Crow Welcome

Mr P against red sun

Ideally, when your long awaited visitors arrive, you and your home are looking their spiffy best. As we know, this often does not work out exactly as planned, but it’s important to make the best of things and make the guests welcome anyway.

This week, bird scientists and activists from around the world are arriving in Vancouver for the International Ornithological Congress 2018, and to enjoy Vancouver’s International Bird Festival. Our city is just full of bird-focused visitors, looking skyward.

Today I went on my usual early  morning “urban nature enthusiast” walk, which mostly consists of chatting with my local crows and topping up their strategically located water bowls. As I visited my corvid acquaintances, I began to imagine what they might have to say to our out of town visitors.

Crow Conversation

First of all, sorry about how we’re looking.

We’d really hoped the molting season would be over by now and we’d be sporting our fabulous fall feathers. All midnight blues, deep amethysts and shimmery sheen. Sigh. Instead, we’re still in the midst of our crazy “hey, look, I could be an extra in a low budget pirate movie” phase.

We like to think of this as our Late Summer Casual look.”

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Mr Pants

Mr. Pants shows off his molting season hipster beard.

The crow shown here is one I’ve been following and photographing for a few months. I started calling him Fluffy Pants, meaning to come up with a more dignified name later. Somehow he’s gotten stuck as FP, but we call him Mr. Pants for short which I like to think is slightly more respectable. His claim to fame is (obviously) his extravagantly feathered pair of trousers. He had them last year too, so I assume they’ll stick with him through the molting season.

Although, this morning, as he flew over my head, one of his precious pant feathers came loose and spiralled slowly, slowly downward — right into my waiting hand.

Here it is, as fluffy and delicate as you’d imagine.

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Mr Pants in Full Fluff

Mr Pants looking more fully fluffy and pleasingly purple, only a couple of weeks ago.

This is Mavis, one of the crows that lives right beside my house. She’s usually the first bird I see each morning. Fluffed up, her molting feathers, in all their faded colours, look rather magnificent

Mavis on A Washing Line

Mavis’s mate, Marvin, was looking a bit more dishevelled today. You can actually see the “nostril” holes in his beak as he’s lost the feathers that usually cover them.

Marvin Molting

 

“So, yes, human visitors, we realize that we crows are not looking our most magnificent for your visit.

But don’t write us off. We’re as clever, funny, feisty and fascinating as ever. Make sure and keep your eyes open for us. You can’t miss us. We’re everywhere. Watch for us at dusk, when we fly in crowds to the east for our nightly roost at Still Creek.

Oh, yeah, you may also have noticed that the much hyped mountains, and some other breath-taking vistas, have disappeared behind a pall of forest fire smoke.

Things are breath-taking, just not in a good way.

It’s been yet another long, hot, tinder dry summer and lots of BC is burning.

We’re sorry the view is more dsytopian than utopian for your visit.

On the small bright side, it’s visceral proof that the human race really needs to take a look at what it’s been up to for the last couple of millenia.

Many of you are scientists and activists, and we crows are cheering you in your work to help chart a new course for this environmental pirate ship we’re all crewing on.

Ahoy matey.”

Apocolypse Sunrise over Iron Workers Bridge

Otherworldly sunrise over the Iron Workers Memorial Bridge, East Vancouver.

East Van Sunset

Vancouver summer 2018

On another note (June speaking again, not crows) ….

Urban Nature Enthusiast

… I’ll have a booth at the Nature and Bird Expo at the Vancouver Convention Centre this week. Hope to see you there (Booth #623) and we can talk crows and murky skies …

Red Sun, Crow and Wires

 

www.junehunter.com

Corvid Clarity

 

Crow and Raven

How can you tell if it’s a crow or a raven?

This is a question that often comes up in my email and social media.

There are a lot of excellent resources to help out with this (more on these later) — but I thought I’d try my hand at the explanation too, based mostly on my own observations.

First of all, I made a special set of magnets, titled Corvid Clarity, so that you could keep a small reference guide where you’ll see it often (on your fridge or filing cabinet.)

June Hunter Crow Raven Magnets

The magnets show the first two ways I write about to tell a crow from a raven.

TAIL SHAPE

First of all, if you just catch a glimpse of a crow/raven mystery bird flying over you — check out the tail shape.

The raven’s tail feathers form a diamond shape, while the crow’s tail is in more of flat-edged fan arrangement.

Crow and Raven Flying Silhouettes

Raven in FlightCrow Take Off

While you’re watching them in flight, note if they’re doing more soaring or flapping.

Raven are more prone to  using the air currents for long, effortless glides, while crows tend to rely  more on flapping.

That being said — I have seen crows having a lot of fun on windy days, just riding the gusts of wind like a roller coaster.

THROAT FEATHERS

The raven is distinguished by a rather magnificent arrangement of throat feathers — something like an very opulent cravat.

Raven Portrait

Crows, while also (of course) magnificent in their own way, are less generously endowed in the cravat department.

Crow on a Fence

 

RELATIVE SIZE

Having been unable to persuade either species to remain still while I measure them, I’ve had to rely on information gleaned from the internet here.

Ravens, I’ve read,  measure up to 67 cm (26 inches) long with a wingspan of up to 130 (51 inches).  Their smaller relatives, the crow are about 46 cm (18 inches) long and have a wingspan of around 95 cm (36 inches).

Unless you happen to see them sitting side by side at an equal distance from you, it’s difficult to make an identification based on size alone.

Crow Raven Size Comparison

In this case the two birds were more or less the same distance away, although the crow was a bit higher up in the tree, probably making him look a little smaller.

Raven and Two Crows on Wires

Raven and two crows — here the crows are considerably further away, making the scale deceptive.

 

BEHAVIOUR

If you see a large black corvid being mobbed by one or more smaller ones, you can pretty much guarantee that the big one is a raven and s/he is being harassed by the crow Neighbourhood Watch committee.

Crows Mob Raven

In spite of their family connections, ravens will blithely raid crow nests for a tasty egg snack — putting them firmly on the crows’ “naughty list” along with eagles, hawks, racoons, squirrels, coyotes, cats and etc.

Crow Raven Pursuit

SOUNDS

By far the easiest way to tell a crow from a raven is by the sound they make.

Crows caw and ravens have more of a croaking sound. But that’s a great simplification of their complicated call sets.

Here are just few examples to help you tell them apart:

CROW ALARM CALL

This is probably the most common corvid you’ll hear in a city. This example is Marvin and Mavis expressing their displeasure at our cat being out on the deck.

CROW “RATTLE” CALL

This is another crow call, less often heard because it’s a softer, more intimate form of crow-munication.

RAVEN CALL

This seems to be the most common raven call I hear, both in the city and in the mountains.

RAVEN KNOCKING CALL

This beautiful sound is more like the crow’s rattle call – more subtle and melodic – almost like water dripping or a hollow bamboo tube being tapped.

RAVEN RECITATION

In this clip a raven seems to be performing a jazz concert of different subtle sounds — an example of how complex corvid language is.

ATTITUDE

When it comes to confidence and attitude, ravens and crows have so much in common.

Both are highly intelligent birds — you can almost hear the cogs of their brains whirring as they work out myriad “risk/benefit” calculations when they come close to humans.

It’s really not surprising that both crows and ravens are often characterized as tricksters in stories and legends.

Crow Raven Dancers

 

OTHER RESOURCES

Kaeli Swift – Corvid Research

One of the best places to find out all about corvids is on Kaeli Swift’s awesome blog Corvid Research.  Kaeli covers every corvid related topic you can think of in her posts. You can also follow her on social media and participate in her skill-building weekly Crow or No? contests.

John Marzluff

His books In The Company of Crows and Ravens and Gifts of the Crows, are just full of interesting information on both of these amazing birds.

LINKS

Audubon: How to Tell a Raven From a Crow

Cornell University Birdlab : Crows and Ravens by Kevin McGowan

See also:

Vancouver’s Urban Ravens

Crow Gifts of All Kinds

The Colour of Crows

Edgar Allen Poe and the Raven Mix-up

Learning to Speak Raven

 

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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 Waiting

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.

Mabel and Baby

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.

George preening baby

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.

Waiting for me outside the studio. Hard to resist.

Waiting for me outside the studio. Hard to resist.

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.

Bedraggled

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.

George in new winter feather finery.

George in new winter feather finery.

 

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.

In this photo you can see Mabel's eye problem.

In this photo you can see Mabel’s eye problem.

Moments later, Mabel's right eye looks just fine, as she deftly juggles some peanuts.

Moments later, Mabel’s right eye looks just fine, as she deftly juggles some peanuts.

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.

George - still magnificent.

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.

Jaunty George

George's injury doesn't seem to have made less confident. Here he calls a warning to Hank and Vera to stay away from his food source.

George’s injury doesn’t seem to have affected his confidence. Here he calls a warning to Hank and Vera to stay away from his food source.

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.

Modified Technique 2

Modified technique 1

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.

George and Mabel share a quiet domestic moment.

George and Mabel share a quiet domestic moment.

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.

George this morning, braving the think frost for a few peanuts on the deck.

George this morning, braving the cold and frost for a few peanuts on the deck.

He had a pretty devastating 2015, but looks set to take on 2016 with typical crow determination. Good luck, George and Happy New Year.

logo with crow