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:
Bringing you, direct to you from the runways of East Vancouver, the very latest in autumn fashion inspiration. I encourage you to leaf through the new trends and adopt some elements to create your very own signature fall look.
I can guarantee you will stand out from the crowd.
Eric and Clara model “dragged through a hedge backwards” look that is so of the moment.
The Statement Nostril
I really can’t over emphasize the importance this new must-have fashion staple!
A particularly severe molting season this year has left many a corvid nostril exposed to the elements. As with most things in life, if you got it, you might as well flaunt it.
Flaunt those nostrils …
Own those nostrils!
How To Wear It
This season’s look screams, “I don’t care what I look like!” along with a touch of “I’ve pretty much given up on grooming.”
A determinedly devil-may-care attitude is required to successfully pull off this somewhat challenging fashion trend.
So worth the effort though. Just look at the results when it’s successfully done …
Don’t be shy. Get out there and strut your tattered stuff.
Mabel, last year’s calendar cover model, demonstrates how the careful use of accessories can help pull off this look. A bit of hard old pizza in your beak makes you the indisputable Queen of the Runway.
Who you lookin’ at?
The Neck Ruffle
Hot from the fashion presses, this dynamic new look is a sort of mullet hybrid.
Quite the party in back, although not much business in front (see next trend below.)
The Indie Beard
This electrifying new trend is taking all of East Van by storm. Some humans even sport the look. While thoroughly of the new and now, we see in it a nod to the first beatnik hipsters.
Mr. Pants (such a fashion guru) was an early adopter of this bold new facial experiment …
But now some of the younger crows are hopping on the straggly chin bandwagon …
Marvin thinks he looks pretty groovy.
The Most Important Fall Fashion Question
Of course, these are only fads and foibles. What those of us in the know most want to find out is:
Will Mr. Pants regain his full trousered splendour after the molting season???
Here he was, back in early August when his Pants were at their most magnificent.
Things have been looking a little sparser of late …
This gives me great hope that His Pantship will be back in full regalia once the molting season is over.
We do hope you’re going to try some of these looks, brought to you by the Crow-dashians of East Vancouver. Do send us any photos of the results!
I have felt a bit like one of those fashion bloggers who photograph edgy street fashion over the past few days. It’s been quite a laugh.
Seriously though, the poor crows are kind of miserable and irritable during the molting season, so do be nice to them. If it’s still dry where you are, think of leaving them some water. Kind words are also always appreciated.
Ideally, when your long awaited visitors arrive, you and your home are looking their spiffy best. As we know, this often does not work out exactly as planned, but it’s important to make the best of things and make the guests welcome anyway.
Today I went on my usual early morning “urban nature enthusiast” walk, which mostly consists of chatting with my local crows and topping up their strategically located water bowls. As I visited my corvid acquaintances, I began to imagine what they might have to say to our out of town visitors.
“First of all, sorry about how we’re looking.
We’d really hoped the molting season would be over by now and we’d be sporting our fabulous fall feathers. All midnight blues, deep amethysts and shimmery sheen. Sigh. Instead, we’re still in the midst of our crazy “hey, look, I could be an extra in a low budget pirate movie” phase.
We like to think of this as our Late Summer Casual look.”
Mr. Pants shows off his molting season hipster beard.
The crow shown here is one I’ve been following and photographing for a few months. I started calling him Fluffy Pants, meaning to come up with a more dignified name later. Somehow he’s gotten stuck as FP, but we call him Mr. Pants for short which I like to think is slightly more respectable. His claim to fame is (obviously) his extravagantly feathered pair of trousers. He had them last year too, so I assume they’ll stick with him through the molting season.
Although, this morning, as he flew over my head, one of his precious pant feathers came loose and spiralled slowly, slowly downward — right into my waiting hand.
Here it is, as fluffy and delicate as you’d imagine.
Mr Pants looking more fully fluffy and pleasingly purple, only a couple of weeks ago.
This is Mavis, one of the crows that lives right beside my house. She’s usually the first bird I see each morning. Fluffed up, her molting feathers, in all their faded colours, look rather magnificent
Mavis’s mate, Marvin, was looking a bit more dishevelled today. You can actually see the “nostril” holes in his beak as he’s lost the feathers that usually cover them.
“So, yes, human visitors, we realize that we crows are not looking our most magnificent for your visit.
But don’t write us off. We’re as clever, funny, feisty and fascinating as ever. Make sure and keep your eyes open for us. You can’t miss us. We’re everywhere. Watch for us at dusk, when we fly in crowds to the east for our nightly roost at Still Creek.
Oh, yeah, you may also have noticed that the much hyped mountains, and some other breath-taking vistas, have disappeared behind a pall of forest fire smoke.
Things are breath-taking, just not in a good way.
It’s been yet another long, hot, tinder dry summer and lots of BC is burning.
We’re sorry the view is more dsytopian than utopian for your visit.
On the small bright side, it’s visceral proof that the human race really needs to take a look at what it’s been up to for the last couple of millenia.
Many of you are scientists and activists, and we crows are cheering you in your work to help chart a new course for this environmental pirate ship we’re all crewing on.
Otherworldly sunrise over the Iron Workers Memorial Bridge, East Vancouver.
Vancouver summer 2018
On another note (June speaking again, not crows) ….
… I’ll have a booth at the Nature and Bird Expo at the Vancouver Convention Centre this week. Hope to see you there (Booth #623) and we can talk crows and murky skies …
It sounded as if Crowmaggedon was in progress in the back alley.
I went out to investigate — expecting, from the sheer volume of sound, to find a full scale murder going on.
Instead, I found two crows — Marvin and Mavis.
Sometimes just Marvin, as Mavis kept making trips back to check on the nest.
It was same call they make when poor Edgar (the cat) ventures out onto our back deck. It is, I’m guessing, their “gound threat” alarm call. They seem to have a slightly higher pitched one for airborne enemies.
Edgar was sleeping innocently on the couch, so not the cause of the ruckus this time.
But I did glimpse a raccoon’s tail disappearing under the neighbour’s fence. It must have gone to sleep there, because Marvin and Mavis kept up their protest for several hours.
This is a raccoon photograph taken the day after the Wall of Sound incident. I never did get a picture of the one that Marvin and Mavis were so mad at. I imagine it was snoring peacefully in the neighbour’s woodpile.
I guess one of the signs that you’ve truly become a “crazy crow lady” is when the ceaseless sound of cawing (which is, objectively, quite annoying after an hour or more) becomes a source of fascination.
Here is Marvin making his point. It’s impressive, for a solo effort.
Note: Videos follow, so if you’re reading this in an email, you’ll need to view the blog online to see see them play.CLICK HERE
But listen how, when Mavis joins in, they cooperate to create a continuous wall of sound. Eat your heart out Phil Spector.
Mavis seems to time her calls to fill every gap in Marvin’s sequence, so that they truly do sound like a flowing river of corvid fury.
The other interesting part of the performance was the incredible number of dynamic shapes they cut against the sky.
Marvin would pace theatrically along the neighbour’s washing line — sometimes struggling to combine keeping balanced with the vocal effort. Rather like trying to sing opera while tight rope walking, I should imagine.
If the story the crows wrote against the sky with their nest building silhouettes was one of peace and tranquility (see Crow Calligraphy) — this more recent essay would be on the subjects of fear, fury and determination.
Mind you, in the middle of all of this, there was time for a bit of curiosity and play. Something at the top of the washing line pole would occasionally distract Marvin from his ranting. Periodic moments of blissful silence would ensue, before he’d remember his sacred mission and pick up the protest.
So, fear, fury, determination … with a side order of comedy.
Mavis reminds Marvin to keep on task.
I enjoyed the energy of the performance so much, that I decided to use one of the pictures from that day as part of the cover for the 2019 City Crow Calendar I’m now working on.
Somehow it seems to capture a lot of all that is “crow.”
Hoping to have the calendar printed and for sale by August this year!
Later that day, raccoon finally decided to move on and peace was restored.
Here’s a more relaxed Marvin that evening, taking in the view from his favourite power line pole. The nest and the distant North Shore mountains all within view, no predators around for a moment — time to let go of all that raccoon stress.
I knew I’d be upset when, inevitably, something happened to one of my crow acquaintances.
Even so, I’m surprised at how many tears I’ve shed since burying my pal, George Brokenbeak.
He’s laid to rest on the “garden of tears” side of the yard, along with countless beloved goldfish and hamsters, and the late Elvis (our cat, not the human — although there was some confusion about that when my son was little …)
George has been gone since Friday, but I didn’t want to cast sadness over the long weekend by writing about it then. I don’t really want to write about it now because it makes me cry again, but I thought you’d want to know.
On Friday morning I got a phone call from a friend and fellow dog walker (two rescue Westies.) We often stop and chat about the foibles of our dogs, and the comings and goings of the local crows. He knew George quite well, because he and Mabel were spending the summer hanging out behind his house — and dunking food in his dogs’ water bowl. George, in fact, was a minor local celebrity.
Not nearly as famous as Canuck, his much more well known fellow corvid, but known in this immediate neighbourhood for his friendly manner, as well as his distinctive profile.
You could tell George in profile from far away. He and Mabel, sharing a quiet moment in the poplars in my “Delicate Balance” image.
My friend had found George lying dead earlier that morning, and he knew I’d want to know.
Since about May, George and Mabel stopped coming to my garden, staying closer to their annual nesting site a block or so away. Still, I’d see them almost every day when out walking the dog. We’d exchange pleasantries and peanuts.
I last saw him what must have been a day or two before he died. All of the crows are looking pretty scruffy at the moment with the molting season underway, so if he looked a bit the worse for wear, I didn’t worry too much.
I think this may be the last picture I took of George.
It’s been a long, hot, dry summer in British Columbia. As a result, many parts of the province are, or have been, on fire. Thousands of people have been evacuated, and many have lost everything. Livestock and wildlife up there have died.
Here in Vancouver, we’re lucky to only have the smoke to contend with, blocking a lot of the summer sun.
The sun rises in the eerie smoke-filled sky behind the Iron Workers’ Memorial Bridge in East Vancouver.
But from an urban wildlife perspective, this summer is a disaster. We had less than two mm of rain in July. None so far in August. Every puddle dried up weeks ago. Any worms must be ten feet down in the earth by now. I’ve seen skunks wandering the streets in broad daylight. They’re normally nocturnal and shy, so this is stressed behaviour. This morning I saw two coyotes on the corner of our block, again in daylight.
In the end, I’m not sure what killed George, but I suspect that, with the extra challenge of his broken beak, it was just too hard to get enough to eat and drink. I’ve been putting water out in front and back of my house, and over by the school at the end of the street. I know George had access to my friend’s dogs’ water bowls, but possibly it was too hard for him to drink efficiently enough for these harsh conditions.
George was found lying at the end of our alley — just a few houses from my back yard. I can’t help wondering if he was making his way back, coming for a drink in the birdbath and some peanuts. I hadn’t seen him anywhere near that part of our neighbourhood since May, so he was on some kind of special mission.
There was no crow funeral being held for George when I got there. He was just lying there, looking rather peaceful. No signs of injury.
At first I thought I’d just leave him to Nature. Or the City coming to pick him up. In the end, I just couldn’t do it. I came home, put my rubber gloves on, and found a shoe box.
I dug a deep hole in the pet graveyard, wrapped George in a linen napkin, and sprinkled flowers on him. I’m sure he didn’t care about any of this, but it made me feel a little better. I placed a flat stone on his grave and stencilled a crow silhouette on it.
Let future archaeologists make of this what they may.
My daughter summed it up well when she replied to my distraught text with the words: “He was a good crow.” Indeed he was. Perhaps it was just his time to go, two years after his original beak injury. For some reason I had come to think he was immortal.
To read more about the wonder that was George, you can visit earlier stories:
The neighbourhood is alive with all kinds of baby bird noises.
Loudest of all, naturally, are the baby crows.
Here is a sample of some of the hilarious baby crow moments I’ve had the joy to observe in the last few days of dog walking. I’m very lucky that Geordie is a patient sort of dog, willing to put up with many unscheduled stops on our expeditions.
Geordie the Crow Watcher
We came across this brand new addition to our block this morning. Could be one of George and Mabel’s, as it was at “their” end of the block. We watched him/her spend several minutes trying to figure out (unsuccessfully) how to squeeze through a garden fence.
Has anyone seen my mom???
Not to worry. Mom (or Dad) was supervising from a nearby roof.
This baby was still in the early stages of flying lessons.
OK, first you spread the wings …
Then, you take a good run and jump …
Oops. Going down …
The baby crows who live a couple of blocks west of us are a week or two ahead in their Skills Development program.
Here’s one taking a deep breath and taking off from the hydro wires.
Woohoo! Here we go. Now, how did that flapping thing go again?
Figuring out what is, and isn’t, edible is a bit of a process of trial and error.
Baby crows are very vocal about their constant state of ravenous hunger.
Mom, mom, mom!!! Food, food, food!!!
It seems that the frazzled parents will try anything to get some peace and quiet.
Look – I brought you this delicious stick.
Hold still and eat this delicious bit of wood!
Look, I went to all the trouble to get you this delicious stick, so you WILL eat it.
Honestly, I can hardly bring myself to come back to the studio to get some work done.
I can’t bear to think what I might be missing in the ongoing reality show of Real Baby Crows of East Van.
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!