Marvin and Mavis: 2020 in Review

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.

Before Marvin and Mavis became our “house crows”, our place “belonged” to George and Mabel. When George died in summer 2017, Mabel moved to the other end of the block and eventually started a new family there.

Mabel and just a couple of her clan.

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.

 

 

 

 

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Crow Stories

This post will have stories … about crows … eventually.

But first, I wanted to share a few thoughts that have been rolling around in my head about the idea of “story.”

Mostly I look at the world in a visual way. I’m a photographer, so I’m always looking for shapes, colours, light, shade, textures and so on. They do say that a picture is worth a thousand words but, for me, the words hovering behind the picture are just as important. Every photograph I take has at least the inkling of a story behind it.

My academic background is in English Literature — so, naturally I’m a sucker for narrative.  I guess that’s why, even though my work is pictorial, I’ve come to love writing this blog. The thousand words behind the picture.

Crows seem to be the perfect subjects for both pictures and stories.

 

Visually, they are fascinating — whether viewed from a distance as inky calligraphy against the sky …

… or closer up, where you can see the myriad colours in the allegedly black feathers, and the soulful intelligence in their restless eyes.

Story-wise, they’re an endless resource. They’re a minefield of metaphor and motif; a stockpile of symbolism and simile.

And character — don’t get me started! Every time I spend time with a crow, I can’t help but see something in their expression that parallels the human experience.

And I guess that’s the value of story.

It lures you into looking deeper into worlds that aren’t your own, and makes your life richer, funnier and more full of empathy as a result.

OK, enough rambling and, finally (as promised) some crow-necdotes!

Tales of Mavis and Marvin

As winter dug in, it became clear that these two had become de facto king and queen of my back garden. For a while some of the younger crows from the Firehall Five would try and horn in on the action, but there must have been some sort of back room deal, because I now never see them in the yard. Occasionally there is some minor skirmish with Eric and Clara who will make forays into the front garden, but generally detente has been reached in the hyper-local corvid community.

On Christmas Day Marvin and Mavis had the garden to themselves, apart from the chickadees, juncos, song sparrow and lone hummingbird.

Art Appreciation

Marvin continues his fascination with the garden statuary.

Not sure if this was a gesture of affection, or frustration at the failure of his efforts to get a response.

Attempting conversation with the equally taciturn cast iron crows by the studio.

New Year Challenge

The daily offering of peanuts and dog kibble was becoming a bit routine, so I decided to give Marvin and Mavis a bit more of a challenge. Once they’ve had a few easy-picking peanuts and kibble from the back deck, I set up a bit of an obstacle course for them.

There’s a gnarled piece of Hornby Island driftwood in the garden by the picket fence. I wedge a few peanuts in the stick and watch Marvin and Mavis problem-solve how to get them out. First challenge is negotiating a route along the tricky picket fence.

The first few tries had them scrambling and flapping. It’s also a bit of a “beat the clock” affair, since chickadees are snatching them easily from the driftwood while Marvin and Mavis are figuring out how to get to them.

King of the driftwood castle.

After a couple of weeks, they are now experts. This photo of Marvin, showing off his picket fence mastery is now one of my favourites (and available as prints and tiles!).

Winter Weather

As usual in Vancouver, we’ve had a winter mélange of snow, rain and wind. Some of my favourite crow portraits are catching them in seeming response to adverse weather conditions. It’s then that they most remind me of myself, waiting at a bus stop or trudging home with shopping. That stoic and and somewhat exasperated look.

#rainblame

Philosopher Crow — or, Mavis adopts a philosophical approach in the face of inevitable.

Curse, you winter! Actually, this was Mavis’s response to Edgar (the cat) being out on the back deck. More like, “curse you, cat!”

So, the crow stories are endless really. I’m sure I’ll have more I can’t keep to myself soon. I hope they get you to look at the crows in your part of the world with more interest and affection, because life is just more entertaining once you let crows in.

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Some Crow Valentines in my shop now.

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Crowpocalypse 2015

The summer of 2015 had been a rough one for crows. Actually it’s been tough for urban wildlife of all kinds, but since I watch the crows so much, I’ve been feeling their pain especially.

Crow silhouette against the eery red sunrise caused by smoke from forest fires

Crow silhouette against the eery red sunrise caused by smoke from forest fires in areas around Vancouver.

Raising fledglings is hard work at the best of times – constant feeding, along with perpetual vigilance against the usual dangers – racoons, hawks, eagles, cars, cats etc.  Added to the usual list of challenges this summer: high winds (just when babies were emerging from the nest), heat and drought, served with a garnish of forest fire smoke.

Tired crow parents, made fierce by anxiety, are prone to dive bombing unwary human pedestrians every nesting season. It seemed to me that they were even more ferocious than usual this year.

Furious guardian

Ferocious parent gives a warning to passers by. Stay away from my fledglings. Or else …

Who could blame them?

It was too hot for me to venture out at all after noon on days when the temperatures soared this summer. Pity the poor crow parent – obliged to fly about relentlessly, heat or no heat, seeking tasty morsels food satisfy their perpetually hungry, pink-mouthed babies.

Feed me, feed me, feed me ...

Feed me, feed me, feed me …

One of Eric's fledglings waits impatiently for a snack.

One of Eric’s fledglings waits impatiently for a snack.

Eric feeds one of his two babies

Tea time!

Even worse than the heat — drought. Until the fledglings learn to fly a longer distance, I don’t know how the parents keep them hydrated.

Eric and his family (for reasons I will go into) have been avoiding my garden and the bird bath there. Worried for them, I’ve been making early morning trips to their “territory” at the end of out street with a saucer of water and a few nuts.

Almonds and a fresh saucer of water

Eric enjoys some almonds and a fresh saucer of water!

All of the crows, even Eric the Elegant, are looking terribly bedraggled this summer. They began their moult in early July. This is a normal occurrence, but usually happens at the end of the summer. I can only imagine that the scorching temperatures must have brought it forward. The ground is littered with black feathers.

Eric Moulting

Earlier this year I read the wonderful book, Corvus, by Esther Woolfson. From her writing, I learned that the moulting process makes birds rather irritable and out of sorts.

One of thousands and thousands of dropped feathers.

One of thousands and thousands of dropped feathers.

In the garden in early summer we had Hank and Vera. After weeks of diligent nest construction and guarding, they lost their eggs to a hungry racoon. They remained for a while and then moved on. Here they are during the period in July when Vancouver’s air quality was affected by forest fires in surrounding areas – looking rather sepia in the smokey atmosphere.

Sepia Vera

Sepia Vera

Sepia Hank

Sepia Hank

When Hank and Vera left, I thought Eric and his family would return to the garden. Instead, I found that they would come to my front gate,  looking for handouts, but would never, ever venture into the back garden. Eric’s fledglings even adopted a “silent” begging mode, going through all of the usual baby crow pleading motions, but without sound. Its almost as if they didn’t want to attract the attention of other crows.

Eric in sepia

Eric in on the front fence (in sepia)

Meanwhile, Hank and Vera had been replaced in the back garden by another crow family – two devoted parents with a very homely looking fledgling. The baby crow had various lumps under his beak, and eventually on his feet too. Luckily, a sharp eyed visitor to my Facebook page, where I’d posted a photo of the new baby, pointed out that it could be a case of avian pox.

Sick baby crow

I checked the symptoms with the wonderful people at Wildlife Rescue Association BC and they confirmed that this was likely the case. Avian pox is highly contagious among many bird species, harmless to humans.

I always keep my birdbath and feeders clean, but on hearing this news I’ve started cleaning the birdbath in particular with bleach twice a day. I don’t normally like using bleach, but apparently only a 10% solution of bleach to water is effective against the virus. You can read more about this illness in Corvid Research’s wonderful blog, here.

My theory is that Eric and his family know that there is a sick crow around, and that is why they haven’t returned to their old stomping grounds. I am heartened to think that this is yet another example of crow intelligence.

Clara

Eric’s mate, Clara.

Eric and his mate, Clara, started out with four fledglings. It’s to their credit that they have, so far, managed to nurse two of them through a very rough summer.

Eric baby

One of Eric’s two youngsters – already looking like a chip off the old block, and wonderfully healthy, thank goodness.

If you like crows in general and Eric in particular, you can follow my Facebook page for regular updates. Also, stay tuned to my website for news of a 2016 City Crow calendar, featuring the adventures of Eric and his family.

logo with crow