It was just like a door-crasher sale for crows, with home furnishings 50% off.
Like a gang of bargain bin foragers, they created an explosion of tugging, flapping, snapping, inspecting and discarding. Reject twigs littered the sidewalk. In spite of the massive effort involved in finally getting a stick free, the crows would often cast a critical look at their prize and dump it. Perhaps they decided it was going to mess up the feng shui, or didn’t quite match the colour scheme — whatever — it wasn’t up to snuff so time to head back into find the “right” one. Even if a twig was worth flying off with, it would often be taken to a rooftop for some further DIY modification before being deemed nest-worthy.
These photos are of Eric and Clara. I know it’s them because of where they’re building their nest. That half block has been “theirs” for as long as I’ve been watching them — at least four years.
Eric finally flies off with a “perfect” twig.
Eric and Clara’s nest, way up in the poplars.
Because it’s been such a delayed spring here in Vancouver, crows are building their nests before the trees are leafed out enough to camouflage them. I can actually watch Eric and Clara working on the nest from my living room window at the moment. I only hope the local bald eagles and racoons aren’t also making notes!
There was a definite joie de vivre in the air last Friday. Not only were the blossoms out (three weeks late) but it was also dry and sunny for the whole day.
In between battling to acquire furniture, the crows would spend a bit of time just relaxing in their newly-pink world, and enjoying the novelty of the twin phenomena of sun and “not rain.”
Clara in the pink.
The blossoms were still there the next day, but the weather took a severe U-turn. There was very little twig collecting going on in the pouring rain. Trying to shake a twig loose from the soaking trees would have resulted in near drowning. And the wind!
I think this juvenile crow’s look spoke for many of us when the rain started up again.
Nest Construction Notes
Last year, after nesting season was over, I found this fallen crow’s nest. I brought it home to photograph its architectural features — a perfect embodiment of urban and nature. The main form was constructed from sturdy twigs, grass and moss, then reinforced with human detritus — old zap straps and twine. A bit of packing fluff for a luxurious finishing touch.
Not literally, of course. Crow hugging is fraught with peril at the best of times, but especially in spring when nesting season has them a bit tense.
Please, do not hug me.
But I do suggest that you give the crow (or pick your favourite bird, plant, patch of moss or mollusk) a special thought today.
It’s Earth Day so, ideally, we should be extending our love to the entire planet.
But that’s a hard thing to do, particularly when what the planet needs from us right now is massive change —change that is going to be really tough for us to make.
The majority of the world’s population now lives in cities, where we often feel very cut off from what we think of as Nature.
So, given that most of us are urbanites these days, how are we to develop the necessary connection with nature in order to care enough to make change and move towards saving the planet?
As my dear mother used to say, “wherever you go, there you are.”
And where you are now, even if it’s in the heart of the city, has tenacious bits of nature thriving in it.
It just takes a slight focus shift to start becoming aware of, and amazed by it.
This crow is tending a nest at Hornby and Robson in the heart of downtown Vancouver, right by the Art Gallery. A friend who works at the gallery told me that it’s probably the same pair who nested there last year and caused a traffic kerfuffle when one of their babies flew into the back of someone’s convertible just outside of Café Artigiano.
Collecting nest furnishings in the heart of downtown Vancouver.
Often the thing you tend to notice first, just because of its size and boldness, is a crow.
I find that the crow is your gateway bird, leading to the habit of noticing the bird world as a whole. Once you’ve started to look up to see what the crows are up to, you can’t help but start to notice the robins, sparrows, bushtits, chickadees and hawks going about their more subtle, but equally fascinating, avian business.
And noticing birds is, in turn, a gateway to the wonder of nature in general.
The task of saving the earth often seems far too big and therefore hopeless.
The tools we need this Earth Day are empathy and hope.
Someone who embodies both of these qualities is 87 year old Jean Vanier, who created L’Arche — a unique and loving community for mentally disable adults. Here are some of his thoughts on birds, as told to columnist and writer, Ian Brown in a Globe and Mail interview.
Hmmm, something to think about …
Some notes on the author’s quoted in this blog post:
John Marzluff’s Wikipedia page says this:
“John Marzluff is a professor of wildlife science at the University of Washington and author of In the Company of Crowsand Ravens, Gifts of the Crow, and Welcome to Subirdia. His lab once banded crows with a Dick Cheney mask.”
— so you know he’d be fun guy to know! Subirdia is his most recent book about the amazing adaptability of birds, their importance, and what we can do to help them survive in our urbanized world.
I first discovered Seattle author Lyanda Lynn Haupt when I picked up a copy of Crow Planetseveral years ago. It remains one of my favourite books, combining science, poetry and humour in a way that I could read all day. She’s also written a wonderful book on city wildlife in general (The Urban Bestiary) and I look forward to her next one on the subject of starlings. And she has a blog: The Tangled Nest.
Colin Tudge is a British biologist and entertaining author, The Bird is only one of many books he’s written. I next want to read his book The Secret Life of Trees.
You can read more about the life and work of Jean Vanier on his website.
Sometimes you start reading a book, and it takes you somewhere you had no idea you were going.
I have a weakness for vintage natural history books, so I was quite thrilled to find this treasure on the shelves of a used bookstore in Nanaimo a while ago. I was immediately taken with the lovely 50’s typography, and a quick look inside revealed some lovely illustrations of animals and birds of the Rocky Mountain area. I had to have it!
The charming cover page, with it’s fabulous typeface and a little engraving of a beaver, credits the author —Kerry Wood, and the illustrator —Frank L. Beebe.
No date was listed, but a quick online search found that it was published by Herbert R. Lawson Publishing Co. Ltd. of Victoria, BC in 1955 . A year after I was born.
The Table of Contents looked very promising, with headings like The Big Fellows, The Long Sleepers and A Lazy Loafer.
I skipped ahead to the conclusion, or L’Envoi in which our author charmingly bids us adieu with the wish that we “could meet beside some campfire there in the Parks, with a chuckling stream just beyond the flame-glow, a majestic mountain behind us, and the zestful perfume of the pines combining with the wood-smoke to enrich that wonderful mountain air. Amid such a setting, we could take time to tell each other more about those fascinating creatures of the wilds which share this marvelous gift of life with us.”
Mr. Woods sounded like such an affable companion for an excursion through the Rockies!
I skipped back to the animal section, leafing from wolverine to coyote.
A whimsical passage on the coyote describes the character of the animal:
“And there you have Don Coyote; pup, hunter, clown, epicure, speedster, vocalist, and ghost, the most versatile animal-actor in the West!”
We learn that the marmot is untroubled by “coal bills, galoshes, a “gold in da doze,” and other nuisances of winter”, because this animal is one of “The Long Sleepers”.
Mr. Wood tells us that black bears love to wallow, “perhaps as a way of defeating the attentions of insect pests which may be attracted by the unsavoury B.O. afflicting all such animals.”
I felt as if I could wander through the Rockies with Mr. Wood and enjoy this lovely folksy, conversational style of his all day.
Of course, I was anxious to get to the bird section. My flipping through had revealed some lovely pages of illustrations.
The hawks are given the honour of “finest bird family” although the author acknowledges that “someone is sure to get indignant about listing hawks as the finest bird family; folks will vehemently point out that hawks steal chickens and therefore are bad birdies.” Our author goes on to point out, that while chicken stealing does go on, hawks also keep mice and insect pests under control. And, besides, hawks are protected by law from hunting.
But what about the crows and ravens?
Time to find out what our author had to say about my favourite birds.
This is where the plot twist comes in, as we segue from “charming period nature writing” right into horror.
I guess it should have come as a bit of clue that crows, ravens and magpies were listed under the heading, “Mostly Rogues”
Thankfully, Mr. Wood declares himself against the practices of egg stealing and shooting and collecting the feet of these “rogue” birds, although mostly because these methods are inefficient.
The more cost effective method for crow control he describes sounds both horrific, and faintly ludicrous.
He suggests placing “shot bombs” in areas where crows roost in order to “humanely kill hundreds and thousands of the offending birds.”
Shot bombs, “costing less than a dollar apiece,” could be made by “enclosing two or three pounds of lead shot with a stick of dynamite inside a sheath of concrete.” Add a detonating cap and battery, and voila! The mind boggles.
It’s incredible to me that crows, such intelligent and charming birds, could be dismissed simply as vermin to be eradicated — although I know that the corvid species is still regarded in this way in many parts of the world, with a bounty placed on their feathered heads.
But this particular method of blasting hundreds of them into oblivion while they sleep in their roost seems both gruesome and vaguely absurd.
Would a flyer be circulated earlier in the day for the benefit of all the wildlife not on the “naughty” list so they can vacate the area? Pity the poor cat, dog or child who might wander into the detonation zone at the wrong time. And what of the trees and foliage caught up in the carnage? I was reminded of a story told to me by an Irish man about his ill-fated aunt. Her cottage was near a rookery and she didn’t like the noise the birds made. She tried to get rid of them by smoking them out, and wound up burning down her own cottage.
Mr. Wood goes on to explain how the “roost bombing” method could reduce crows to “negligible numbers” in a few years. Clearly it did not. Probably not because people felt sympathy for the crows, but perhaps because someone saw the holes (literal and figurative) in the scheme.
Although also listed under “Rogues,” ravens are not as vilified as the crows and magpies, if only because they seem to have been scarce at the time. We even get a little Edgar Allen Poe humour here!
From the rest of the book, it’s clear that Kerry Woods (you can read more about him here) loved the wilderness and most of its inhabitants. He even had a nature centre named after him. I can only conclude that his attitude to corvids must have been a reflection of the prevailing view at the time.
So, while we may, from time to time, harken back to simpler times and the “good old days” I don’t imagine you get many crows from the Rockies wishing to go back to the 50’s!
Vera would not like to be living in the 50’s!
I still like my book, Birds and Animals of the Rockies, for its beautiful typography and illustrations, the jaunty writing style, and the window into the thinking of the times.
But, if you’re interested in curling up with some more up-to-date books and blogs on the corvid species, here are some of my favourites.
Sometimes I wonder if there’s a crow memo circulating, directing slightly invalided birds to my place. There’s George Brokenbeak and also Hop-Along Hank.
Hank walks with a limp because of a problem with his right foot that he’s had for as long as I’ve known him. Flying is no problem for him, but I can spot him on a roof top from quite a distance because of his distinctive stance, favouring the sore foot. That and his slightly hooked beak.
Hank and Vera have been around since last spring. I wrote about them in an earlier blog, Here’s Hank, charting their failed effort at parenthood last year. I have a feeling that Hank is one of Eric’s offspring. Eric has seemingly ceded our backyard territory to Hank, in favour of a superior nesting spot in the tall poplars at the end of the street.
Hank and Vera paying an early morning visit. You can see Hank’s slightly deformed foot on the far right.
Now Hank and Vera and George and Mabel vie for my attentions. The four of them often sit together peaceably on the wires in the alley, but as soon as there are peanuts, it’s game on. The two pairs will never cooperate and share the food. Much ferocious cawing and occasional dive bombing ensue if I put nuts out when both couples are nearby.
We seem to have worked out a more or less harmonious system where Hank and Vera come first thing in the morning. George and Mabel take the later shift, coming later in the morning , and sometimes in the afternoon too, for a last minute snack before the nightly journey to the Still Creek roost.
Hank (left) and Vera (right) vociferously stake out their claim to the peanuts.
Most of the time, Hank doesn’t seem too bothered by his foot problem, but when the weather is cold and wet, I sometimes see him standing forlornly on one leg.
Another one of Hank’s characteristics is that he seems to like to yawn. I don’t know if crows actually do yawn, but he often opens his beak very wide without any sound coming out — so it looks very much like a yawn.
Hank’s limping gait gives him a rather model-like pose. Auditioning for a part in Zoolander 3?
So, this is Hank, as I know him. I’m sure Vera could tell some tales too!
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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 …
One of Eric’s fledglings waits impatiently for a snack.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
First there was Eric. Then there was Hank. Now there are Hank and Eric and Vera and Eric’s mate and some babies. That’s a lot of crows for a small area, but they seem to have worked out a way to keep things civil.
They key is that certain rules have to be adhered to. Eric and his family have the run of the front street and the large poplars at the end of the street.
Hank and Vera rule the back garden and the alley. They still seem to be tending to a nest in a big tree in the alley.
Hank is responsible for feeding Vera while she’s nesting.
Harmony exists as long as no-one forgets to cross the unseen borders. If they do – holy moly, there is trouble.
The other day Hank was on his usual perch on the neighbour’s roof when Eric came a-calling. After all, the back yard used to be Eric’s domain, so I can see how he might be confused. I was photographing Hank at the time, so I was able to catch the instantaneous transformation from relaxed, rather gormlessly sunbathing crow — to puffed-up (look how big and scary I am!) tough-guy crow.
On the left, Hank is in relaxed, sunbathing mode. One second later, sensing intruders into his space, he’s in tough crow mode.
I can easily tell the difference between Hank and Eric because Hank has a rather distinctive “over beak”. His top beak curves over the bottom slightly. They engaged in a few minutes of angry cawing and a touch of dive bombing action before Eric relinquished the territory to Hank.
Ruler of the backyard.
It’s lucky the trouble was short lived — because Hank really seems to enjoy just hanging about and soaking up the sun. Here he is later that day doing some more sun bathing on the studio roof. He likes to relax with his beak open and wings spread out. He’s a real West Coast, laid back kind of crow.
Wings spread, beak open – I think it’s like dogs panting, it must create some sort of cooling effect.
More wing spreading.
He probably does yoga when I’m not looking. Actually, I think I may have caught him a hula hoop practice in this picture.
Check out that hip action!
I am getting quite fond of Hank and he is getting less nervous around me, and therefore a more willing model for my photographs.
If you’d like to hear more about what goes on with the local crows on a daily basis, check in at my Facebook page.
I post lots of pictures there and keep you up on latest in the ongoing crow soap opera.
Vera is a little nervous around the camera, but not as phobic as this photo would suggest. She was actually enjoying a good scratch!
She and her partner (Hank) are one of many young couples starting out and trying to raise a family here in East Vancouver.
Vera and Hank
The two of them started hanging out in my garden regularly a few weeks ago. Sadly, I haven’t seen Eric in a while, but I’m hoping he’s just busy nesting nearby. I hope to see him again in the fall.
Vera and Hank have been busy ransacking my trees for branches that are “just right” for weeks. I soon began to suspect they had plans to settle in the area. They fly in and out of a big tree close by, so I’m pretty sure that’s their new address.
This will look fabulous in the living room!
A couple of weeks ago I noticed Vera begging for food and being fed by her partner, another sign that babies are on the way. Finally, I noticed a big pink patch of featherless skin under Vera’s belly. At first I was worried that she’d been in a fight and gotten injured, but then the phrase “brood patch” popped into my head.
I’m nervously monitoring their progress. They both seem pretty young. Vera, in particular, could be one of last year’s babies. She still has the brownish feathers of juvenile crow. It seems that she’s pretty low ranking in the crow-verse. When I first saw her she’d appear in the morning adorned with droppings, meaning that, in the crow roost, she got to sleep on the lower branches. High branches are reserved for the senior crows, like Eric. Lately she’s been cleaner, probably because she’s not going to the roost at night, but staying with Hank to guard the nest.
Curse those higher up crows!
Vera looks as though she’s having a bit of a hard life. Her feathers are strangely tattered — the Cinderella of the crow world. She’s clearly at the opposite end of the crow hierarchy from Eric the Magnificent.
I named her Vera after one of my favourite British TV detectives. The fictional Vera is tough and determined, so I’m hoping some of that will rub off on this “Vera”. She’ll need all the help she can get make it in the rough and tumble world of the urban crow.
I’ll keep you posted on any developments in the baby crow department!
For portraits of the crows of East Vancouver, check out my web site.
Dive bombing crows are in the news again.
A scary experience for pedestrians, but it may help to know why they do it.
Imagine this. You and your sleep-deprived spouse have just had triplets. A few days after they’re born they have the mobility capacity of toddlers — combined with the burning desire to see the world and the “I-can-do-it” attitude of teenagers!
They’ve got the keys to the car but have had no driving lessons.
They don’t know anything about “stranger danger”.
Is this food?
At the same time, they’re loudly demanding food and attention every moment of the day.
You’d be kind of wild-eyed too. You’d be prone to acts of desperate bravado to keep danger away, just until the kids get the hang of the flying business and the basics of urban survival.
Please may I have some more …?
If I just jump and keep flapping everything will be OK, right?
If you know there are worry-crazed parent crows in your neighbourhood, I hope you’ll try to forgive their seemingly aggressive behaviour. It will pass soon, once the kids are just a little older.
In the meantime, give them a wide berth — or use an umbrella for protection. Maybe soothe their frazzled nerves and offer a bribe by dropping a few peanuts.
Try to put yourself in their shoes/claws for a minute.