George, cloaked in frost, uses his partial beak to scoop up some peanuts.
A little video addendum to my earlier blog post: George’s Tough Year
George, cloaked in frost, uses his partial beak to scoop up some peanuts.
A little video addendum to my earlier blog post: George’s Tough Year
I would describe George’s 2015 as “catastrophic”. Still, there are lessons to be learned from his persistence.
His year has been so awful, it’s taken me a while to prepare myself to tell the story, and look again at some of the images.
George appeared in my garden about midway through the long, hot, dry summer last year. He was waiting for me one day when I came out of the studio, resting on a branch and looking at me as if we were already well acquainted. It turned out that George had a family — a mate (Mabel) and one fledgling.
The baby crow at first seemed like the average disheveled juvenile, doted upon my both of his parents. But as the summer continued, it became clear that all was not well with Junior. Lumps appeared on his face and then on his feet. He had avian pox, which is often fatal and very contagious to other birds of many species.
I had a crisis of conscience. Fearing for the health of all the other birds that come to my garden, I considered ignoring George’s pleading looks so that the family might start to seek food elsewhere and leave the area. Easier said than done.
After a couple of miserable days of looking at George’s expectant face through the studio window, I moved to plan B. This consisted of a rather rigorous schedule of feeding George and family at only one spot on the deck and then, after their visit, immediately cleaning the area with bleach and rinsing thoroughly. I also bleached the birdbath daily, and emptied and cleaned all the other bird feeders every few days. I went from crazy crow lady, to crazy bleach lady!
Of course, when I noticed the sick baby and family perched on the hydro wires all over the neighbourhood, I realized that there was a limit to what I could do in the sterilization department.
By the end of the summer, George and Mabel looked completely worn out. All Vancouver wildlife had a tough time dealing with the drought, and many birds started molting early in the summer. George looked thoroughly bedraggled by the time new feathers started to come in for the fall.
Finally, in early fall, his new feathers came in and he looked much more handsome. More importantly, he and Mabel showed no sign of having developed avian pox symptoms.
A little more on Mabel: she’s a lot more reluctant to get close to me than George. A problem with her right eye probably causes some vision impairment, naturally making her more cautious. At times the eye is completely closed and, at other times, it looks quite normal. Mostly it doesn’t seem to cause her great problems.
Sadly, the baby crow grew sicker, although both parents continued to feed and preen him with single-minded dedication. He could still fly, but his damaged feet made it hard for him to land and rest. We could hear his plaintive cries for food from one end of our alleyway to the other. Then the weather turned suddenly cold and he fell silent.
George’s bad luck did not end there.
Shortly after the sick baby crow died, I saw George waiting for me as usual in the garden and went out to say hello.
I gasped in horror. My brain couldn’t comprehend what I was seeing. George the magnificent, was missing half of his top beak.
First of all, I couldn’t for the life of me imagine how this happened.
I still can’t. If anyone has ideas, I’d love to hear them.
Then, I was grief stricken. After all that George had been through, this new catastrophe seemed so unfair.
I was afraid that he wouldn’t be able to survive this new challenge. I didn’t post anything about it on Facebook because I was still mentally processing both the event, and my reaction to it.
I struggled with whether it’s wrong to be so very upset about the difficulties facing a crow — given all the terrible things going on in the world.
There’s a whole other, more thoughtful, blog post being pondered to answer that question. Until then, in brief, I’ve decided it’s OK. And even if it isn’t, I can’t help it.
It’s been several weeks now and I’ve become accustomed to George’s new look. I’m cheered by the adaptability he’s demonstrating with his food collection methods. When he comes for peanuts he turns his head almost upside down for better “shoveling” action. I try to help out by putting the nuts in contained space so he can trap them. It’s rather amazing how efficient he’s become.
And, happily, Mabel seems to be standing by her crow. George’s injury doesn’t seem to have affected her loyalty – the two of them remain a fierce team when it comes to protecting their territorial rights.
Clearly Mabel still thinks that George is the top crow, so I’m hoping the two of them together can survive and thrive. I’m full of admiration for George Halfbeak and his resilience. I’m even starting to see a certain dashing charm in his new look.
He had a pretty devastating 2015, but looks set to take on 2016 with typical crow determination. Good luck, George and Happy New Year.
If you’ve been wondering where Eric the crow is these days, read on.
After a rather long day in the studio I was faced with the choice of a “feet up with tea” break, or a short walk. Luckily the sunshine outside persuaded me to go for the latter.
I do love autumn. The special light, the sharpness in the air, the colours. All were on offer for my half hour walk.
I set out in the direction of Notre Dame School at the end of our street and to my delight, as soon as I reached the corner, there was my old buddy, Eric.
He used to be in my garden all the time last winter, but he moved his family over to the school, with it’s stand of tall Lombardy poplars, for the nesting season.
Since then, my garden has been “claimed” by Vera and Hank who tried and failed to raise a family in the big tree just across the alley. They vanished some time over the summer to be replaced by George and his family, which includes an ailing baby crow. Recently there’s been a bit of a territorial conflict with George defending “his” space from other crows — which may include Eric. It’s hard to tell who’s who when they’re swirling about in the air. Much as I’d love to have Eric back in the garden, I pretty much have to leave it to the crows to sort out their own pecking order.
However, I do try to visit the school corner once a week or so to check in and see if Eric is still there and looking well. And, I am happy to report, he is.
After a short chat with Eric (crazy crow lady alert!) and the donation of a couple of peanuts I found in the seams of my pocket, I walked south a bit and then west along Charles Street.
As you may know, I have a bit of a hydrangea obsession — particularly at this time of year when they are a bit faded, but displaying gorgeous moody and subtle shades.
The long view down Charles Street, with the sun behind the maple and dogwood trees created an explosion of autumn colour.
A bonanza of fallen berries on Penticton Street. When we had two Labs we had to avoid this street in fall, because they’d just stop to feast. With disastrous results later … Those berries always remind me of Molly and Taz.
Finally, it was time to head home. At the corner of Parker and Slocan, I was greeted by George. I knew it was him at once because of (a) the meaningful look and (b) the sick baby crow he was with.
George followed me the block home. We walked (well, he flew) down the alley.
Now that the leaves are mostly fallen, you can see the nest where Hank and Vera tried their hand/claws at raising a family in the spring. Hopefully they’ll succeed next year after this spring’s practice run.
Back at the garden, George settles himself on the studio roof, waiting for a few peanuts.
I only had half an hour “off”, but I felt as if I’d been on a proper little mini-vacation!
You can see portraits of Eric and George and the other local crow characters on my web site in the Crow Portrait series. The current gallery is about to be retired (on Oct 31) and replaced with a new series.
My City Crow calendar features all pictures of Eric and his family, taken in 2014 and 2015.
Happy autumn. Remember to get out and take a walk. You never know what (or who) you might see.
The summer of 2015 had been a rough one for crows. Actually it’s been tough for urban wildlife of all kinds, but since I watch the crows so much, I’ve been feeling their pain especially.
Raising fledglings is hard work at the best of times – constant feeding, along with perpetual vigilance against the usual dangers – racoons, hawks, eagles, cars, cats etc. Added to the usual list of challenges this summer: high winds (just when babies were emerging from the nest), heat and drought, served with a garnish of forest fire smoke.
Tired crow parents, made fierce by anxiety, are prone to dive bombing unwary human pedestrians every nesting season. It seemed to me that they were even more ferocious than usual this year.
Who could blame them?
It was too hot for me to venture out at all after noon on days when the temperatures soared this summer. Pity the poor crow parent – obliged to fly about relentlessly, heat or no heat, seeking tasty morsels food satisfy their perpetually hungry, pink-mouthed babies.
Even worse than the heat — drought. Until the fledglings learn to fly a longer distance, I don’t know how the parents keep them hydrated.
Eric and his family (for reasons I will go into) have been avoiding my garden and the bird bath there. Worried for them, I’ve been making early morning trips to their “territory” at the end of out street with a saucer of water and a few nuts.
All of the crows, even Eric the Elegant, are looking terribly bedraggled this summer. They began their moult in early July. This is a normal occurrence, but usually happens at the end of the summer. I can only imagine that the scorching temperatures must have brought it forward. The ground is littered with black feathers.
Earlier this year I read the wonderful book, Corvus, by Esther Woolfson. From her writing, I learned that the moulting process makes birds rather irritable and out of sorts.
In the garden in early summer we had Hank and Vera. After weeks of diligent nest construction and guarding, they lost their eggs to a hungry racoon. They remained for a while and then moved on. Here they are during the period in July when Vancouver’s air quality was affected by forest fires in surrounding areas – looking rather sepia in the smokey atmosphere.
When Hank and Vera left, I thought Eric and his family would return to the garden. Instead, I found that they would come to my front gate, looking for handouts, but would never, ever venture into the back garden. Eric’s fledglings even adopted a “silent” begging mode, going through all of the usual baby crow pleading motions, but without sound. Its almost as if they didn’t want to attract the attention of other crows.
Meanwhile, Hank and Vera had been replaced in the back garden by another crow family – two devoted parents with a very homely looking fledgling. The baby crow had various lumps under his beak, and eventually on his feet too. Luckily, a sharp eyed visitor to my Facebook page, where I’d posted a photo of the new baby, pointed out that it could be a case of avian pox.
I checked the symptoms with the wonderful people at Wildlife Rescue Association BC and they confirmed that this was likely the case. Avian pox is highly contagious among many bird species, harmless to humans.
I always keep my birdbath and feeders clean, but on hearing this news I’ve started cleaning the birdbath in particular with bleach twice a day. I don’t normally like using bleach, but apparently only a 10% solution of bleach to water is effective against the virus. You can read more about this illness in Corvid Research’s wonderful blog, here.
My theory is that Eric and his family know that there is a sick crow around, and that is why they haven’t returned to their old stomping grounds. I am heartened to think that this is yet another example of crow intelligence.
Eric and his mate, Clara, started out with four fledglings. It’s to their credit that they have, so far, managed to nurse two of them through a very rough summer.
One of Eric’s two youngsters – already looking like a chip off the old block, and wonderfully healthy, thank goodness.
If you like crows in general and Eric in particular, you can follow my Facebook page for regular updates. Also, stay tuned to my website for news of a 2016 City Crow calendar, featuring the adventures of Eric and his family.
First there was Eric. Then there was Hank. Now there are Hank and Eric and Vera and Eric’s mate and some babies. That’s a lot of crows for a small area, but they seem to have worked out a way to keep things civil.
They key is that certain rules have to be adhered to. Eric and his family have the run of the front street and the large poplars at the end of the street.
Hank and Vera rule the back garden and the alley. They still seem to be tending to a nest in a big tree in the alley.
Harmony exists as long as no-one forgets to cross the unseen borders. If they do – holy moly, there is trouble.
The other day Hank was on his usual perch on the neighbour’s roof when Eric came a-calling. After all, the back yard used to be Eric’s domain, so I can see how he might be confused. I was photographing Hank at the time, so I was able to catch the instantaneous transformation from relaxed, rather gormlessly sunbathing crow — to puffed-up (look how big and scary I am!) tough-guy crow.
I can easily tell the difference between Hank and Eric because Hank has a rather distinctive “over beak”. His top beak curves over the bottom slightly. They engaged in a few minutes of angry cawing and a touch of dive bombing action before Eric relinquished the territory to Hank.
It’s lucky the trouble was short lived — because Hank really seems to enjoy just hanging about and soaking up the sun. Here he is later that day doing some more sun bathing on the studio roof. He likes to relax with his beak open and wings spread out. He’s a real West Coast, laid back kind of crow.
He probably does yoga when I’m not looking. Actually, I think I may have caught him a hula hoop practice in this picture.
I am getting quite fond of Hank and he is getting less nervous around me, and therefore a more willing model for my photographs.
If you’d like to hear more about what goes on with the local crows on a daily basis, check in at my Facebook page.
I post lots of pictures there and keep you up on latest in the ongoing crow soap opera.
Vera is a little nervous around the camera, but not as phobic as this photo would suggest. She was actually enjoying a good scratch!
She and her partner (Hank) are one of many young couples starting out and trying to raise a family here in East Vancouver.
The two of them started hanging out in my garden regularly a few weeks ago. Sadly, I haven’t seen Eric in a while, but I’m hoping he’s just busy nesting nearby. I hope to see him again in the fall.
Vera and Hank have been busy ransacking my trees for branches that are “just right” for weeks. I soon began to suspect they had plans to settle in the area. They fly in and out of a big tree close by, so I’m pretty sure that’s their new address.
A couple of weeks ago I noticed Vera begging for food and being fed by her partner, another sign that babies are on the way. Finally, I noticed a big pink patch of featherless skin under Vera’s belly. At first I was worried that she’d been in a fight and gotten injured, but then the phrase “brood patch” popped into my head.
I’m nervously monitoring their progress. They both seem pretty young. Vera, in particular, could be one of last year’s babies. She still has the brownish feathers of juvenile crow. It seems that she’s pretty low ranking in the crow-verse. When I first saw her she’d appear in the morning adorned with droppings, meaning that, in the crow roost, she got to sleep on the lower branches. High branches are reserved for the senior crows, like Eric. Lately she’s been cleaner, probably because she’s not going to the roost at night, but staying with Hank to guard the nest.
Vera looks as though she’s having a bit of a hard life. Her feathers are strangely tattered — the Cinderella of the crow world. She’s clearly at the opposite end of the crow hierarchy from Eric the Magnificent.
I named her Vera after one of my favourite British TV detectives. The fictional Vera is tough and determined, so I’m hoping some of that will rub off on this “Vera”. She’ll need all the help she can get make it in the rough and tumble world of the urban crow.
I’ll keep you posted on any developments in the baby crow department!
For portraits of the crows of East Vancouver, check out my web site.
Dive bombing crows are in the news again.
A scary experience for pedestrians, but it may help to know why they do it.
Imagine this. You and your sleep-deprived spouse have just had triplets. A few days after they’re born they have the mobility capacity of toddlers — combined with the burning desire to see the world and the “I-can-do-it” attitude of teenagers!
They’ve got the keys to the car but have had no driving lessons.
At the same time, they’re loudly demanding food and attention every moment of the day.
You’d be kind of wild-eyed too. You’d be prone to acts of desperate bravado to keep danger away, just until the kids get the hang of the flying business and the basics of urban survival.
If you know there are worry-crazed parent crows in your neighbourhood, I hope you’ll try to forgive their seemingly aggressive behaviour. It will pass soon, once the kids are just a little older.
In the meantime, give them a wide berth — or use an umbrella for protection. Maybe soothe their frazzled nerves and offer a bribe by dropping a few peanuts.
Try to put yourself in their shoes/claws for a minute.
I have to admit, I have been a bit envious of the little girl in Seattle* who has received so many fabulous gifts from the crows she feeds every day in her garden.
My local crow, Eric, and his family don’t usually leave me anything, except that which is white and rather slimy.
But the more I think about the nature of gift giving and receiving, I realize that I’ve gained many things, large and small, from my relationship with crows.
Some things are both large and small at the same time.
Take the feather, for instance.
I was busy. I was putting out the recycling in the lane behind my studio. I noticed a small fluffy crow under-feather on the ground by the blue box. I picked it up and looked at it.
It was really beautiful. But I said to myself, “June, pull yourself together, you have book-keeping to get to. You can’t get distracted by every feather you find.”
I let go of the feather and it floated in the air. I walked back to the gate and re-entered the garden. The feather wafted along with me. As I closed the gate behind me, the feather snuck in.
At that point I felt that being actively followed by a feather must be a sign that the book-keeping could wait.
I spend an hour taking detailed photographs of that feather. The images are integrated into many of my favourite compositions. To most, it just looks like an interesting texture. But to me, it’s a little reminder that the book-keeping can always wait.
A lesson and a gift from the crows.
Eric’s greatest gift to me is that he allows me to take his picture. There is a reciprocal agreement, of course, with peanuts being involved. Still, Eric is exceptional in his willingness to be photographed. I have been a crow observer and photographer for years now, and found that most crows are immediately terrified and/or evasive when something is pointed at them, peanuts or no peanuts. No doubt they have strong ancestral memories of being shot at by things other than cameras.
Eric, perhaps because he’s seen me out with my camera so many times, is far less fearful. Which has given me the priceless gift of getting to “know” and capture images of an individual crow and his family ties and foibles. Eric has a “sliding scale” of how close I can be to him, based on the offerings I present. For the usual peanuts, I can be two feet away. For mouldy cheese or slightly stale sausage, a foot or less is permitted. He is the dominant bird among his group, always grabbing the biggest and choicest pieces of food before the others dare to sneak in. But he’s also an affectionate partner and parent.
In some ways, the crows’ greatest gift is their potential role as a “gateway” to appreciating urban nature of all kinds.
In her wonderful book, Crow Planet, author Lyanda Lynn Haupt points out that these birds are “the most oft-encountered native wild animal” in most peoples’ lives. Learning to appreciate their intelligence, humour, agility and essential crow-ness can be the first step along the road celebrating all of nature, in the city and beyond.
As John Marzluff points out in his latest book, Subirdia, it is critical that humans maintain a “thirst to remain part of nature” in order to moderate our competing hunger for development, expansion and the continued degradation of the natural world.
So, while I still dream of some day receiving a little trinket from Eric as a token of our “friendship”, I’m happy just to enjoy his company each morning. Every day I notice some new things about the crow life he leads. While I watch him, I also soak up the beauty of the sky, the trees, and the light in the chickadee’s eye.
And I always keep any eye open for any crow feathers that might float by.
If you’d like to read more about Eric, check out my earlier blog post Who Is Eric?
It started as a normal Monday in East Vancouver. The dawn made it’s spectacular appearance (an hour late due Daylight Savings).
Birds began to reappear in the sky, taking their posts for the coming day.
Eric and his family arrived at their spot — in my garden, waiting for the first peanut handout of the day.
I was thrilled to see the first downy woodpeckers had returned from whichever winter destination they’d chosen.
I noted that the house sparrows were collecting nesting material. And giving the pine siskin some interior design ideas at the same time.
Suddenly, trouble in paradise.
Eric and his family of crows dove into the lilac tree where all the small songbirds like to be.
I thought the crows had suddenly and unexpectedly decided to start dining on full-grown sparrows and chickadees.
But no — the crows had spotted a juvenile Sharp Shinned Hawk darting into the lilac.
No doubt the hawk had certain designs on the songbirds, snack-wise.
The hawk fled, pursued by Eric, his family and the neighbourhood watch committee of concerned crows. They flew around the neighbourhood all day.
Hawk soaring, crows cawing.
So, now we have a new kid on the block, adding to the daily excitement. Another hazard for smaller birds, like the bald eagles and ravens that already cruise the skies. But another thrilling ingredient into the mix of wildlife that calls East Vancouver home.
Bundled in my stylish plaid dressing gown, I climbed to the top deck of our house first thing this morning to participate in the annual Great Backyard Bird Count.
As I surveyed a sea of fog, things did not look promising.
I could hear a lot of frantic crow activity, although it was hard to see where it was coming from, or what was causing it. Suddenly a raven burst out of the fog into a patch of blue sky directly above me and, just as suddenly, disappeared — followed by his retinue of angry crows. I could hear the chase continue in the distance – to the west, then north, then off to the east – all hidden by thick mist. Sentry crows called from vantage points all around, offering helpful advice to the chasing committee.
One of the crows decided it was time for breakfast, landing on the hydro pole with a snack in beak – forcing a quick exit by the pole’s previous tenant, a starling.
While the foghorns continued their mournful calling down by the Second Narrows, all of a sudden it was a full-on scorcher where I was. There had been a clear winner in the sun vs. fog battle.
The northern flickers I’d been hearing came into view, landing on the hydro wires in the alley. The family of three was clearly enjoying the sudden warmth. One of the flickers luxuriantly spread a wing to soak up the sun – or perhaps he was just showing off his finery to the others.
The flickers flew off and were quickly replaced by another sun worshipper — the collared dove that I’d heard eerily hooting in the fog earlier.
The lilac in the garden was full of the usual suspects – house sparrows, song sparrows and chickadees. I even spotted the first golden crowned sparrow of the spring in our neighbour’s plum tree.
Eventually I was so hot I had to come inside – another first for the season.
Turned out to be a perfect morning the great backyard bird count.
Not too late if you haven’t done yours yet.