Mabel has gone from being a solitary bird after the death of her mate, George Brokenbeak, in 2017, to the matriarch of an unusually massive crow family.
From what I’ve observed over the last few years, such large families remaining together over multiple seasons is somewhat rare. Usually one juvenile crow might stick around for a season or two to learn the ropes, and help the parents with nesting season. In Mabel and her new mate’s case, two of the 2019 juveniles are still with them — plus two more from this season — adding up to a rather rowdy gang of six.
Back in March 2020, when Mabel only had two apprentices.
Among this boisterous bunch it is only Mabel with her distinctive right eye, that I’m regularly able to identify. Hence, I think of them, collectively, as “The Mabels.”
The Mabels, by their sheer numbers, have become a bit of a dominant local force. As I mentioned in last week’s post, the large group has the extra crowpower to have lookouts posted everywhere, making it hard to give our “house crows,” Marvin and Mavis, a few quiet peanuts without bringing the Marauding Mabels into the picture.
To be fair, Mabel and the late lamented George ruled our garden long before Marvin and Mavis, so I’m sure there are some valid territorial claims to be made under Crow Law.
George Brokenbeak and Mabel, our back deck, winter 2016.
Also, this summer, during the hot dry months, I put out a bowl of water in front of the house for the use of any thirsty critters. Mabel, of course, brought the whole family down regularly for refreshment and recreation. I wrote about this in Fledgling Fun.
So it’s hardly surprising that The Mabels of all generations consider our house to be part of their daily routine.
The heart of their territory lies, however, at the other end of the block— part of a local elementary school. Central to the ancestral seat are two old metal yellow posts with rings on top that are used to mark, and sometimes block off, the entrance to the school parking lot.
The right ring has, for time immemorial (well at least for the few years I’ve been watching) been important to this crow family.
The feet of George upon the yellow throne in 2016.
Mabel seemed to inherit the “ring of power” once George was gone. Until quite recently I never saw another crow rest there for very long, including her new mate, Gus.
Don’t even think about it …
The chains of office, claimed by Mabel.
Signs she may be willing to relinquish her iron grip began this spring.
The younger crows, after first practicing on the less prestigious left hand side yellow post …
… were occasionally allowed to take the one true throne for a short test drive.
They always look a little nervous as Mabel’s tolerance for such impertinence is variable.
Sometimes she perches on the lower railing and supervises.
Other times, she wants her spot back and it’s time for a quick exit …
Recently, one of the Mabels has been standing out from the crowd by sheer force of personality.
The smallest of the family, one of the 2020 batch, is proving to be the boldest. I started thinking of her as Chip (as in “off the old block”) and I notice that she will follow me for several blocks on the dog walks, even when the rest of The Mabels have lost interest.
Chip doesn’t have any distinguishing features, other than being the smallest and the cheekiest, but there is just something about her face.
She’s already got the posing thing down to a fine art.
Recently, she’s been mimicking her mother on the golden throne.
Mabel demonstrates the proper regal attitude …
… while Chip has a ways to go in the poise department …
Mabel (left) and Chip (right) practicing the stone lion pose.
Whether the Mabels will stay together for much longer remains to be seen, but I can’t help hoping that Chip will stick around.
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.
As a sequel to yesterday’s post, here are some photos from this morning’s walk — just a few crows in an autumn landscape.
Most of today’s crows are not close acquaintances, but part of the mysterious entourage that follows me along the dog walking route.
As I mentioned yesterday, the autumnal rowdiness is kept in check by an absence of peanuts and a few kind words of thanks after I take their photos.
I’m not sure why they follow me, but I always get an especially warm welcome at the corner where (almost two years ago now) crows played a pivotal role in the finding of a lost dog. I always thank them when I walk by and they seem to remember me still.
This character, photographed close to home, is one of Mabel’s offspring. I can’t tell it’s one of the 2020 batch, or one of two 2019 youngsters who still hang around.
It’s a very grounding feeling to walk your own neighbourhood and see familiar faces, human and corvid, and exchange daily pleasantries.
It makes me feel that the world is still spinning on some sort of stable axis.
For humans, the 2020 autumn season is bringing with it — along with pumpkin spice — a sprinkling of existential dread.
For crows, however, it’s the normal rowdy, rollicking, freedom-from-fledglings social season.
No social or physical distancing for them.
In fact, the normal territorial boundaries are being blithely crossed in search of seasonal bounty. Any block with a nut or berry tree is a “go-zone” this month.
Contributing to the mayhem is the fact that the excitable new fledglings have yet to learn the finer points of corvid etiquette.
A certain amount of chaos inevitably ensues.
I find it’s best to employ my special autumnal version of Peanut Diplomacy at this unruly time of year.
Instead of stopping on my fall morning walks to exchange pleasantries and a few peanuts with each set of crow acquaintances on their territorial corners, a far more parsimonious peanut distribution system is in order.
Normally token offerings are made, accepted with grace, and I move on to visit new crows on new corners.
At this time of year, however, the dog and I seem to be claimed as territory-to-go and crows will follow us from their own domain and into their neighbour’s. This can result an accumulation of dozens of boisterous crows following us for blocks and/or unseemly crow brawling.
Fall Peanut Protocol is best deployed at this point.
Upon leaving the house, I offer a few peanuts to Marvin and Mavis, if they happen to be waiting, then a few more for Mabel and her gang at the other end of the block. From that point on I exchange only kind words with my crow (and human) walking acquaintances. I’m still followed, but it’s a much less fractious group.
Harmony restored …
I generally find that, by December, things will have settled down again and normal Peanut Diplomatic Relations may resume.
Besides, at this time of year, my paltry peanut offerings pale beside the bounty that nature has to offer.
Mabel and her mate began their 2020 nesting odyssey way back in April when I photographed the series above, written about in A Message in the Sky.
A nest was duly built in a nearby ornamental plum tree, and Mabel sat on it for a while, settled in a pretty pink world.
It seemed like a good early start, so I was all ears for baby crow sounds by mid-June. Sadly, something must have gone wrong with that nest location, as it was was abandoned sometime in June, and it looked as if Mabel and her partners might be deciding to take a year off from the parenting business. They did have an extremely busy time last summer with three demanding fledglings, two of which were still with them this spring.
She surprised me again last week when I heard not one, but two, and possibly three fledglings calling from her neck of the proverbial urban woods.
And there was one …
… and another …
I’m pretty sure I heard a third, but I haven’t seen all three together yet, so hard to say for certain. Either way, it looks like another long, hot, busy summer ahead for Mabel.
Hopefully the “teenagers” still with her be useful baby sitters from time to time. Mostly though, it’s Mabel I’ve seen doing the feeding and general herding of gormless babies out of danger.
One of her fledglings beginning that vital crash course on what is, and what is not, food. Small pebbles now ruled out.
Baby experiences his/her first heatwave
I saw Mabel and one of the babies near our house this morning. That’s not “their” end of the block but the parents do have to follow wherever their boundary-innocent offspring flap off to.
First, baby posed for a distant pop-up portrait …
Then, seeing how fearless mom is, in for a close-up …
Mabel must be getting on bit by now. It looks as if her right eye is getting worse, and yet she continues to add to her corvid dynasty year by year.
More crows in line for her throne and her rusty chain of office — although she looks ready to rule for many years yet.
I confess. I have been hoarding a small bit of good news.
First, because I didn’t really believe it could be true.
Second, in a year with so little good news, I felt sharing it might be a jinx, leading to me having to give you bad news later (which no-one needs.)
The second reason still stands, but I can’t keep this little nugget of joy to myself any longer. Time to celebrate the small good things as they come along!
Drumroll, please . . . I think Marvin and Mavis, after 3 years of failure, may have finally achieved parenthood!
Our immediate neighbourhood has not heard the gurgling/quacking sound of a baby crow in some years. Raccoons, eagles and simple gravity have stymied Marvin and Mavis’s efforts time after time.
And, of all years, I hardly dared think that 2020 would be the one in which they’d finally luck out. Apart from losing a big part of their habitat when the poplars disappeared in June, they’d already built and abandoned three nests in other trees before I lost track of their nesting activity during the construction chaos.
So, when I thought I heard baby crow sounds just outside the house in early July I wrote it off at first as wishful thinking. Or maybe a baby crow from elsewhere that had flown off course on an early training flight.
But I heard it the next day too. And the next. Finally I saw this small face peering out of the tree in front of our house. Then this happy scene in the weeping birch across the street.
The “direct deposit” feeding method.
Now, small caveat: with all the upheaval going on in our neighbourhood, it is just possible that this is some other crow family taking advantage of the chaos to move in on Marvin and Mavis’s turf. All of the crows are behaving a little differently and varying their daily routines — partly due to the rigours of nesting season, and partly due to the suddenly changed local ecosystem. Other crows have been popping by from time to time, but judging by the regular appearance of these two and offspring, I’m 95% sure this is Marvin, Mavis and family.
Anyway, I am trying to stop myself from feeling like a besotted new grandma. Unchecked, I could easily start knitting tiny crow-sized bonnets for this youngster.
As it is, I’m out several times a day taking photos. “See how adorable s/he is?” “Isn’t this absolutely the cutest little fledgling you’ve ever seen?” ”
One of the first “baby” photos — July 9
Such a good eater!
Strong family resemblance!!
I had all but given up on such good news for Marvin and Mavis this year. In the days after the poplars came down I often saw them sitting together on the construction fence assessing the devastation.
But somewhere, I guess, they had this little newcomer tucked away until rudimentary flight skills had been achieved.
Things could, of course, still go badly wrong. The survival rate for bird fledglings, including crows, seems to be 50-50 at best. Every morning the first thing I do is go outside and anxiously listen for the tell-tale begging sounds.
A few days ago, parents and baby came to hang out in the Katsura tree in front of the house for a couple of hours. One of the summer’s highlights so far!
So far they haven’t brought junior into the garden with them when they come for their breakfast, but I’m hoping they may do so soon.
Baby in the background
Parenting is a tiring business …
Worrying about a baby crow is a good exercise in taking one day at a time. Here is junior yesterday looking for interesting things in the gutter (a reminder to check around your car before taking off too quickly at this time of year!)
Checking out a wide new world
Here’s my most recent photo (I told you there’d be lots!) taken this morning. The blue eyes are changing to grey now and more adventures (much nail biting) are being undertaken.
The video below, also from this morning, captures one of the things that make crows so very entertaining to watch.
Who among us, human parents or kids, cannot relate to this little exchange?
Thankfully, he is no longer the bedraggled bird he was at peak moulting season last year. He got back to being a handsome, if unremarkable looking, crow by late fall.
Last spring I was away in the UK for the month of June, so I missed a lot of nesting season. For whatever reason, Mr. and Mrs. Pants produced no offspring in 2019, so I’ve been keeping a special eye on their progress this spring.
They had a rather trying fall and winter last year, with territorial trouble on their southern border from the Walker family. While Mr. and Mrs. P had no surviving babies last year, the Walkers did, and their need for more food and their numerical advantage led to bold and frequent incursions into Pantsland.
Both of the Pants couple spent most of their time with eyes scouring the sky for invading forces and they were very jumpy and seemed … if it is possible to discern this in crows … stressed out.
Mrs. Pants on guard
Mr. Pants keeping a wary eye on things from above
Mr Pants employing full tail regalia to defend his territory.
Now that nesting season is well underway, all the crows are keeping a lower profile and things have at last quietened on the contested border.
Mr. Pants takes a relaxed moment to pose with wisteria.
As I mentioned in the last post, Small News, many crows are choosing small street trees as nesting sites of late. While they’re closer to the ground and the risk of predation by racoons, cats, squirrels etc. they’re less likely to be raided by large birds like ravens, hawks and eagles — which seems to be an increasing risk as these birds gain a firmer foothold in the city.
The Pants have long favoured the small tree option and this year is no exception.
I spotted Mrs Pants last week sitting in their nest in quite small street tree — a crabapple of some sort, I think, and the same type of tree they chose two years ago. Fortunately they seem to have selected a healthier specimen this time, as the spring 2018 tree shed a lot of leaves in spring, leaving poor Mrs. P baking in the sun or thoroughly soaked, depending on the day, and not particularly well hidden. Even then, they did successfully fledge two little ones that year, although, sadly neither made it past the first few months. One just disappeared early on and the other succumbed to avian pox.
Being an urban nature enthusiast involves, as I learn anew every year, witnessing a lot of tragedy and well as joy.
Mrs. Pants on the nest this morning
Still, like the crows, we consider each day a new start, and each nesting season a potential bonanza of good news, so fingers crossed for the Pantses and all the other birds putting their all into the nesting business this spring.
I walk around the neighbourhood several times a day during nesting season, checking in on the crow news — taking photos and making mental notes of how things are with the various crow families I’ve become acquainted with over the years.
At this point I’ve got so many crow-notes stuffed into my head, I’m not sure where to start unpacking them.
Rather than trying to cram all the news into one post, I think I’ll go one crow family at a time, starting with the Pants family in the next post.
First though, I have to tell you about this morning’s drama.
We’ve had nesting bald eagles in the neighbourhood for years, so all through each nesting season the eagle parents scour the area for baby eagle food, always followed by a loud and angry crow posse. This morning I happened to catch some of the action from relatively close quarters when the eagle landed in the school grounds at the end of the block.
The crows, backed up by screeching gulls, seemed even more loud and frantic than usual.
So impassioned, in fact, you can see one crow in the video below whacking the sitting eagle hard enough to cause it to fly off.
The reason they were so mad? It looked as if the eagle had scooped an entire crow’s nest right out of a tree. You can see a glimpse of the nest in the video below.
In the end, the eagle dropped most of the nest, although there was something still gripped in its claws as it flew off.
The eagle population is part of the reason the crows are changing their nesting habits.
Local ornithology expert, Rob Butler, who spoke about crows last weekend on local CBC Radio show, North by Northwest, mentioned this change: crows who had previously chosen high nest sites for protection against ground based predators (raccoons, cats, coyotes) are now picking spots in lower, less eagle-accessible trees — even selecting quite small street trees they calculate will be awkward for raccoons to scale.
I’ve certainly noticed that our local crows have rejected the once-coveted penthouse suites in the Notre Dame poplars this year in favour of much lower and more camouflaged trees. Marvin and Mavis have picked such a low, mid-street location for the nest this year, it would be quite the drama if the eagle swooped that low.
If you think being dive-bombed by a crow is exciting …!
The Pants crow family, who I’ll be looking at next time, have long been fans of the low-rise nest building solution and we’ll have a look at what they’re up to this spring.