Sometimes it’s just the smallest thing that illuminates your day.
I was walking the dog the morning before the winter solstice when an urgent crow meeting convened in the treetops. Crows were flying in from the whole neighbourhood to share their opinions.
I took quite a few photographs in an effort to see what the cause of the commotion was. While I never did figure that out, I did notice that the frail morning light struggling through the clouds at the base of the trees, combined with the darker overlapping of branches and crows at the top, made a rather pleasing composition.
As it seemed to capture the tentative return of the light, I chose the one at the top of this post to share on social media yesterday to mark the solstice.
But that wasn’t the tiny thing that really made me smile.
That came later, when I was sorting through some of the other photos and realized that, of all those crows in the trees, I actually recognized one of them!
See that crow sitting at the top, just right of the one taking off? That’s White Wing!
Recognizable from a hundred feet because of her distinctive silhouette, her wonky wing feather sticking out.
I can’t say exactly why that little observation made me so happy. I was listening to a CBC Radio show earlier today in which they talked about how popular complex jigsaw puzzles have been this year. They mentioned the contentment of being fully immersed in a project that has a fixed end in mind. Flow state, they called it.
When I’m out walking every day I’m also working on a puzzle — the endless mystery of what’s going on in the crow world. I don’t suppose there’s an actual end to this project — no single piece that will dramatically pull every element together.
But picking out White Wing —one small, distinctive component in the giant crow jigsaw — was a moment of pure delight.
White Wing, closer up, December 14
White Wing alone in a tree, December 8
The only other crow I’ve been able to reliably identify by silhouette was George. After his beak was broken, that subtle step down on the upper beak was his signature.
George and Mabel: Love’s Delicate Balance
There’s been a lot of darkness this year, and so much uncertainty.
Perhaps that’s why each small answer — even if it’s just one tiny puzzle piece coming home to its rightful place — seems like a comforting ray of light.
Marvin and Mavis have had a pretty stressful 2020.
They’re far from alone, of course, but spare an extra thought for these two.
Spring was looking pretty good. Several years of effort had paid off and they’d finally driven all other crows out of “their” row of poplar trees on Kaslo Street.
I like to think they had a couple of weeks of feeling satisfied with their achievement before the trees were all felled in June.
Left with a blue construction fence instead of 22 stately trees, they tried at least two different nesting sites in smaller street trees. At one point it seemed that they did have a single fledgling, which came to the house a few times and was spotted on the construction fence.
It’s always hard to keep track of the crows during this period as they change their habits, protecting their young ones and chasing off in unpredictable directions after their novice flyers. All that, combined with the summer of noise and dust on the construction site, caused me to completely lose sight of Marvin and Mavis and the young one.
Unfortunately, by the time the literal and metaphorical dust settled at summer’s end, there were just the two of them again, looking a bit glum on the blue fence and starting to moult.
Fall feathers came back in and I was looking forward to getting back to the normal routine of them coming by the house a couple of times a day and having some quiet chats about world events.
Trouble on this front too, though.
For new readers, a short crow history lesson may be needed here.
In 2019 Mabel and her new mate had three fledglings, with two of them staying with mum and dad. This spring they had three more, and the two survivors of that batch are with them now as well — creating a large family unit of six crows.
Six is a lot of beaks to feed, and Mabel seems to have now remembered that our house was once her territory. Consequently, we have a bit of a power play going on, with Marvin and Mavis seriously outnumbered.
Mabel on the garden gate post, back to her old haunt
I have tried to apply the Peanut Diplomacy method to the problem, scouring the scene for the Mabel gang before putting a few discreet peanuts out for M & M.
But, with six pairs of sharp crow eyes on lookout, it’s very rare that anything gets past them — and Marvin and Mavis are constantly having to fend off interlopers.
It’s rare to see either of them these days without fully deployed head or pants feathers, trying to look as fearsome as possible.
Or ducking …
Anxious to avoid crow riots, and potential crow injuries when they dive bomb each other, I’ve stopped putting peanuts out for anybody for now. When the dog and I leave our gate and I find eight crows waiting, I just walk off and try to lure Mabel and company back to their usual territory at the other end of the block, before rewarding them with a small nut offering.
At the end of the walk, I arrive by a different route at the back of the house and, if I’ve succeeded in losing my “tail,” I can usually find Marvin and Mavis and we can have a bit of discussion about how 2020 is going for each of us.
Suffice to say, sympathy is offered on both sides.
2020 so far has been pretty tough for many of us, requiring all kinds of adjustment to ever-changing conditions.
Our local corvids sympathize. While free of covid worries (as far as we can tell) — they too have faced a lot of challenges in 2020.
The trees that had provided them with shade, shelter, nesting sites and a navigational landmark for the last 60 years suddenly disappeared in mid-nesting season. The bit of grassy wasteland they used as a refuge and a food source was dug up. The ear splitting racket going on 6 days a week makes it hard for them to hear each others’ calls.
Heartbroken and worried for the local environment as I am, I can’t help smiling when I see the local crow and raven reaction to the situation. I shouldn’t be surprised, as corvids have a long and illustrious history of making silk purses out of the sow’s ears that humans have left them over the centuries.
With no leafy branches to perch on, they sit instead on the construction fence and watch the crazy human shenanigans during the noisy construction hours.
Marvin and Mavis settling in for a new shift.
When, at last, the machines stop beeping, roaring and pounding for the day, the site then becomes a corvid beach resort of sorts.
Yes, that is rather a lot of water. To be expected, as the area once was marshland and has streams running through it, including Hastings Creek.
Some corvid commentary …
One Sunday a couple of ravens even stopped by to check out the “beach” scene.
While it was fun to see the ravens exploring the weird new landscape and drinking at the new “lake,” I can’t help worrying about the safety of the water as a thirst quencher. Part of the area’s history before the school was built was as an unofficial dump site. I see that tanks are now on site to remediate the water, so I’m hoping the crows and ravens haven’t been harmed by drinking and playing in it.
Marvin and Mavis are keeping a very close eye on proceedings — on wet days …
… and hot dry ones …
For now they’re keeping their opinions close to their feathered chests.
Although I rather think they might be muttering amongst themselves …
Partly to distract myself from the actual news, partly to distract you, here is a long overdue local crow news update.
Finally out of my foot cast, I’m really appreciating being able to get about and check what’s going on with my various crow pals.
So much to catch you up on! I think it’s best I divide this into instalments lest I overwhelm you with it all.
Let’s start today with the general crow mood.
Apparently, one in three crows already think it’s time to get started on the nest.
The air is full of pre-nesting season energy. In previous years I’ve noticed Marvin and Mavis starting to gather twigs as soon as the blossoms are fully out on the plum trees on our street. Almost there now!
In the meantime, there are lots of crow-diverting things going on.
And it’s always worth going to see what the commotion is about.
On one dog walk this week we first saw the conductor with his orchestra.
A walk down the alley where they were performing revealed the reason …
By far the most spectacular gathering was a few days ago when a whole street was suddenly full of crow fury. Trees up and down the block were venues for cacophonous corvid conventions. No “social distancing” or Skype meetings for them, obviously.
All the fury was directed to one chimney, and once I got to the right angle I could see a lone raven trying to enjoy a leisurely brunch on the conveniently flat surface.
Judging by the feathers that floated from the “table” it looked as if a mid-sized bird (possibly a robin) was on the menu.
Even though the raven wasn’t feasting on one of their own, and even though they’re a relative, the crows were in full attack. The raven is permanently on the crows’ naughty list because they will, when the time is right, snatch crow eggs and fledglings.
In spite of their best efforts, the raven spent a good fifteen minutes in the chosen spot finishing their meal.
The owner of the chimney came out, wondering why her house was under attack. While I was explaining what was going on the raven finished their snack and flew off.
Today was quieter — a blustery day, so a lot of just-for-fun windborn antics and posing.
Tomorrow I’ll update you on the specific news re. the various crow groups. Quite a few to get through — Marvin & Mavis, Mabel and family, The Pantses, Art and his family, Young Ada — so I think I’ll tackle one a day till we’re up to date.
Think of it a little corvid gossip to break up all the COVID19 news.
To keep an eye on Mr. Pants year round is to witness a miracle of transmogrification.
If you didn’t know it was him, by the territory he guards and by the company he keeps (Mrs. Pants), you might think he was a different crow in each season.
We all first came to know him for his breathtaking breeches, his tremendous trousers, his peculiar pantaloonery … I could go on, but I’ll be merciful and stop now, letting a series of summer pictures of Mr. P at his most sartorially splendid tell the story.
Purple haze, all in my brain …
Splendour In The Grass
Mr. Pants with his summer hipster beard, cover model for the 2020 City Crow Calendar
The following video captures his fantastic pantaloons fluttering in the summer breeze.
But. like a perfect truffle, ice wine, or a pumpkin spice lattée, Mr. P’s trouserly splendour is a seasonal offering, and must be appreciated as such.
In winter, he really just looks likes your average pant-less crow.
Suave and handsome for sure, but minus the feathery kilt.
In particularly frosty weather he can, like all the other crows, deploy some feathery long johns, but they’re not the same as his summer finery.
Mr. and Mrs. Pants, January 2018
By spring … still just your normal dapper city crow.
Mr. Pants as seen in the May page of the 2020 City Crow Calendar
But we keep watching.
Around June the fashion miracle begins and the legendary leggings reappear …
But it is perhaps the autumnal transition from summer splendour to his streamlined winter look that is the most eye catching. For Mr. Pants the molting season is very, very dramatic.
It’s true that every one of the local crows looks like a rejected extra from a pirate/zombie movie, but Mr. P takes things to the extreme.
He does nothing by halves on the feathery fashion front, and the late summer/early fall molting season is no exception. Go big, or go home, seems to be his philosophy.
Here he is as photographed yesterday, September 10, 2019
By October he will be smoothly magnificent once again.
By mid-June 2020 we should see the beginnings of tremendous trousers.
It is the circle of life (and of feathery fashion) embodied in one magnificent crow.
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.
The magnets show the first two ways I write about to tell a crow from a raven.
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.
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.
The raven is distinguished by a rather magnificent arrangement of throat feathers — something like an very opulent cravat.
Crows, while also (of course) magnificent in their own way, are less generously endowed in the cravat department.
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.
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 — here the crows are considerably further away, making the scale deceptive.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In this clip a raven seems to be performing a jazz concert of different subtle sounds — an example of how complex corvid language is.
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.
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.
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.
Already it seems as if we might just have dreamed it.
Once upon a time, one Saturday morning in February, we woke up in a crystal palace.
A thick and flawless blanket of snow had fallen silently through the Vancouver night. The sun had come out. Everything looked like a fairy tale.
Photo of me, like a kid on Christmas morning, out in the garden in my dashing plaid housecoat.
The landscape itself was breathtaking so we just stood around, being robbed of breath.
Movement in my the trees made me think “… and there are birds.”
Not only is there landscape, but there are BIRDS in it. It felt like a surprise gift.
Of course I know this — given that I think about, follow, write about, and photograph the darn things every day of my life. But somehow it just struck me then that birds are like an extra dimension. Like a new hue in the colour spectrum. A huge bonus.
Northern Flicker in a white landscape
It made me remember that I didn’t really notice birds much until my 50’s.
In my twenties, I lived in a cabin miles from anywhere, and there must have been many birds in my solitary world. Somehow I remember the trees, the moss, lichen and wild flowers in great detail, but no birds. There must have been ravens, for heaven’s sake, but I just didn’t register them.
Intrepid song sparrow
People often ask me how I came to start taking pictures of crows and other birds.
When both of my parents died within a couple of years of each other (almost twenty years ago now) I started photographing as a form of home-made therapy. I obsessively made very closely observed portraits of plants for several years, eventually turning it into my profession.
I can’t remember what year it was, but I was out in the garden, hunched over a hosta (as per usual) when I heard some crows making a terrific racket above me. I’m sure this was not the first time, but for some reason that day my head, tilted for so many years towards the earth, turned to look at the sky. In my mind, there was a creaking sound as I made the adjustment.
There are birds.
I finally noticed.
Better late than never, I guess.
Marvin and Mavis in the coral bark maple
And, as many of you know, once you start noticing crows, there’s no going back.
And they’re just the thin end of the wedge. Once you start watching crows, the next thing you know, there are house sparrows and starlings and robins and chickadees and flickers. And, good grief, was that a hummingbird …?
So, the snow day, beautiful as the scenery was, also served to make me appreciate the bird dimension of landscape all over again.
It was as if I’d forgotten about them all for a minute and then remembered.
Marvin “snow swimming” on the neighbour’s roof.
A robin and a flicker share the heated birdbath facilities.
A junco enjoys the pool to himself.
Marvin and Mavis enjoying some welcome sun.
Chickadee on one leg, trying to warm up one foot at a time.
Snow covered crow’s nest.
Marvin, having looked at snow from both sides now …
Just in case you tire of human news, here’s a “celebrity profile” of a different sort.
I’m not sure “who” this up-and-coming power couple are wearing this fall.
Their lives seem to be pretty scandal-free, although you’d have to listen to the roost rumours to be sure of that.
Politically, I’d say they’re pretty apathetic — although very vocal on some local issues.
Marvin and Mavis have claimed my garden as their territory this fall. We’re really just starting to get to know each other, but I can already share a few juicy details about the lifestyle of the loud and feathery.
First of all, they’re art fans — with a particular fondness for sculptural pieces. Marvin was first wowed by the rusty metal jay bird on the back gate.
Then, he became intrigued by the metal figure on the bird feeder.
He’s so impressed with the whole “birds as art” concept , he’s taken to posing as a crow statue.
Corvid performance art.
It is said that crows can tell each other apart by their calls. Until recently, I thought that the difference must be too subtle for human ears, but Marvin has a particularly guttural caw that I can actually recognize at once.
What gets both Marvin and Mavis really riled up is … cats. This is actually quite handy for me, because they often warn me that the neighbour’s cat is in the garden and lurking under the bird feeder, or by the bird bath. They’re quite pleased with how quickly they’ve trained me to run out of the house, waving my arms and yelling at the evil creature. They also notified me when Edgar, our indoor cat, snuck out during the Halloween preparations. Again, they were gratified to see how promptly the ginger devil was captured and contained.
For Halloween, apart from the usual chocolate bars, I also bought some mini bags of Cheezies. I wanted to save some for after Halloween to test Marvin and Mavis’s junk food susceptibility.
All crows I’ve ever known have had a weakness for these frighteningly orange snacks. I don’t buy them often because (a) I don’t want to fill my crows up with junk food and (b) I can’t resist them either.
I can reliably report that Mavis and Marvin are as weak in the face of Cheezie temptation as the rest of us.
Note that the dog kibble and peanuts have been left for a second trip. Best get the Cheezies while the getting’s good.
Well, that’s about it for the latest hot crow gossip around here. Stay tuned for the next instalment. Perhaps fashion and beauty tips …
Marvin and Mavis, captured in a candid moment by the relentless paparazzi.
It’s taken me a ridiculous length of time to get to this simple little blog . I’m just trying to update you on the WHO, WHAT and WHERE of the local crow families. But it’s complicated!
I tried writing it all in words and it was confusing even me, so I decided we needed a map. Voila!
Honestly, I did feel as if I could use something fancier, like the opening credits to Game of Thrones to do the situation justice but, alas, the budget is limited and so the map will have to suffice.
In the post-summer corvid reshuffle, you can see we have four families vying for hegemony* in this little corner of East Vancouver.
Let’s have a look at the protagonists in this little neighbourhood drama.
Normally, at this time of year, George and Mabel would have returned from their nesting area at the west end of the block to reclaim our alley way and my back garden.
Since the sad death of George this summer, Mabel seems happy to stay in the nesting area with the junior crow that she and George fledged the summer before last. They claim the elementary school end of the block and the alleyway to the south of our house.
ERIC & CLARA
Eric and Clara are sticking to their traditional territory which includes the south side of Notre Dame School (including the highly prized school dumpster in the parking lot), the east end of Parker Street and points west along Parker to Rossland Street. Of course, their jurisdiction includes the all-important ceremonial fire hydrant.
Sometimes they will make a sortie to my front gate if they see me coming out with the dog, or going to the car. They will also venture part way down “Mabel’s” alley, but turn back at “her” Hydro pole.
Eric takes his Block Watch duties very seriously.
They didn’t have any baby crows this spring. The nest they were working on blew away in an early summer windstorm and they didn’t seem to have the heart to start over.
THE FIREHALL FAMILY
The Firehall pair, on the other hand, had a very successful baby-raising year. They have three surviving adolescents — quite an achievement, given the long drought and tough conditions this summer. Their little population explosion has been one of the major factors causing a fluctuation in the customary corvid boundaries.
The Firehall Triplets
I imagine the three young ones will soon go off and start their own little empires elsewhere but, for now, with five mouths to feed, they’re venturing out of their usual stomping grounds.
Crowded up there on the Hydro wires.
They’ve even had the nerve to go and try pinching peanuts off Eric’s fire hydrant. Such audacity is met with firm resistance. They also come to my back fence sometimes. They’ve never done this in previous years and their visits have led to some minor scuffles with Marvin and his mate.
MARVIN & MATE
In the summer months, when George and Mabel would abandon my garden for their nest site to the west, a notice must immediately have gone up on the Corvid Craigslist. I imagine it read something like: “Temporary vacancy in well-appointed garden with well-trained, peanut-serving human.” This year our summer tenants were a crow with paint on his neck and a companion with the colourful feathers of a younger crow.
I believe that the crows that are most often coming to the garden now that it’s fall, are these same two — but it’s hard to tell for sure as the late summer moult took care of the easy-to-spot painted and the colourful feathers, leaving us with two anonymously glossy black crows. I think, from their behaviour, it’s the same two. I’ve called the formerly painted crow Marvin after Lee Marvin, who starred in the movie, Paint Your Wagon, many years ago. I haven’t yet got around to a name for his mate. Indeed, I don’t really know who’s “he” and who’s “she” for sure at the moment, but you’ve got to start somewhere.
We’re beginning that fun “getting to know you” routine, which involves a lot of “risk/benefit” calculation on their part. You can almost hear their brain cogs whirring as they try to figure out how close it’s safe to get to this crazy human and her dog.
They don’t look too dangerous …
How about from this angle?
I feel safer up on the roof.
Gradually, they’re getting bolder. Or possibly just more desperate as the weather takes a turn for the worse and they settle in for the winter. I think we’ve even got to that cosy stage where they blame me for the weather.
So, for now, things are a bit fluid — and I don’t just mean what’s coming from the sky. When a crow shows up in my garden at the moment, it’s a bit of a guess as to whether it’s Marvin & co, or a Firehall visitor, or even Eric and Clara, testing the northernmost limits of their territorial boundaries.
This time last year I was pretty sure who was who, and now it’s like starting the puzzle over. But, hey, I figure it’s good exercise for my aging brain. I’ve never tried Sukuko, but examining and sorting all of the corvid “who’s who, and where?” clues has to be almost as good.
NOTE* I have been waiting for 40+ years to use “hegemony” in a sentence. I believe I first came across it when reading about the foreign policy of Frederick the Great of Prussia for a very boring university essay in the mid-70’s. I knew it would come in handy eventually.