It can be a bit confusing to hear the sounds of fledgling crows begging loudly for food as early as April.
We’re still weeks away from the excitement of the first fledgling appearances — so what’s going on?
You’re hearing the sound of female crows begging food from their mates. They sound just like hungry fledglings and also adopt the classic begging pose — wings out, head lowered.
It’s just another part of the nesting dance. The construction of the nest is probably complete and the female is getting ready to lay eggs, but first she needs to remind her mate that she, just like the helpless fledgling she’s mimicking, is going to be relying on him for food soon.
The Walkers have been displaying this behaviour for a week or so now.
Mr Walker feeding his mate, Wanda
Shortly before laying eggs the female crow loses feathers on a patch of her underside so that her body heat will pass to the eggs without any feathery insulation getting in the way. This is called a brood patch — and only the mother crow has one — so for two to three weeks it’s her job to sit on the nest and incubate the precious eggs, while her mate is responsible for guarding the nest and keeping her fed. If he fails, she will be brooding in more way than one …
Wanda (blind in one eye) in a cherry tree
Wanda is starting to insist that Mr. Walker feed her, even when she’s got a beak full of food already, just to jog his crow brain into remembering his coming duties.
Mr. Walker, dependable father to be
Here’s a little phone video series of the current daily routine.
Part one: As always, Mr. Walker dashes along beside us. At the moment his route is decorated with drifts of pink snow from fallen cherry blossom petals.
Part two: As usual, Wanda arrives at the peanut destination first (having come via air travel) and gets first dibs on the snacks.
Part three: in spite of having more than her share of peanuts, Wanda insists that Mr. W feeds her some of his. He gallantly obliges.
The Walkers at Home
Let’s hope the Walkers have a successful season. Like many of the local crows, their 2022 nesting efforts went unrewarded, so a couple of new little Walkers this year would be extra nice.
I always have mixed feelings about this time of year when the baby crows, still in the nest, are getting oh so close to checking out the pros and cons of gravity.
Sometimes, if the nest is too high and the wings too fragile, this is their first and last adventure. However, most will make it to the ground and then the crow parents’ work really begins.
Fledgling crows are a little like feathered disaster machines — hopping blithely into roads, napping under parked car tires, wandering innocently up to cats, crashing into garden fences, ignoring crow territorial boundaries and antagonizing the neighbours — I’ve watched each one of these scenarios every spring.
My breath is bated for the entire month of June … and I’m just a spectator to all of this.
As I always like to advise people at this time of year, try and put yourself into the mindset of the very tired and very tense crow parents.
Yes, they may swoop at your head if you get too close to their precious offspring. There will definitely be a lot of sound and fury, signifying something.
But try not to think of this as an adversarial, crow vs humanity type of situation — rather just another way in which crows, as devoted parents, are very like us.
Lots of the cawing isn’t even directed at us. Sometimes, I’ve noticed, the parents make a huge amount of noise just for the purpose of making the vulnerable little baby crow calls less obvious to listening predators.
Sometimes they’re just delivering a loud and endless stream of advice for the fledglings’ benefit: “flap harder,” “get off the road,” “sshh!”
And, if you MUST let your cat outside, please, oh please, at least keep them in during nesting season. Baby birds are, literally, sitting ducks for recreational feline hunters.
Also, take a moment to check around your parked car before driving off!
I haven’t actually seen a fledgling yet this year, but any day now …
I heard some quiet fledgling burbles coming from Marvin and Mavis’s nest a few days ago. Listen carefully after the car noise …
Marvin and Mavis were running a full time Uber Eats service between my deck (and an hourly peanut supply) and this tree a couple of days ago.
Here I am again …
They’ve also been fiercely defending our garden against a new crow couple in the area. Marvin’s feathers have been in fluffed out warrior mode for so long I wonder if this may be his permanent new look.
Now Marvin and Mavis’s visits are much more sporadic and I have the feeling that the fledglings are on the move, so the parents just have to go wherever their waddling, falling or flapping takes them. This is the most nerve wracking and disaster prone stage, so we can only wait and see what happens next.
More updates soon on other local crows’ nesting progress!
The crow nesting season goes through various phases, some quiet, others much louder.
Right now we’re in a seemingly tranquil phase
All is secretive and low key as the parents try to keep the nest locations hidden from predators. Sometimes the game is given away when the female, sitting on the eggs, makes begging sounds to remind their mate to hurry up with the food delivery, but generally it’s as if the whole neighbourhood is made up entirely of of very quiet bachelor crows.
Marvin going solo while Mavis sits on the eggs, spring 2022
The mother crow will remain on the nest, incubating 2-6 eggs, for between two and three weeks. Once the eggs hatch, both parents will leave and return to the nest frequently to bring food. Another parental duty is carrying away the babies’ fecal sacs to keep the nest clean. A sure sign of hatched babies is seeing a poop-splattered adult crow — evidence of one of those sacs having failed in the disposal process. The love of a parent truly knows no bounds …
Mr. Walker on dad duty, Spring 2022
This is, of course, the calm before the storm. Soon things will start to get more exciting as dive bombing season begins.
This is such an issue in Vancouver that, a few years back, a Langara College professor created an open-source Geographic Information System called Crowtrax, allowing people to report where they were attacked by crows and thus contribute to a map of the most “crow-terrrorized” parts of the city.
I’m happy to report that there’s been a positive change in the way this part of the crow nesting season in covered by the local media over the past few years. It used to be all Hitchockian horror, with eyeball grabbing headlines about “savage” crows swooping from the sky and randomly mauling innocent pedestrians. In recent times there has been more curiosity about what’s really happening here, and much more thoughtful pieces have been written.
Last year, Georgia Strait reporter, Martin Dunphy, wrote such an article and one of my images was on the front cover.
The article included comments from Vancouver crow scientist, Rob Butler, and myself and was a refreshingly pro-crow look what can be a slightly hysterical time of year.
I have some tips on avoiding getting dive-bombed this year, but first of all it’s helpful understand what’s going on from the crows’ perspective.
The crow parents have been working on this nest since late February, carefully building it, sitting on eggs in secret, carrying bags of baby poop hither and yon, fighting off hawks, raccoons, cats and eagles. They are tired, stressed to the max, and very, very committed to the success of their little families. Now the precious babies are about the leave the relative security of the nest.
These “babies” are almost the same size as the parents at this point, so some people don’t even notice that they’re not adult crows. Sometimes they’re difficult to spot at all as they rest on the ground, camouflaged with dust and leaf litter. They’re often earthbound because, in what seems to be a bit of a design flaw, they come out of the nest before they can fly.
The young crows are curious and eager to explore, but have no idea what might be fun as opposed to fatal. The only things standing between the helpless fledglings and getting stepped on, run over or attacked by animals or birds of prey are good old mom and dad. These exhausted and very tense parents and are the “savage” dive bombers — and it’s really nothing personal, they just want you to STAY AWAY from their precious offspring until they can fly.
In my experience, sometimes the raucous cawing isn’t even directed at us humans. Often they seem to be screaming instructions at their fledging and/or making a lot of racket just to drown out the baby crow noises that might attract real predators.
So try to remember, you’re not in a Hitchcock movie — just a small domestic drama.
TIPS FOR KEEPING YOURSELF AND THE CROWS SAFE
Avoiding the nest area if possible.
If you can’t stay clear, wear a hat or use an umbrella when you walk by.
Try pinning fake eyes (paper drawings, or make some with felt) on the back of your hat or hood. Crows only attack from the rear and if they see a pair of eyes “looking” at them they won’t swoop — according to Seattle crow scientist John Marzluff.
Earn some trust with a small offering of unsalted peanuts. Not a big pile — just 3 or 4 peanuts as a gesture of friendliness.
This might just be me, but I always speak softly to the parents and tell them what a great job they’re doing.
If you see a crow fledgling alone on the ground, don’t assume it needs rescuing. There will be a parent crow nearby watching over things and, unless the baby is obviously injured, it’s always best to leave it alone.
This following little diagram is something I put together years ago as an easy guide to telling fledgling crows apart from adults …
Once the baby crows are able to fly the parents will become a lot more relaxed and spend a lot of time feeding, grooming and showing the young ones the ropes of being a successful city crow.
Spending time watching this process will reward you with many laughs as you see yourself reflected in the behaviour of the parents, kids, or both.