Crows make it look as if they have the world by the tail. When the dark river of them flies over to the nightly roost, they look powerful and untouchable.
In her poem, Crows, Mary Oliver describes this view of them:
muscle of the
But that anonymous crowd, like all crowds, is made up of many individuals, — each with their own challenges, and their own story.
This is story of the special bond between just two of those many crows — Marvin and Mavis.
They first appeared in my garden around the time we lost George Brokenbeak. George’s mate, Mabel, stayed in the neighbourhood, but moved over a block, leaving my yard with a “vacancy for crows” sign on it. Marvin and Mavis had already been hanging around, so they were quick to move in and become fixtures. It seemed to me that they were a young couple, just starting out together.
Every time I look outside I scan the sky for them. Most of the time, when I can see them, they’re together. If they’re not, one of them is making that “I’m over here. Where are you?” call to check in.
Like most crow couples, their thoughts turned to nest building last spring. They took on the task with gusto, scouring every tree for just the “right” twigs.
They made one “decoy” nest first and then settled on the real nest site in April.
Marvin watches over the nest — which is nestled in the crook of one of the poplars in the lower right side of the picture.
They worked so hard. They’d be there when the sun went down, forgoing the nightly trip to the roost to guard the nest and its contents, and they’d be back at it at dawn.
Weeks went by and the trees leafed out, making it harder for me to see what was going on up there. One day though, I could tell something had gone wrong.
Mavis left the nest and kept staring at it in confusion. Shortly after, I found their fledgling at the foot of the poplars. It had fallen from the nest and didn’t survive.
They grieved their loss for many days, spending a lot of time just sitting in the trees near the nest, as if hoping the baby would reappear.
Marvin spent a lot of time comforting Mavis, who seemed to have forgotten how to look after herself.
Gradually they picked up the pieces and went back to their pre-nesting pursuits — going to the roost at night and guarding their territory by day.
The summer was hot, dry and smokey from nearby forest fires, so just keeping cool and hydrated was a challenge.
I have never seen our local crows in such a bedraggled state … and for such a long time. It seemed to start in early August and go on well into October.
Mavis, at one point, had lost so many neck feathers, she looked partially decapitated.
Marvin lost all his nostril feathers.
They looked objectively terrible, but Marvin and Mavis didn’t seem to care. They may, for all I know, have giggled a little at the sight of each other, but their devotion remained unwavering.
The new gleaming feathers did eventually come in, of course, and by late October they were their well groomed selves again.
Just in time for winter!
Which brings us to their latest challenge. In December I noticed a small growth on Mavis’s left foot. It’s avian pox, a virus that can spread and cause disability or death. Luckily, in her case, it seems to be not too serious and isn’t spreading. I make sure to put out extra nutritious food for her to keep her immune system in tip top shape.
Marvin seems to know she needs all the help she can get and he seems quite happy to let her shove him out of the way to get her share of food.
Their nest from last year is still tucked into the poplars, currently blanketed with snow. I hope that, once spring finally arrives, they’ll start checking out the neighbourhood for new real estate options and give the nest building another try.
Mavis, Feb 12 2019
Marvin, Feb 12, 2019
I’m pretty sure that Mavis will not expect roses this Valentine’s Day.
It’s unlikely that they’ll be making reservations at a fancy dumpster.
But they watch out for one another, they comfort each other in hard times, they keep each other warm in the cold, and they refrain from laughing at each other when they look like avian zombies — and, really, isn’t that better than chocolates in heart-shaped boxes?
But a love song is always nice. Here, Marvin sings one, accompanied by our neighbour’s furnace sounds.
Sometimes the best way to tear yourself away from binge-watching the TV is to drag yourself outside and tune in to the always entertaining Crow Channel.
I’d planned an archival Ken Burns-style documentary for this blog post, going over everything that’s happened with the local crows since I last did an update last fall.
After sorting through months of photographs I was still trying to wrap my mind around a way to fit everything into a post that would be slightly shorter than War and Peace.
A lot happens with crows in a few months!
This morning, while walking the dog. I had a epiphany. (This often happens, don’t you find?)
I decided to write the blog just about the hot-from-the-press crow news as gathered on the current morning walk — coming to you live (-ish) & local from East Vancouver.
No sign of Marvin and Mavis first thing, so Geordie and I headed out and put their Sunday morning breakfast (scrambled eggs) in the fridge for later.
The first star appearance in today’s crow drama is Mabel — of George and Mabel fame, and cover model for the 2018 crow calendar.
She and her new mate “own” the western end of our street. I’m sure it’s Mabel, partly because she knows me so well, and partly because of her bad eye. From one side she looks like any other crow.
But from the other, I can see that the eye that was starting to deteriorate when George was alive has gotten worse. I’m not sure if she can see out of it at all now, but somehow it doesn’t seem to slow her down. She rules her territory like a corvid Boudicca, faulty eye or not. All crows are action heroes.
Time for a short crow calligraphy break in the programming as we spot one of the several Garibaldi School crows, creating an interesting silhouette agains some wavy branches.
Back to some supporting actors in the ongoing crowp opera. There are quite a few characters on Napier Street that I haven’t named yet, although they seem to know me (and Geordie) very well. The white blur in the photo below is Geordie walking between me and the crow. Dog and crow seem to take each other’s presence for granted.
Another un-named, very confident, Napier Street crow …
It’s always a bit tricky when you get to the corner of a block, or wherever the boundary between crow fiefdoms lies. Here we’re on the border of Pants Family terrain, but the Napier crow on the stop sign seems inclined to make a bold incursion this morning.
Napier Street crow on the edge of his territory
Mr. Pants is not amused at the audacity. We might have had to include a “Warning: Crow Violence” sticker on this program, but I traced my steps back a bit so I could distract the Napier crows with a few peanuts before having a short visit with the Pants Family.
Since the great moulting season of 2018 — see Red Hot Fall Fashion Tips — Mr. Pants has been lacking the feathered trousers that earned him his name. Now that it’s getting a bit colder, he does seem to be getting a bit fluffier around the nether regions, but I’m not sure if he’ll ever be quite so pantaloon-encumbered as he once was.
He probably enjoys the more streamlined life.
The Pants power couple.
Mr. Pants, dashing with or without trousers.
Brief pause for a commercial break …
And now, back to scheduled programming …
On to William Street next to check in on the White Wing plot line. I know this is Ms. Wing by the way she greets me, even though I can’t see her distinctive wonky feather from this angle.
There we go …
A brisk wind catches her protruding feather this morning. It looks kind of awkward, but she seems to manage very well. In fact, of all the local crows, she was the most successful mom this year, successfully raising three fledglings to independence.
Another break for a spot of crow calligraphy.
The commotion in a tree near William and Kaslo made me think a crow or eagle must be involved, but it seemed to be an all-crow kerfuffle. The one on the far right had something in his beak and it seems that the others felt it was not rightfully his.
They chased him out of the tree, back to the tree and dive bombed repeatedly, but he stubbornly held on to whatever prize he’d managed to score.
On the home stretch we run into two of our old favourites, Eric and Clara.
They’re Marvin and Mavis’s closest neighbours and there’s been a bit of rivalry between them lately. When I stop to greet Eric and Clara, I immediately see and hear Marvin on a power line, making grumpy territorial calls.
Eric and Clara
As soon as I get a few steps closer to home, Marvin comes down to claim my full attention. Time for breakfast.
But no … there’s a final twist to the plot (isn’t there always?)
Mavis is watching something else from another hydro wire and she seems perturbed.
Raven!!!! Furious cawing and they take off to escort the intruder out of their territory.
It takes Marvin a few minutes to calm down after that little burst of crow-drenelin.
I thinks he’s earned a good breakfast, so the scrambled eggs are brought out again.
Marvin graciously lets Mavis have the first serving. Since she developed a spot of avian pox on her right foot late last year, I notice she’s a lot pushier about getting the food and Marvin seems to know she needs as much nutrition as she can get. You can see the small lesion on her back foot in the photo below. It doesn’t seem to be growing, so I’m hoping she’s got enough of an immune system to hold it at bay.
‘Scuse my table manners.
Marvin the patient.
And so today’s Crowflix programming comes to an end … and we didn’t even cover the Slocan Street Trio. Perhaps they’ll need their own episode. Remember, there’s probably a live crow show on offer in your neighbourhood too. You just have to step away from the TV and out the door.
If you’re a regular reader, you may be expecting a whimsical crow story , or perhaps some tongue-in-cheek home décor or fashion advice. This is not that, but don’t worry — normal programming will (as they say) resume shortly. Today I’m writing about something not so funny, but very important to an Urban Nature Enthusiast.
We have a very local problem (as you may have read about in some earlier blog posts) in which a private school in our area plans to remove trees and construct an artificial turf sports facility. The more I look into it and talk to other Vancouver residents, I realize that this hyper-local problem, is symptomatic of larger problems facing urban nature throughout Vancouver.
“Vancouver’s urban forest includes every tree in our city – on streets, in parks, public spaces, and back yards. Our urban forest plays important environmental and social roles: it cleans the air, absorbs rainwater, provides bird habitat, and improves our health and well-being.“
If every tree in Vancouver is part of the Urban Forest strategy, it follows that every effort should be made to retain the 23 mature, full-of-bird-and-bug-life, poplars on Kaslo Street.
I was told by an old-timer in the neighbourhood, who lived opposite the school site, that when the poplars were planted those particular trees were selected because of their prodigious ability to soak up water from the ground. This was important because Notre Dame was, and is, built over Hastings Creek and is also positioned at a low, water-collecting point of the neighbourhood. In the past it was a marsh. It is unknown what effect the removal of the poplars will have on the wetness of the school site, not to mention the surrounding area.
Ensure that every person lives within a 5 minute walk of a park, greenway, or other green space by 2020; restore or enhance 25ha of natural areas between 2010 and 2020.
As you can see from the aerial view below, the area around Notre Dame School (the red dot in the middle) is already very poorly served by green space.
The walk to the nearest park is far longer than five minutes. Many people head to the tiny bit of “greenway” provided by the Notre Dame poplars to walk their dogs, or simply to stroll within the sound of birdsong and the whispering of wind in the leaves. Removal of this tiny strip of green is a big step in the wrong direction for a city aiming to provide its citizens with more green space, and the physical, mental and spiritual well-being it is known to promote.
A sub-set of the Access to Nature Strategy is the Vancouver Bird Strategy in which the City strives to make Vancouver a rich and welcoming year-round habitat for all kinds of native birds. A healthy and diverse population of birds is intended to add to the enjoyment and enrichment of Vancouver residents, and also attract visitors from around the world.
The Kaslo Street poplars provide an important habitat for local birds. Watching the trees for any length of time will reveal a parade of chickadees, juncos, bush tits, northern flickers, crows and robins, and even hawks, ravens and bald eagles making occasional visits. Many birds nest in these trees in the spring time, making use of the security from ground-predators provided by their elevation. In spring, 2018, some migrating mountain bluebirds (rare in this region) used the school as a resting area for a few days on their trip to their summer habitat in northern BC.
A Mountain Bluebird resting at Notre Dame, April 2018.
Vancouver achieved its goal of attracting visitors from around the world last summer when the prestigious meeting of bird scientists (IOC2018) was held here. I met some of those scientists, and we discussed the small things that can make cities bird friendlier. We agreed that areas like the small stand of poplars in my neighbourhood are great examples of small spaces making a big difference within the urban environment. Ironically, this was just couple of weeks before we learned that those very trees were threatened.
Raven in the poplars
Note: The City required that the school have arborist’s inspection done of these poplars. We have to assume that resulting report said that the trees should be removed but, as far as we know, this is only because of the school’s plan to create a ten foot drop-off right at their base of the trees (to accommodate the sunken field) which will render them unstable. We would like to see a second arborist’s report undertaken on the viability of the trees without such drastic excavation.
Instructions on the Notre Dame Field permit issued by the City of Vancouver in 2008. The new plans, part of the “minor amendment,” no longer include this important detail.
Should the project go ahead and the poplars be removed, the city requires that the school replace them with other trees. I am curious to know what trees of any size could thrive on top of a ten foot retaining wall.
The other way in which the Notre Dame proposal seems to be marching away from green city goals is by coating the entire remaining surface of the campus with a combination of artificial turf and parking lot.
Artificial turf can be played on for up to 80 hours a week and does not (normally) need watering. These two advantages seem to have caused a stampede by the Vancouver Park Board (as well as private institutions like Notre Dame School) to install this surface on as many fields as possible to increase playing time.
But there are some very serious disadvantages to artificial turf that really need to considered more closely, including possible adverse heath effects for those using the fields, as well as a variety of environmental problems.
As far as climate change is concerned, it seems a very bad idea — not only for the users of the field but for whole neighbourhoods around the fields.
“Unlike natural grass which has evaporative cooling properties, artificial turf is made of several heat-retaining materials which can significantly increase field surface temperatures, substantially increase air temperatures near fields, and thus contribute to the urban heat island effect in surrounding neighbourhoods. This increases the risk of heat-related health impacts during hot weather events. Widespread use of artificial turf would also make Toronto less resilient to extreme weather events and increase adverse health impacts associated with these events.”
It also seems like a bad idea in terms of meeting the City’s rainwater management plan objectives. The aim is to maximize the amount of permeable surfaces on public and private property in order to cope with increased climate changed-caused rainfall.
Artificial turf is known to be far less permeable than natural grass, and Notre Dame plans to install such a surface in a sunken field, on natural marshland, and over the watercourse of Hastings Creek … I’m not an engineer, of course, but this seems like a high drainage risk.
Artificial Turf Mountain
Part of the Greenest City Action Plan is Zero Waste 2040and I can’t help but wonder where a mountain of worn out artificial turf fits into that.
Artificial turf does not last forever. Its lifespan depends on various factors, from the amount of use, to the quality of the product. But all of it is sure to wear out sooner or later, and then what? Off to the landfill it goes. This Dutch video follows an expired fake grass field to its final resting place at the Artificial Turf Mountain.
Does Vancouver want an Artificial Turf Mountain of its very own by 2040?
Ideals, politics, and competing interests can make uneasy bedfellows. Creativity and ingenuity is required to work in such a scenario.
So here’s a modest proposal.
What if the school were to look at ways in which a grass field could work to meet its sports and exercise needs, and the trees could be saved?
In return for the school being such a good citizen, working with the City to reach its 2020 green goals, the City Park Board could take over maintenance of the Kaslo Poplars, pruning and tending to the trees, and perhaps planting native species grasses and shrubs on the City side of the trees. That way the school would soon have its exercise space, which would please students and parents who have waited so long for a field. They would have a sports area, plus an outdoor classroom area for Environmental Studies classes, providing amenities geared to students with a wide range of interests. The mountain bluebirds might even come back!
The school would gain positive public recognition for making such a wonderful contribution to the City’s green action plan, and the City would gain a small strip of green space to inch them a little towards their 2020 goal of everyone within five minute walk away from a bit of nature in the city.
Or shall we just chop the trees down, carpet everywhere with artificial turf, and call the city green, even if it’s just the uniform emerald of an endless sea of this?
Let’s go with the first idea!
It really doesn’t take a lot of green space to create foothold for nature and birds in the city, to the benefit of all city dwellers — so let’s try and work together to save this tiny oasis before it’s gone.
If you’d like to contact the City of Vancouver to express your opinion on either the specific Notre Dame School issue, or on the expanding use of artificial turf on Vancouver park space, here are few handy addresses:
It was going to be just me and my Buckley’s cough syrup for New Year’s Eve, but that seemed a slightly anticlimactic way to say farewell to 2018
Then I remembered the standing invitation to the wildest, loudest, coolest party in town. Attended by thousands, all in a mood to socialize … and everybody tucked up for bed by 5:30. My kind of party!
I always find New Year’s Eve to be a bit melancholy, to be honest, so that, combined with the cold I’d had since just before Christmas, put me in need of an extra large dose of #crowtherapy
So, around 4pm, we arrived at Still Creek. Hardly any crows were there and I fretted, as I always do, that something was wrong and they wouldn’t show up this time.
We scaled up to our usual vantage spot on the Willingdon overpass, and from there, nestled among a small herd of abandoned Whole Foods shopping carts, we saw the crows coming. Rivers of them, as usual.
It’s always such a relief when I see them start to arrive. Larger swirling crow figures in the foreground and tiny, barely visible, specks on the horizon that mark those bringing up the rear.
In the riotous spiral of newcomers in the video below, you can see a mix of gulls with crows (probably brought over in the tide of excitement from the nearby dump) and you can hear, amid the uproar, a cool “knocking” call, almost like a raven.
Once we were surrounded by swirl and squawk on the overpass, we started to move on to the next viewing spot — walking under the overpass and west on Still Creek road. We took the path that runs along the creek and emerged just behind Dick’s Lumber.
Light was fading by now and the crows were jostling for the best sleeping spot — on wires, on branches and on top of buildings.
In the midst of the crow-cophany going on in the video below, you can hear at least two crows making a “barking” call.
I can’t wait to hear what the University of Washington study into the meaning of all the crow sounds at the big roost at their Bothell Campus finds out.
Happy New Year!!
As all the crows started to settle in for the night, we headed home.
Phillip went night snow-shoeing with some friends, but I was by now ready for my night in with the cat, dog, and cough syrup. I watched the Knowledge Network TV documentary about Judy Dench and the wonder of trees, then a 2007 film I found on Netflix called “Death At A Funeral” which kept me laughing until Phillip got home.
Really, a perfect New Year’s Eve.
I hope yours was similarly splendid, whatever form it took. And all good wishes to you all for a healthy and happy 2019.
I’m just re-posting this story from this time last year as a reminder why it’s always important to pay attention to what those crows are up to!
It’s a story with everything — lost dogs, snow, mystery, love, determination, teamwork, social media and Geordie the wonder dog.
But crows are a key part of the the story!
I had planned a quiet day of wrapping and baking. I have had the ingredients to make stollen bread for three years now, and not a single loaf has been produced. This year looks as if it might be year four, but I really don’t care.
The story started, as it often does, with a simple morning dog walk with Geordie. We were on our usual route when I saw a dog running towards us, off-leash. Geordie was very excited and I thought for a moment that perhaps it was a coyote. Once it got closer I could see it was a domestic dog, but very scared. Geordie, who assumes all dogs are his buddy, wanted to play and the ginger-coloured dog actually did let him get close enough for a sniff, before scooting off again. She did stay with us as we walked towards home and I was hoping I could lure her into our garden so I could read the tag on her collar.
Things went awry at Slocan and William, when something spooked her and she took refuge under a parked SUV. I couldn’t get her to come out, although she did eat a couple of treats I put near her. Not having an extra leash with me, and Geordie being beside himself with excitement, I decided to rush home with him and come back with a leash.
I drove back and the dog was still there, but definitely unwilling to budge. At that point I took this photo and put it on every social media platform I could think of.
Something scared her again and she took off. I saw her at the intersection of Slocan and Charles, amid a lot of cars and I braced for a horrible thud. Luckily none came, but by the time I got to the corner, there was no sign of the dog. Because of the cars in my line of sight, I couldn’t see which direction she’d gone from there.
There were, however, several crows in a tree, cawing angrily right there on the corner. That made me think that the dog might be hiding in the bushes that border the intersection, so I had a really good look around. No sight or sound of a dog. Maybe the crows were mad about something else.
At this point I was beginning to feel a bit dizzy because I hadn’t had breakfast yet, so I decided to drive home, have some oatmeal, and enlist Geordie in the search. Just as I was about to head out again I got a call from Desirée, who was part of a group of people who have been searching for this dog for forty long days and had got my number from all the social media sharing.
The dog’s name, it turns out, is Mika, and she had gone missing from New Westminster (a long, long way from our neighbourhood) in mid-November.
Desirée and I met up near where I last saw Mika and I could see that the crows were still cawing. This time I took Geordie up there and he seemed pretty excited about the bushes. After he sniffed at one spot for a while, I heard a very soft growl. I got down on my hands and knees, and very deep in the hedge, I spotted a flash of ginger fur.
I stepped back and called Desirée. By then a large group of other volunteers had appeared with all kinds of dog catching equipment. Apparently they had been this close to catching her before, but she was so scared she’d managed to escape.
This time we surrounded the hedge with blankets and — best of all — her actual owner arrived. (***Update — I’m told that the person who arrived was actually her original rescuer who had flow in from Taiwan! Even more amazing.***)
It was a tense ten minutes or so, but finally her owner managed to lure her close enough to get hold of her collar and she was safe at last!
I’m still not sure who all the dedicated volunteers were, but I think that they’re involved with rescuing dogs in Taiwan, and that Mika was one such rescue.
If I never end up making stollen bread again, I really don’t care. Seeing Mika back with her happy owner was far more delicious!
But honestly, if it had not been for the crows, I’m pretty sure she would not have been found today. The hedge was extremely dense and didn’t really look like a plausible hiding spot — but those crows are never to be fooled. Combined with Geordie’s sniffing abilities, we tracked her down!
So, next time you hear the crows making a terrible din, try not to get irritated with them.
It’s never about nothing.
I’ve seen some of the most amazing things (owls, racoons, coyotes … and now long lost dogs) by listening to what they’re on about.
Extra peanuts for the crows at Charles and Slocan next time I go by there. I may even give them some of the Cheezies I got as a special festive treat for Marvin and Mavis!
Geordie, the other tracking hero, has already received chew treats and much praise.
Who’s a good boy, then?
Thanks so much to all the people who spread the story on social media, to the great team of volunteers who showed up to find her, to Geordie for his sniffing prowess and, of course, thanks to the crows — who know everything single thing that goes on in our neighbourhood.
Merry Christmas, everyone!
A few days after I wrote this blog post I learned a lot more about the history of Mika’s adventure and all the people who teamed up to find her.
Mika was rescued from the streets of Taiwan by Tina Huang, the founder of CERA (Canine Education and Rescue and Adoption). A team of CERA volunteers had been searching tireless for Mika since she went missing and Tina herself had flown in from Taiwan the day before she was found.
They had been searching for Mika for almost 40 days before Geordie and I and the crows entered the scene.
Another key ingredient to the rescue that day was Barbara Borchardt, who is the creator of the I Live in East Van blog. Barbara is someone who seems to know everyone in Vancouver and everything that is going on, so it was great luck that she happened to see my social media post of Mika hiding under the car. She immediately recognized Mika from the many posters the volunteers had put up, and efficiently managed to get me and Desirée (one of the Mika search team) talking on the phone within minutes of the post going up.
Half an hour later, volunteers with dog capture equipment, Tina, the crows, me and Geordie all came together — and Mika’s scary winter adventure was finally over.
A few days later I was contacted by the CERA group and we had the great pleasure of meeting Tina and other CERA dogs and owners, plus Mika herself at a meeting in Burnaby park. Tina had treats for Geordie and it was a lovely conclusion to the epic search for Mika.
Tina presents Geordie with treats for his part in finding Mika.
I thought I was actually going to be documenting the sudden and violent demise of Marvin this past Sunday.
I was at Make-It! Market for most of last week, but I took an hour or so off on Sunday morning to mail some online orders. On the way back from the post office, walking down the alley to the garden gate I heard a crow-motion, along with a simultaneous flash of massive wings.
A bald eagle had landed in the tree one street over. We often see them around here, but they’re usually soaring high overhead so you don’t really appreciate how very huge they are. You can see its true size as it perches next to the Crow Complaints Committee (CCC), voicing their various grievances from a nearby branch.
I’m sure that the four crows are Marvin, Mavis, Eric and Clara — the two pairs with territory closest to the offending eagle visitor.
And this is where I thought I was about to witness the death of one of them.
Based on what I know of the personalities of the four crows, Marvin is the most likely to pull this stunt.
As I clicked the shutter I closed my eyes, not wanting to see what happened next.
Amazingly, what did happen was that the eagle took off in search of a less irritating spot to spend Sunday morning … and Marvin the Maniac lived to annoy birds of prey another day.
Post eagle-exploits, Marvin was looking pretty full of himself.
While, at the same time, keeping a close eye on the sky.
Crows are often the only obvious representative of the natural world that a busy urbanite might see in a day. Many more wild things live among us, of course — but crows are so “in your face” that they’re hard to overlook, no matter how distracted you are. Once they’ve caught your eye, you can’t help but start to notice the rest of the quieter members of the urban nature gang… sparrows, chickadees, coyotes, eagles, hawks, bushtits, raccoons, ravens, squirrels, flickers, hummingbirds … and the precious scraps of urban greenery in which they thrive.
2. Crow as Mirror
Crows have evolved through millennia along an entirely separate path from humans.
And yet, and yet … here we find ourselves, crows and people, living strangely parallel urban lives.
We all —crows and humans — have to deploy every bit of our creativity and hard work to get by in the urban jungle. We take comfort in our family groups, and we commute in tandem— the nightly river of roost-bound crows soaring raucously over their earthbound fellow travellers, the latter inching their way homeward though traffic.
While I love and admire crows, I don’t usually think of them as my “spirit animal” or anything particularly mystical.
And yet, sometimes, when I look at Mavis …
3. Crows Really Don’t Care
Crows have a rather enviable devil-may-care attitude.
Their gaze is firmly outward, with little or no thought wasted on what others think of them. They know that their crow-ness is sufficient.
I try to be more like them in that regard, … although I don’t think I don’t think I’m quite ready to start digging up my neighbours’ lawns just yet.
As I get older I wonder if I should start doing Sudoku or crosswords to keep my mind sharp.
I haven’t yet, but I find that crow watching is a pretty good substitute. I see a crow doing something rather inexplicable. I wonder about it, read a book or an article about crows, I watch some more, and then — aha! — the puzzle pieces suddenly fit into place. Then I have to try and keep that bit of information stored in my brain as I add more clues to a growing picture. It’s like being a crow P.I.
Take, for instance, the mystery of the barking crow …
See my previous blog post A Puzzlement of Crows for just how much of my brain this sort of thing occupies at any one time.
Whitewing here has a perennially wonky wing feather which helps me pick her out from the crowd.
5. Crows For Kids
We worry that our kids spend too much time inside, screen-mesmerized (much like the rest of us) and rarely keen to get outside and get involved with nature. They’re able to identify far more corporate logos than birds or plants.
From experiences with my own children when they were younger, the most effective way to get them interested in doing something is to create a story around it.
My son was reluctant to come on walks until we found Dragon Alley. A street near our house is lined with massive trees, and the trunks are all covered in various kinds of thick moss. Once we “discovered” that this was were the local dragons came to rub off their old scales, walking was a delight.
I wish I’d started noticing crows when my children were little. The tales we could have spun! The characters we could have followed! They loved books with animals in them, but most of them were not indigenous to East Vancouver. They read about tigers and badgers and hedgehogs in brambly hedges, none of which they were ever likely to actually find on their own adventures. It would have been fun to introduce them to some real life local crow characters.
Well I guess it’s never too late as I do that now, even though the kids are now in their twenties …
6. Crow Therapy is Egalitarian
Just about anyone in a crow-populated city can take advantage of crow therapy. You don’t even need to get up close and personal — you can read their messages of beauty and nature from a distance in the calligraphy they write against the sky.
We simply need to stop for a moment to look up and try to interpret it.
In fact, crow therapy is SO egalitarian that it doesn’t even need to involve crows.
If it’s wondering what the starlings are up to today, or how the light will hit the leaves on your favourite tree this morning, or which dragons left scales in Dragon Alley overnight — whatever gives you a thrill of anticipation as your step outside — that’s Crow Therapy.
Since September, I’ve done a lot of writing. Probably more writing than I’ve done since my long ago thesis on Anglo-Saxon poetry.
I’ve been writing letters … so many letters … to Vancouver City Council and staff.
They’ve been rather boring letters, full of carefully researched references to building permits, footnotes and traffic management plans. Petition wording, schematic views and the endless argument for community consultation.
Google map view of Notre Dame School. and surrounding area. Green = proposed artificial turf stadium: Red = new parking lot
In summary, the issue is this: In 2004-5 Notre Dame School (located at the end of our street) revealed plans for a new campus, including a sports stadium and the removal of perimeter trees. Local residents were relatively happy about the new buildings, but very much opposed to the sports stadium and tree removal. We rallied to state our opposition and in 2006 a compromise was reached when the school agreed to build a grass practice field instead of the stadium, and to keep the trees. In 2008 they received a building permit for this. The buildings were finished a few years ago, but the sports field construction did not start. In September we found out, purely by accident, that, in January of this year, the school had submitted a request for a minor amendment to the 2008 building permit to the City of Vancouver. The amendment would allow a sunken, full-sized artificial turf games field with stadium seating, and necessitate the removal of the trees on the west side of the site. Neither the school nor the City informed the local community of this change. We have been writing letters asking that this change not be allowed as a minor amendment, but require a new building permit, which would then create the opportunity for community input. Two months in, and we haven’t received any meaningful response from the City, the school, or the Archdiocese which overlooks the school.
Most of my official stadium-related correspondence with City Hall has centred on classic topics like street safety, traffic, parking and noise. All valid and very real concerns for our neighbourhood.
But now I’m taking some time to write an open letter straight from the heart on an even bigger subject — the one that really keeps me awake at night.
Dear City of Vancouver,
Welcome new mayor and council members. You are a politically diverse group and I hope you’ll be creative and collaborative in your decision making, and will do the City of Vancouver proud over the next few years.
This morning I was listening to the radio and heard an interview with someone from the University of BC Forestry Department talking about a project called Citizen Cool Kits — an initiative encouraging neighbourhoods to come together and hatch ideas to lower their carbon footprint — all in a community-based effort to combat climate change. An important aspect of this is the maintenance and enhancement of the “urban forest”.
It’s a great idea, right? A positive approach to climate change challenges, very suited to a city that prides itself on being green and progressive.
But then I think about the school’s stadium plan, which the City seems poised to endorse. It could hardly be any more contrary to the idea of being collaborative, or climate and environment friendly.
What we have currently at Notre Dame School, from a neighbourhood point of view, are some quite spiffy looking new buildings, a rutted parking lot, a pile of rubble that has waist high grass has grown over it, and rows of tall Lombardy poplar trees on the north, east and west sides of the campus. It’s not exactly a beautiful site (or sight) but the trees do form a visual curtain and create a towering habitat for many bird species, from ravens to bushtits.
In an area woefully under-served by parks or green space of any kind, those trees have been, for as long as I’ve lived here (27 years) served as a low footprint vertical park space. Green poster-children for densification. When there aren’t many leaves, the stand of poplars is like a giant shadow puppet theatre, starring a huge and varied cast of birds and animals.
And this year, in April, Mountain Bluebirds – yes, Mountain Bluebirds! – spent a weekend at the school feasting on the smorgasbord of bugs living in the overgrown grass on the rubble pile before continuing on their journey north.
Male Mountain Bluebird on the chainlink fence at Notre Dame School.
Literally, a bluebird of happiness on a shoulder
A raven often visits the dilapidated parts of the school campus, resting on the parking lot fence or perching in the poplar branches, peacefully ignoring the inevitable crow harassment. His call cuts through the urban sounds of traffic and construction noise like a clear bell reminding us of the mountains and forests just a few miles away.
Environmentally, it’s alive. The trees and the grassy wasteland are doing their bit to capture carbon and host living things.
True, it’s not particularly attractive at the moment, and it’s certainly not doing the students at the school much good as they run around the school on the sidewalk or up to the local park for exercise and sports practice.
It would be wonderful to see them have an attractive sports field, as laid out in the 2008 permit.
Sports are an important part of the school curriculum, but surely there are other things that children need to experience and learn in school. Environmental studies? Ethics? Poetry? At my high school I loved the treed area by the grass hockey field and my best friend and I would read aloud to each other there at lunch breaks. Once a nerd, always a nerd.
If the school built a grass practice field as they agreed, it would save them millions of dollars over the cost of a fancy stadium. The trees could be saved and some of the savings could go into creating a border of native shrubs and grasses, encouraging the Mountain Bluebirds to visit every year. More fabulous educational possibilities – tracking the migratory path of the bluebird, exploring the challenges that climate change and human activity are posing for them on their journey, researching what could be added to the school grounds to make it an even more inviting stop over spot for them.
UBC’s Citizen Cool Kit also offers a great potential project for students to explore how the school could make their grounds as green as possible. They could map where Hastings Creek runs under the school and imagine the land they’re standing on as it was a hundred years ago. Who lived there? What did it look like? Ecology class could lead field trips on their very own campus!
If they go ahead with the sunken, artificial turf stadium, none of this will be possible.
First, the poplar trees will be doomed because the sunken field will run right up to the property line, and the root damage caused by such close proximity to a steep drop would make them unstable. City bylaws require that other trees replace those removed, but what tree of any size could grow atop an 8 foot retaining wall?
And don’t get me started on artificial turf! The City of Vancouver seems to love the stuff at the moment, especially as an “easy” answer for low maintenance sports facilities.
I covered a lot of my concerns about artificial turf in my early blog post, the cheerily titled Environmental Dead Zone — so I’ll just refer you to that. Be sure to check out the links at the bottom of the post for even more reading.
Urban nature is pretty tough, but it’s far from invincible. It needs some help in the form of creative thinking by planners, developers and politicians to thrive.
If the stadium plan goes ahead, I fear that there will far less birdsong in the neighbourhood. An absence of ravens, certainly no mountain bluebirds.
I imagine the crows will find reasons to stick around, if only to steal fast food wrappers dropped by stadium attendees and to laugh at our human folly.
The subject of our chat was my City Crow calendar in particular, and “crow therapy” in general.
I must admit that when I first coined the phrase “crow therapy” for city dwellers, I half meant it as a joke.
After all, there are already so many cures from our mental and spiritual ailments these days — ranging from the snake oil variety, to the truly helpful.
As I scroll through my social media feed and my blood pressure inevitably begins to rise — there it is — the ad for “Calm” (apparently the best-selling app of the year) floating serenely down the page. It seems to actually know which posts are going to aggravate me most so that it can make a timely and soothing appearance.
There is the lovely forest bathing therapy, and that is generally free – all you need is some forest in which to wander. That, and hiking in the mountains looking for ravens, are two of my favourite calming “apps.” Unfortunately, I have neither forest nor mountain on my doorstep, so those types of respite take a bit of time and planning.
Given how fraught our daily lives can be, we could all take to wandering the mountain trails and forest pathways on a full-time basis, having bid farewell to our jobs and families.
Or, we could look for a stress-busting technique that’s more readily at hand.
There are always those handy phone apps, of course. But it seems counter productive to spend yet more time looking at screens in order to reduce the tension often brought about by too much time immersed in that world to begin with.
What we need is a window OUT of our normal world, even for if it’s just for a few minutes.
Therefore, I present to you: Crow Therapy — 100% free, and readily available!
A crow knows what’s it like to be struggling to make it in the big city.
A crow isn’t perfect.
They don’t expect you to be either.
So what are you waiting for?
A Crow Therapist, or two, are likely waiting for you outside right now.