Crow Collective

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:

Raccoons: Wall of Sound

Owls: Owl Dreams

Owls and Poets: Owls, Crows, Rooks and Poetry

Ravens: Raven Tutor

Missing Dogs: A Christmas Miracle — With Crows

 

 

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© junehunterimages, 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to junehunterimages with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

September Dreams

As we say farewell to September, it seems to me that we’ve seen fewer golden evenings than is usual for a Vancouver fall. More rainy grey September skies are perhaps what made those few gilded evenings more shimmering and dream-like.

By just happening to walk the dog early on one such lovely evening, I chanced upon a new autumn crow phenomenon. Usually at this time of year groups of roost-bound crows stop at the end of our street to “help” with the nut harvest of a neighbour’s hazel tree. This year, the tree didn’t seem to produce many nuts, so our area has been relatively crow-quiet in the evening.

I thought the crows must just be barrelling on through straight to the roost — until I found they were partying at an alternative fun and refreshments centre.

A short walk from us, there’s a street lined on both sides, for several blocks, with dogwood trees. At this time of year, the lovely blossoms are long gone, but among the brilliant fall leaves are bright, juicy berries!

I expect the clever crows have been harvesting this bounty every fall, but it took me until this year to notice.

On those nights when it hasn’t been raining, I’ve gone up there and watched them.

They seem to move in tandem with the fast fading sun, leaving each tree as it falls into shadow, and flying ahead to the next one still touched with light.

The crow crowd included this year’s juveniles, meaning it’s that happy time of year when the whole family can go to the roost. The young ones were learning the finer points of berry harvesting for the first time.

For some, the berries seem to be a taste that needs some acquiring …

Young crow with berry, like a soccer player in possession of the ball, unsure on next moves …

Older crows showed off harvesting techniques honed over many Septembers.

Now September is over and the berries are harvested. The dogwood street is quiet and the young crows are dreaming about how great they’re going to be at harvesting berries by this time next year.

 

 

http://www.junehunter.com

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© junehunterimages, 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to junehunterimages with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Hummingbird Interlude

There’s really nothing like an Anna’s hummingbird bathing in a rhododendron leaf for a mid-week pick me up.

There you go.

Now you can carry on with your week.

Maybe dream about bathing hummingbirds tonight.

 

 

http://www.junehunter.com

© junehunterimages, 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to junehunterimages with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Late Summer Surprise

2019 has been a rough year for fledgling crows and their parents. Marvin and Mavis had three babies up in the nest one day, and then the local bald eagle swooped by and suddenly there were none.

Mr. and Mrs. Pants, Whitewing and her mate, the Kaslo and the Napier crows were all fledgling-less by the time I got back from my UK trip in June.

Mabel and Gus, however (see most recent post) bucked the trend by successfully raising three babies, born in June some time. Their territory has been the neighbourhood nexus of juvenile crow begging sounds this summer. Both parents are looking a bit exhausted at this point and looking forward, I’m sure, to the young ones becoming fully independent any day now.

Mavis and the Terrible Trio back in early August.

The young ones still occasionally beg for food, but you can tell their hearts aren’t really in it. Mabel and Gus are pretty much ignoring their pleas now — encouraging them to become self-sufficient little urban foragers. The neighbourhood was becoming quiet.

So imagine my surprise when, only last week — well into the second half of August — there was a brand now source of begging sounds. It was the tentative call of quite a young juvenile crow. It took a while to spot her*, but there she was, way up in a sycamore maple, softly quorking …

… and playing with leaves.

It was on a corner I pass by at least once a day walking the dog, and one where I don’t usually see any crows. It’s a buffer zone between two crow territories (the Slocan trio and the Firehall Family) and is generally crow-free. I’m not sure where this little family came from, although I suspect they might be an offshoot of the Firehall gang (for reference see: A Puzzlement of Crows.)

She isn’t a brand new fledgling. She can already fly reasonably well and her eyes have transitioned from the just-out-of-the-nest bright blue, to the grey colour that comes next. But she is obviously several weeks younger than Mabel’s brood and still very much dependant on her two parents. Her beak is still rosy pink at the sides, marking the bright pink inner mouth (gape) that makes such a good target for the parents to deliver food to. Over and over again.

All of this begging and feeding is very usual, but not in late August. So what happened?

I imagine these parents lost their first batch of fledglings to one or more of the usual disasters (eagle, hawk, raven, racoon, car, cat, flying mishap, etc.) quite late in the first go-round, and decided to give it a second try. I can only imagine how much hard work went into the repeat project.

If it had been one of the recent summers, which have been hot and bone dry, I don’t think they’d have managed to find enough food and liquid for the baby so late in the season, but this year has luckily been a bit damper. I’m not sure where they kept her, safe and secret, until I first saw her last week, but they did an excellent job.

Our neighbourhood newcomer has the benefit of two parents devoted to her welfare, but she’s going to have to be a fast learner to catch up with the older juveniles and be able to join them all at the safety of the Still Creek Roost as the nights start to draw in.

She’s a lot noisier now than when I first spotted her last week. I can hear her from our garden (a couple of blocks away) calling to be fed. That in itself can be a bit of a predator-attracting risk when your’e the only noisy one around.

 

Luckily she does seem to be a quick study. While she still needs her parents to break food into tiny pieces for her, she’s already mimicking their food caching strategies.

Here she’s hiding a peanut that was too big for her to eat under a bit of moss. She’s enrolled in the accelerated Being An Adult Crow class, while still a baby.

She’s got all the curiosity needed to gather important information about this new world of hers. What is, and is not, edible is something that takes a while to figure out.

Now that’s one giant berry …

(… so if you find your Christmas light a bit sticky this year …)

She’s beaten the odds to have made it this far, so here’s hoping she makes it through the next few risky weeks and graduates from her Crow Adulting 101 class with flying colours.

May your late summer be full of nice surprises too!

 

*I’m referring to this young crow as “her” fairly randomly as, of course, at this point I have no way of knowing her gender. 

Crowflix

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.

Portrait of a crow, photograph by June Hunter<br /> ©junehunterimages2019<br /> www.junehunter.com

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 … 

June Hunter Studio Sale Feb 2019

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.

Sudden Sky Drama

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.

Eagle Hop

Eagle Take Off

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.

With help from Mavis.

Crow Therapy

It’s been a busy week, starting on Monday when I was interviewed by Gloria Macarenko on the CBC Radio One’s show — On The Coast.

You can listen to the interview here.

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.

They understand.

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.

Speak up, I don’t have all day here …

Coming soon: 6 Reasons Why Crows Make Great Therapists

If you really need a lot of Crow Therapy,  you may benefit from the company of thousands of corvids. See my blog post: Last Call at Still Creek

 

 

Crow Photo Tips

Marvin 2018

I’ve been meaning to write this post for months … possibly years.

I’m often asked about my photography — what kind of equipment I use, lighting and so on — so I naturally I thought I’d blog about it.

Starting a new post is a bit like deciding the angle from which you will dive into a pool. The first few attempts often end as belly flops.

I began composing an epic, encompassing my personal photographic journey, plus every thought that’s ever crossed my mind about the possible significance of photography.

You will be relieved to hear that it has, after days of literary struggle, been edited down to a more modest offering. Hopefully a cleaner dive.

If you’re in a BIG rush, here’s the Cole’s Notes version:

  • Keep everything portable. The best camera is the world is no good to you if you didn’t bring it along because it’s too heavy and/or precious.
  • Don’t get bogged down in the technology.
  • Flat light is your best friend. There are exceptions to this (and most) rules.
  • Photograph subjects that mean something to you, and aim to communicate why it’s special in each image.

 

EQUIPMENT/TECHNOLOGY

I am utterly hopeless at retaining any kind of technical information. Each and every time I go to reply to someone about what kind of camera and lens I use, I have to go and actually find the camera to have a look at the the numbers on it.

olympus OMD EM1 blog

So — this is the camera I use currently. It’s an Olympus micro-four thirds model, the OM-1D EM-1 model, about four or five years old. As you can see, it’s a bit battered, because I just pick it up a take it with me almost every time I head out of the door. It’s been soaked more that once. Last fall it suffered the camera version of a stroke — I took a picture and it made a terrible sound and everything went white. The shutter was stuck open and I had to take it for repair. It’s back in business now, but has never really been the same.

I almost always have my camera on the same setting for my crow photos — fast ISO, big aperture (so the background will be out of focus) and speed as fast as the available light will allow. Since my camera’s brush with death these are the only settings at which it will work properly — so I guess woman and machine have become one.

OMD w lens blog

The lens I use almost exclusively is an Olympus zoom, 75-300mm. It’s not the “best” quality lens by any means. It’s plastic, rather slow, has eccentric focusing habits. It too has also had to be repaired a couple of times. On the plus side, it’s not too heavy and relatively inexpensive, so if it does get terminally injured on a raven-seeking mountain trip in the snow, it’s not the end of the world. I do own an Olympus “pro” lens (40-150mm) and it is unquestionably a superior lens. I use it when photographing close to home, or when I go to the Still Creek roost, because it’s better in low light. But the weight of the thing! And the cost!!

camera strap blog

One technical tip — if you have a larger than pocket-sized camera, replace the strap with one like this that allows you to wear it over your shoulder and tuck it behind you when it’s not needed and swing to the front when you do. This one’s a Joby (there are lots of other brands) and the only reason I made this awesome discovery is because I won the strap, and some other gear, in a photography contest a few years back.

LIGHT

Coat of Many Colours

A bright sunny day would show this young crow as a black bird. The myriad subtle shades of sepia, indigo and mauve in those lovely immature feathers would be quite lost.

Flat light is what I love the most — those days when there is some high cloud and a weak sun filtering through it. Yes, I am one of those obnoxious people who complain about a long run of hot sunny days.  They’re terrible for taking photographs of dark feathered birds — too much deep shadow and burning highlight, and almost impossible to get the subtle detail. In the middle of summer I tend to get up really early to try and get  some photographs before the sun is fully up. I always aim for a photograph that looks as if it could have been painted, and diffuse light really is the only way I’ve found to achieve that effect.

Junior crow portrait

Exceptions to the Rule

Bright sunny days are often good for taking interesting corvid silhouette pictures.

Ruffled Crow Silhouette

SUBJECTS/REASONS

Obviously, crows and ravens are MY subjects, with occasional other birds, and a bit of rust and foliage on the side.

Whatever “your” subject is — fashion, flowers, architecture, slugs, barbed wire fences, kittens, soup tins — just follow it. Set yourself little assignments every day, if you can. Look at the results and see what you like and what you don’t like.

Does the image tell the viewer something specific about the subject, something that conveys the emotion you feel in its presence?

If yes — do more of that.

If no — try something slightly different next time.

The side effect of this process is that you set up a bit of a feedback loop. The more you look at your chosen subject, the more you think about the reasons why you take photos.

Picket Fence Crow

Some Reasons to Take Photographs

  • to create a periscope up from the choppy (or becalmed) sea of daily life
  • to try to stop time from moving on
  • to make yourself think more about a subject
  • to see that a single subject can look very different from another angle
  • to simply record things (many photos I take are just to keep a note of which crow is where and when)
  • to try (perhaps over years) to find the truth in something

 

Junior Crow on Blue Fence

I consider my work to be a combination of wildlife and portrait, with an emphasis on the latter. My daily struggle is to create images that don’t just tell the viewer what the bird looks like, but also to hint at what is going on behind those glinting, intelligent eyes.

Ultimately, I’d love to create the corvid version of Karsh’s portrait of Winston Churchill.

Moody Crow

Failing that, maybe just a few more like this …

Interpretive Dance

Corvid Interpretive Dance, Vol: 1

 

 

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Special Days

Some days there are ravens.

Some days, there are even mountain bluebirds.

When such things miraculously appear in my own urban neighbourhood I tend to (if at all possible) just drop everything and follow them.

I’ve been ridiculously lucky for the past two weekends.

It was the raven the weekend before last. She hung around for most of Saturday and Sunday and I was able to take several hours each day just to watch and listen.

I became quite convinced that this raven was here specifically to continue my rudimentary language instruction. We were moving on to “Conversational Raven.”

VIDEOS to follow—  so remember to go to the BLOG POST ITSELF to see them.

We started our day early when I saw her on the first dog walk of the day. You can see her raven breath in the chilly morning air.

In this next clip, I honestly felt she was trying to get through to a particularly slow student when she making her oh-so-carefully articulated speech.

Sometimes, you know how you choke up for the big performance. Especially when you have an audience …

But, for me, the highlight of the day was when I realized why it’s often so hard, just listening to her calls, to figure out exactly where she is. Sometimes it sounds like two birds calling to each other. Sometimes she sounds close, a second later, really distant.

The mystery was solved on Sunday, when I found her calling in a spot where she was surrounded by walls on three sides. The echo was so amazing that I just stood there for quite a while before I thought to try and video it. Unfortunately, the tiny and uni-directional microphone on my camera doesn’t pick up the echo that well — but you can see her stop and listen to her own voice coming back to her.

I wondered if she thought it was a second raven, or whether she did it to sound as if there were more of her and to generally drive the crows crazy.

Raven with Two Crows

Speaking of driving the crows crazy, I think this is Eric and Clara keeping an eye on her raven shenanigans.

Raven Grooming

Madame Raven completes her morning toilette, heedless of the scolding crows and the clicking cameras.

And then, this last weekend, came the bluebirds.

I only noticed them because I was scouring the area for the raven.

Something darted over an unused piece of grassland that looked, in it’s flight pattern, more like a swift or swallow that the usual small birds I see around here. Upon closer inspection, there was an improbable flash of summer sky blue.

Mountain Bluebird on Fence with Mountain View

Poor Geordie. I’m sure he sighed an enormous doggy sigh as our walk came to an abrupt halt and I started feverishly consulting the Sibley’s Bird app on my iPhone.

Not a Western Bluebird then — they have brown/orange chests. Could it be a Mountain Bluebird? I had never seen one, even though I lived and worked for years in the north and interior of BC, which is more their usual spring/summer range. It seemed so odd that they should make a sudden appearance in East Vancouver. The Sibley’s map shows the coast of BC as part of their migration route, so just passing through.

Mountain Bluebird on Twig

They like open grasslands with some trees for shelter and they had found exactly that for their Vancouver stopover. I guess they did some excellent BirdAirBnB research in advance.

The piece of overgrown grass had small bushes and fences for them to perch on to view their insect prey before diving in to dine.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I “visited” them several times over the weekend, often pointing  them out to neighbours passing by. Some of them went to bring their families to see the amazing sight. None of us had ever seen them before. They reminded me of the little birds that helped Cinderella to do her housework and get ready for the ball in the original Disney animation.

More real … still magical.

Male Mountain Bluebird

Female Bluebird on Fence

The male birds are impossibly vivid. The females are more subtle in the their colouring, but there would still be a spectacular flash of blue from their wings when they took flight.

These appearances were, as they say in the furniture flyers, Limited Time Offer Only!

May many of your days be special, and may the Bluebird of Happiness fly over to your shoulder …

Bluebird Over Shoulder

… and rest there for a while.

Bluebird on Shoulder

Oh, and if you’re wondering, when will their be bluebird cushion covers? … don’t worry, I’m on it!

Mountain Bluebird Photo Collage

Coming soon to a couch near you!

See the sequel to this post at: Ordinary Days.

Consider the Grackle …

You see a loud, smart, black bird, hanging around with his gang of mates, giving you fearless looks, and constantly rummaging through the garbage (or your picnic) for a snack.

Must be a crow, right? Or at least a corvid relation?

But no, the grackle isn’t even distantly related to the crow. It’s a member of the Blackbird family, which includes the Brewer’s and Red-winged Blackbirds that we see in the Pacific Northwest, as well as Cowbirds and Orioles.

We went to Mexico last winter and as soon as we got out of the airport  I started noticing these cheeky, opportunistic birds.

They seemed to be everywhere, always with a beady yellow eye to the main chance.

In the absence of any crows, the grackles began to occupy the part of my brain that is usually filled with corvid observations.

The grackles we saw in Mexico were of the Great Tailed variety (Quiscalus Mexicanus). Locally, they’re called Zanates.

In comparison to crows, they’re a lot more streamlined, with light gold-coloured eyes, and legs that go on forever. The males have a long, impressive (some might say, “great”) tails, and a have vivid blue and violet sheen to their feathers.

The females are much, much smaller (about half the size), with more modest tails and dullish brown feathers.

Her and him doing a bit of foraging in the sand, as  you do …

They’re so different that it took me a while to realize that they’re the same species — I thought for a long time that they were two kinds of grackle that just liked to hang out together.

Female Great Tailed Grackle paddling at the beach.

We did see a dazzling variety of birds in Mexico (pelicans, spoonbills, herons, parrots, hummingbirds, chachalacas, caciques, woodpeckers, buntings, doves, cormorants …) but, for some reason the grackles kept calling to me. I guess I just can’t resist a bird that looks me right in the camera lens and dares me to press the shutter.

Buzz off,  paparazzi!

Look out, make way for the Great Tail.

Like crows, the grackles could be pretty raucous. Here’s one making some sort of statement in the early morning near our hotel. Luckily we were up early anyway, on the search for the elusive red cardinal that paid a fleeting and tantalizing visit on the first day, never to be see again. But that’s an entirely different story.

NOTE: video follows. If you’re reading this in an email, the video won’t play. To see it click HERE to go to the actual blog post.

 

Once I got home to Vancouver I planned to do some more research and write a blog about the grackles, but, what with one thing and another, the cheeky grackles slipped my mind and that mental space got recolonized by corvids.

Luckily I was reminded about grackles last week when I got an email from a friend who’s in Mexico now. She was wondering about the crow-like black birds she was seeing everywhere …

My interest rekindled, I started going through my photos from last year and doing a little more research. I’d looked up Great Tailed Grackles online when we were in Mexico —enough to identify them and glean a few facts — but our internet was a bit dodgy, and there were other distractions of course, so I didn’t get too far.

The ingenious modem set up at our hotel in Mexico.

My recent online search for grackle facts turned up news of  a fascinating study by Corina Logan of Cambridge University. The Great-Tailed Grackles she encountered in Costa Rica  reminded her of crows, and spurred her to wonder if they shared any of that famous corvid intelligence. In 2016, at the university of California, she performed some tests to find out. A series of food acquisition challenges she set for them proved that, like crows, they were very good at deploying a variety of solutions to solve different problems. This particular skill is known, in bird scientist lingo, as “behavioural flexibility” and understanding it is an important piece in solving the bird intelligence puzzle.

Famous crow expert, John Marzluff, commented on the study, saying that Logan’s study “ clearly demonstrated variability that different individuals have when it comes to learning. That’s really cool. You’d see the same thing in people.”

So crows and grackles, apart from the casually observed similarities, also share a special avian ingenuity. I don’t know if they overlap in any territory and, if so, I wonder if they compete, or use their street smarts to divide up the neighbourhood like avian gangs.

Does anyone reading this live in a place where Great Tailed Grackles and crows both reside?

UPDATE: For an answer to the above question,  see Crow vs Grackle.

With brains like ours, the sky’s the limit.

If you’d like to keep reading about grackles, I found an very entertaining article by   John Nova Lomax  entitled Eight Reasons Why Grackles Are Awesome, published by Texas Monthly.  His attitude to grackles reminds me of mine towards crows here in Vancouver.

Postscript

I did see one member of the corvid family when we were in Mexico. The Urraca or White Throated Magpie Jay was sometimes to be found on our early morning bird watching walks. An impossibly exotic looking bird, with a “fascinator” head adornment, it would not have looked out of place at a royal tea party. I’d have liked to spend more time with this bird, but it was a lot harder to spot than the ubiquitous, and always entertaining, Grackle.

www.junehunter.com

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