way, it looks like another long, hot, busy summer ahead for Mabel.

Hopefully the “teenagers” still with her be useful baby sitters from time to time. Mostly though, it’s Mabel I’ve seen doing the feeding and general herding of gormless babies out of danger.

Mabel feeding fledgling Jul 18

Fledgling crow with pebble

One of her fledglings beginning that vital crash course on what is, and what is not, food. Small pebbles now ruled out.

Fledgling crow on a peeling roof

Baby experiences his/her first heatwave

I saw Mabel and one of the babies near our house this morning. That’s not “their” end of the block but the parents do have to follow wherever their boundary-innocent offspring flap off to.

First, baby posed for a distant pop-up portrait …

Baby Crow pop up

Then, seeing how fearless mom is, in for a close-up …

Mabel crow fledgling jul 28

Mabel must be getting on bit by now. It looks as if her right eye is getting worse, and yet she continues to add to her corvid dynasty year by year.

More crows in line for her throne and her rusty chain of office — although she looks ready to rule for many years yet.

Mabel on her throne

 

Other posts about Mabel:

George and Mabel: A Love Story

More on Mabel

The Inheritance

 

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The Pants Family, Spring 2020

After months operating undercover as an anonymously normal-looking crow, Mr. Pants will soon be coming into his own when, in the next few weeks, his glorious pants shall reappear. 

Photo by June Hunter

For details on the miraculous annual transformation see my earlier post The Metamorphosis of Mr. Pants.

Mr Pants on Fence

Mr P in full trouserly glory

Thankfully, he is no longer the bedraggled bird he was at peak moulting season last year. He got back to being a handsome, if unremarkable looking, crow by late fall.

Photo by June Hunter

Last spring I was away in the UK for the month of June, so I missed a lot of nesting season. For whatever reason, Mr. and Mrs. Pants produced no offspring in 2019, so I’ve been keeping a special eye on their progress this spring.

They had a rather trying fall and winter last year, with territorial trouble on their southern border from the Walker family. While Mr. and Mrs. P had no surviving babies last year, the Walkers did, and their need for more food and their numerical advantage led to bold and frequent incursions into Pantsland.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Both of the Pants couple spent most of their time with eyes scouring the sky for invading forces and they were very jumpy and seemed … if it is possible to discern this in crows … stressed out.

Mrs. Pants scours sky

Mrs. Pants on guard

Photo by June Hunter

Mr. Pants on Shed Roof

Mr. Pants keeping a wary eye on things from above

Tail fanned Mr Pants Crow

Mr Pants employing full tail regalia to defend his territory.

Now that nesting season is well underway, all the crows are keeping a lower profile and things have at last quietened on the contested border.

Mr. Pants and Wisteria

Mr. Pants takes a relaxed moment to pose with wisteria.

As I mentioned in the last post, Small News, many crows are choosing small street trees as nesting sites of late. While they’re closer to the ground and the risk of predation by racoons, cats, squirrels etc. they’re less likely to be raided by large birds like ravens, hawks and eagles — which seems to be an increasing risk as these birds gain a firmer foothold in the city.

The Pants have long favoured the small tree option and this year is no exception.

I spotted Mrs Pants last week sitting in their nest in quite small street tree  — a crabapple of some sort, I think, and the same type of tree they chose two years ago. Fortunately they seem to have selected a healthier specimen this time, as the spring 2018 tree shed a lot of leaves in spring, leaving poor Mrs. P baking in the sun or thoroughly soaked, depending on the day, and not particularly well hidden. Even then, they did successfully fledge two little ones that year, although, sadly neither made it past the first few months. One just disappeared early on and the other succumbed to avian pox.

Being an urban nature enthusiast involves, as I learn anew every year, witnessing a lot of tragedy and well as joy.

Crow on Nest June 8 2020

Mrs. Pants on the nest this morning

Still, like the crows, we consider each day a new start, and each nesting season a potential bonanza of good news, so fingers crossed for the Pantses and all the other birds putting their all into the nesting business this spring.

Mrs. Pants above nest

Mrs Pants on guard above the nest.

 

Next up: the Walker Crow Family.

 

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