Best New Year’s Eve Party

It was going to be just me and my Buckley’s cough syrup for New Year’s Eve, but that seemed a slightly anticlimactic way to say farewell to 2018

Then I remembered the standing invitation to the wildest, loudest, coolest party in town. Attended by thousands, all in a mood to socialize … and everybody tucked up for bed by 5:30. My kind of party!

I always find New Year’s Eve to be a bit melancholy, to be honest, so that, combined with the cold I’d had since just before Christmas, put me in need of an extra large dose of #crowtherapy

So, around 4pm, we arrived at Still Creek. Hardly any crows were there and I fretted, as I always do, that something was wrong and they wouldn’t show up this time.

We scaled up to our usual vantage spot on the Willingdon overpass, and from there, nestled among a small herd of abandoned Whole Foods shopping carts, we saw the crows coming. Rivers of them, as usual.

It’s always such a relief when I see them start to arrive. Larger swirling crow figures in the foreground and tiny, barely visible, specks on the horizon that mark those bringing up the rear.

Still Creek Crow Roost. Photo by June Hunter. ©junehunterimages2018 www.junehunter.com

In the riotous spiral of newcomers in the video below, you can see a mix of gulls with crows (probably brought over in the tide of excitement from the nearby dump) and you can hear, amid the uproar, a cool “knocking” call, almost like a raven.

Once we were surrounded by swirl and squawk on the overpass, we started to move on  to the next viewing spot — walking under the overpass and west on Still Creek road. We took the path that runs along the creek and emerged just behind Dick’s Lumber.

Light was fading by now and the crows were jostling for the best sleeping spot — on wires, on branches and on top of buildings. 

In the midst of the crow-cophany going on in the video below, you can hear at least two crows making a “barking” call.

I can’t wait to hear what the University of Washington study into the meaning of all the crow sounds at the big roost at their Bothell Campus finds out.

Still Creek Crow Roost. Photo by June Hunter. ©junehunterimages2018 www.junehunter.com

Happy New Year!!

As all the crows started to settle in for the night, we headed home.

Phillip went night snow-shoeing with some friends, but I was by now ready for my night in with the cat, dog, and cough syrup. I watched the Knowledge Network TV documentary about Judy Dench and the wonder of trees, then a 2007 film I found on Netflix called “Death At A Funeral” which kept me laughing until Phillip got home.

Really, a perfect New Year’s Eve.

I hope yours was similarly splendid, whatever form it took. And all good wishes to you all for a healthy and happy 2019.

Still Creek Crow Roost. Photo by June Hunter. ©junehunterimages2018 www.junehunter.com

Trick or Treat

Marvin poses on our fence, adding some corvid authenticity to the Halloween decorations.

Halloween in East Vancouver.

Chills and thrills, colour, crows and a bit of junk food thrown in for good measure.

It gets pretty spooky around here in late October. Being only a few blocks from  “Fright Nights” at Playland, every night-time dog walk is accompanied by eerie sound effects and piercing screams floating on the chilly breeze.

In writing a corvid-centric Halloween post, I’m in no way agreeing that crows are even slightly creepy or scary.  They’re so much more comforting than everything I see in the news these days, that I continue to mull the idea of a children’s book about them.

Things continue to be rather stressful around here as I, and neighbours, spend many hours writing letters to City officials in an effort to save the local poplar trees (and Marvin and Mavis’s nesting site) from destruction.

As a bit of diversion from truly terrifying international news and local activism, I’ve been pursuing a rather silly project.

My restorative therapy — training Marvin and Mavis to pose on pumpkins.

At first the orange alien was too intimidating to explore.

Marvin rejects pumpkin

Motivation was needed.

Matching the colour scheme of the season, Hawkins Cheezies were the answer.* *Somewhere, a long time ago, I read that crows and raven share our human weakness for these fluorescent orange snacks. I’d tested this theory in previous years and found it to be  true. Since I share their weakness for these splendid morsels, I rarely buy them. At Halloween I make an exception because you can buy them in the tiny Trick or Treat size. That way, if you only open one bag, the nutritional disaster is relatively contained.

Plus, most will be given to neighbourhood children.

Honest.

Marvin was the first to brave getting up close and personal with the newcomer.

Pumpkin Landing

Pumpkin feet

It only took him a few minutes to get quite comfy with the new landing platform.

M and M with pumpkin

Mavis is a lot more cautious than Marvin and, for a couple of days, she watched wistfully as he scored all the Cheezies.

Finally, yesterday, she gathered her courage and made her “moon-landing equivalent.

Mavis on A Pumpkin

Pumpkin Stride Mavis

One small step for Mavis, a great step for crow-kind.

 

 

raven cards ad

 

Sadly for them both, today is Halloweeen, and the pumpkin has to be carved and the Cheezies offered to the local children.

Maybe I’ll hold a bag back for them. Maybe two, so we can share them.

And perhaps a few Coffee Crisps, just for me …

Happy Halloween everyone.

Sppoky Marvin

Boo!

*PLEASE NOTE: while crows will eat almost anything and, like humans, have a weakness for junk food — Cheezies should not form a significant part of their diet (or yours.) Generally I offer my corvid visitors more wholesome snacks like unsalted peanuts, good quality cat or dog kibble, occasional chopped up boiled egg and dried grubs (from Wild Birds Unlimited.)

Corvid Flash Mobs

Somewhere between harvest festivals and soccer riots, these autumnal corvid gatherings are a sure sign of the seasonal shift.

Crow Crowd

A quiet street corner that is normally the domain of a one crow family is suddenly full of noise and dark feathers. It’s usually early evening when they come, making a stop on the longer trip to the nightly roost.

crow crowd on wires

Wires that are normally punctuated by only two or three crow silhouettes are suddenly sagging under the weight of dozens.

And it’s loud. Not, I grant you, as spectacularly cacophonous as the Still Creek roost — but enough to make itself heard over the indoor household noises.

Enough to make you put on a jacket and go outside to see what’s up.

Often there are additional sounds among the cawing. Crack, plop, bang.

Like giant hail, nuts are falling from above.

 

 

In our neighbourhood, two hazel and one walnut tree produce their bounty at about the same time. It seems that the crows of Vancouver have those dates indelibly written in their mental calendars, because every late September/early October (and I’ve been watching for several years now) they come.

Hazelnuts and Crow

The crows leave many nuts on the roads so that cars can do the heavy nut cracking work for them. Because it’s not a very busy street, they entertain themselves between vehicles by dropping the nuts themselves. This seems to have little effect, but they do look as if they’re having fun.

And it’s not only the crows that have this time of year noted in their “things to do” list. Squirrels are darting about amongst the crows, determined to get their share of the seasonal windfall.

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Last year (alas, I did not have my camera) there was a human vying for his portion of the nut harvest. Clearly he knew what he was up against as he headed out for his task wearing a bicycle helmet.

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nuts

I managed to harvest these two, without a bicycle helmet.

The nuts are the focus of all this celebration, but it really feels as if more is going on.

There’s a real party atmosphere when they gather in these loud unruly groups.

The long, hot, dry summer is finally over. Life is easier now. There are puddles to splash in, and worms to dig out of the dirt again.

Crows that have been busy — first nesting — and then trying to keep fledglings alive —since early spring, finally have some time to themselves. The young ones are big enough to forage for themselves and join in the harvest festival fun.

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Young Erica, Eric and Clara’s fledgling from this year.

Another reason for celebration — the endless molting season is nearing an end. Crazy bald-patch zombie crows are starting to revert to their true sleek selves and that has got to feel really good.

crow calendar Sept

Baby crows that have survived their first couple of months are now able to fly to the roost every night so the big nightly party is back on. These “block parties” are just the warm up to the main event at Still Creek.

Crow Choir

Getting in tune for the roost later on.

Just as the sun goes down a crow somewhere in the mob sounds the signal.

The wires erupt into a clatter of shadowy wings and commentary.

Slocan and Parker

Then suddenly they’re gone. All of them.

The wires are vacant and the nut-strewn street is silent.

Golden Poplars and Crows

A small tributary of crows trickles through the stand of poplars, golden in the last light of the day.

Memories of Bird Expo

Pretty much every day is a bird expo around here, in its own little way.

Molting Mavis

Mavis, positively piebald in her molting magnificence.

But last week I had the great privilege of being part of the Bird and Nature Expo at the Vancouver Convention Centre. It was an event that combined, for the first time, three important gatherings:

  • the 27th meeting of the International Ornithological Congress (IOC)
  • the first Vancouver International Bird Festival
  • the 8th Annual Artists For Conservation Festival
Photo 2018-08-23, 5 01 52 PM

At my booth with Rue the Kenku (member of a mythical bird race) and Rob Butler, Chair of the Vancouver International Bird Festival.

The IOC is the oldest and most prestigious meeting of bird scientists, having started in 1884 in Vienna, Austria. They meet every four years, and this was the very first time the event took place on the Pacific Coast.

The Vancouver International Bird Festival is an expansion of the successful Vancouver Bird Weeks that have been enjoyed in the city since 2013. The event included talks, walks, tours and community art celebrating and spreading the love of birds. All of it came together in the Nature and Bird Expo.

Artists For Conservation (AFC) is an important group of artists dedicated to supporting the environment through their beautiful work. A highlight of the Nature and Bird Expo was their stunning Silent Skies mural — a hundred foot long mosaic in which many AFC artists collaborated to depict 678 endangered bird species.

Silent Skies Mural

So, having explained the nuts and bolts of what was going on, let me tell you a bit about the atmosphere.

bird ephoria

As someone who spends a lot of solitary work time — thinking about, writing about, looking at, and photographing birds, there was something quite euphoric about being in a room with hundreds of people who are similarly obsessed. Many of the people I spoke to were scientists, rather than artists, but there is no divide between disciplines when it comes to sheer bird enthusiasm.

At the back of the huge space in which the Expo was held was an area where scientists who weren’t presenting their abstracts in a bigger venue could pin up a poster about their research and have half an hour or so to present it to anyone interested. That area was like a beehive, buzzing with ideas being shared, vibrating with energy.

I met bird scientists from Russia, Korea, South Africa, China, Columbia, Japan, Germany, France, the UK, all parts of Canada and the United States. One thing they had in common was —  if you asked them what their area of research was, they positively lit up. I’m pretty sure the percentage of people who love their jobs was way above the general average.

The Expo showcased organizations that work with birds, rescue birds, rehab birds, publish books about birds, sell binoculars and cameras, the better to watch and photograph birds, and equipment to track birds. Really, you name it, if it had to do with birds, it was there. On Saturday, there was a kids’ bird feeder building workshop, paper bird puppets were made and the place was full of children working on various bird-related projects.

Boobook Owl

Wide-eyed Boobook Owl — native to Australia, but abandoned in Canada and rescued by OWL — an orphaned wildlife rescue association, specializing in raptors since 1985. Mr. Boobook was at the Expo with OWL to meet and greet the public during the week.

Harris Hawk

Handsome Harris Hawk, brought to the Expo by The Raptors, a group of biologists dedicated to educating the public about birds of prey, working to conserve them, and to using falconry as a natural method of wildlife management.

And the bird-inspired art was, well … inspiring.

My neighbour was jewellery Joanna Lovett Sterling who makes gorgeous jewellery with thoughtful bird-sparked stories. I’m not sure how it’s possible that we both live in Vancouver and hadn’t met until then, we have so much in common. We did a a lot of laughing over the five days we were there.

Photo 2018-08-22, 12 30 00 PM

In the wider art world, there were breath-taking bird paintings, drawings and sculptures and even intricately carved bird eggs.

Birds on Parade

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I was sorry to have missed the Bird Parade that opened the event. We had visitors from the UK and we couldn’t quite coordinate things to get downtown in time — but we did manage to get to the Still Creek Roost that night, so they did witness a bird parade of a different sort.

Happily, some of the stilt walkers came by the Expo later in the week and I did meet the American Crow.

stilt crow

Also, some of the bird stilt walkers will be parading again soon at the Renfrew Ravine Moon Festival on September 22, and we can keep up with them at  Birds on Parade on Facebook.

Costume Artists

One of the really interesting things about last week’s event was the variety of ways in which people shared their love of all things avian. Two costume artists (one from Seattle, the other from New York) were some of the most dynamic.

You can read more about the amazing work of H. “Rah” Esdaile (@rah-bop) and Jennifer Miller (@nambroth)  on the IOC web site at Artist Showcase  (scroll down to Bird Costumes.) The costumes they made were spectacularly detailed, and their movements stunningly bird-like. Their presence brought an electric energy and everyone was thrilled to have their photograph taken with them. It was as if “Bird Elvis” was in the building!

Vulture and Eagle Costumes

Costumes by Jennifer Miller, with Jennifer and her husband Brian as a bearded vulture (Lammergeier) and a endangered Philippine eagle. Note excited people in the back, reviewing photos taken with the bird people.

sarah-hammond.jpg

Bird artist, Sarah Hammond, surrounded by giant birds.

June and Rah

Rue, member of the mythical Kenku bird race. Of course, she had many corvid qualities, so I was particularly star struck!

Rue Costume Detail Belt

Some of the amazing detail in Rah-Bop’s amazing costume design — Rue’s belt of  mysterious collected treasures. 

Eye closing detail

One last amazing detail in Rue’s costume. The eyes can close to allow a great range of bird expressions!

Lost Delegate

Finally, for those of you who were worried about the small, confused Expo attendee shown below, (many people wondered about his fate after I posted him on Instagram and Twitter) rest easy. His story has a happy ending. He did not run into the Harris Hawk, but was reunited with the pigeon delegation in the great outdoors.

Well, the Expo, Congress and Festivals are over now, but my head is full of great memories and happy thoughts about the wonderful people I met. I feel as if the world is a better place, just knowing they’re all out there doing their various bird-focused work.

Back now, to my owl small Nature and Bird Expo. A new one each day when I take my morning walk around the neighbourhood.

Rainy Day Mavis

Mavis, reliably spectacular in all weather …

www.junehunter.com

logo with crowbird costumes ioc2018

Crow Welcome

Mr P against red sun

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

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

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

Crow Conversation

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

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

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

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Mr Pants

Mr. Pants shows off his molting season hipster beard.

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

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

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

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Mr Pants in Full Fluff

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

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

Mavis on A Washing Line

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

Marvin Molting

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ahoy matey.”

Apocolypse Sunrise over Iron Workers Bridge

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

East Van Sunset

Vancouver summer 2018

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

Urban Nature Enthusiast

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

Red Sun, Crow and Wires

 

www.junehunter.com

Nesting News

Eric Face

In our local Crowlandia we’re ricocheting between serenity and stress.

Suspense is the name of the game as eggs and hatchlings start to fill the nests.

Most days it’s seems really very peaceful. The crows maintain an uncharacteristic hush behind leafy screens, quietly guarding their nests.

In April, it was possible to see a pair of crows constructing, and then sitting on, a nest high in the poplars from the comfort of my dining room window …

A couple of weeks later and the nest is discreetly hidden by foliage.

I’m pretty sure that this nest belongs to the Firehall Family of crows.

One day earlier this week both of the nesters made a rare double trip down to terra firma for a chat.

Perhaps they were out on a date, although one of them seemed to be feeling the need for a little personal space ….

Eric and Clara are around too. I think their nest is also in the poplars, just a bit to the south of the Firehall nest. It’s not within view of my window and too far up to see from the ground, but Eric is guarding his corner diligently.

Eric on Alert

A couple of weeks ago there were a few inter-crow skirmishes between Eric and the Firehall gang, presumable sparked by minor breaches of neighbourly conduct.

Crow Skirmish

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A detente seems to have been reached lately.

A circumspect hush has fallen over the neighbourhood.

Now that nests are becoming populated, location is an even more closely guarded secret. Energy must be saved for the most important things.

Part of the silence seems due to the absence of some of usual crow enemies at the moment.

The ravens have moved on. I haven’t seen or heard one near here for almost a month now. Also missing: the pair of bald eagles that usually cruise the area at this time of year. Perhaps both ravens and eagles are waiting to hear the quacking of baby crows before they start their “grocery shopping” expeditions.

But there is one sure thing around now that will get the nesting crows to break their silence.

With a vengeance.

Crow Raccoon Committee

Meeting of CCC (Concerned Corvid Citizens) in the alley earlier this week.

Cawing Marvin

Two weeks ago Marvin cawed for an entire day. He was cawing when I got up, before 6am, and he was still at it when dusk fell. Even by crow standards, he was sounding a bit hoarse by then.

The culprit, in both of these incidents, was almost certainly the masked bandit. The tree in which Marvin and Mavis seem to have their nest has been robbed by racoons every spring since I’ve been noticing such things.

Yesterday, on the dog walk, I heard a furious crow, then noticed a small, lollipop-shaped tree in someone’s garden shaking as if in a hurricane.

As it was a windless morning I decided to wait and see what happened next.

Sure enough …

Raccoon climbs out of a tree

Raccoon on a Wall

I’m not sure if the raccoon scored any eggs this time. Perhaps Geordie and I interrupted this particular heist, but those clever little hands are very adept at nest robbing. I suppose there are little raccoon kits waiting for lunch somewhere.

Circle of life, and etc …

Crow Seeking Advice

Marvin and his trusty pal, Rusty, engage in philosophical discussion on the back gate.

Marvin is still coming by occasionally for a snack and visit. I imagine Mavis is on the nest, so I’m hoping Marvin is thoughtfully saving some peanuts to take back for her.

Morning Visit from Marvin

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On a recent dog walk I heard a crow begging call coming form a cedar tree. It sounded just like a baby crow calling for “food, food, food” — but it’s too early for such noisy youngsters. As I suspected, it was a mother crow, confined to nest duty, calling out to dad to quit lolling about, pondering the meaning of life, and *@#*%! bring her something to eat.

Mother Crow with Nest

Soon, we will be hearing the ceaseless “quacking” sound of dozens of baby crows, all vying for parental feeding service

Calling Baby Crow

Feeding Baby Crows

I am the cutest of my siblings. I am the loudest. Feed me. Feed me. F-E-E-D M-E!!

For a further preview of things to come, see my 2014 post: DIVE BOMBED BY CROWS

In the meantime, at least when the area is raccoon-free, it’s pretty quiet around here.

But those devoted parents are ever-vigilant. Was that the shadow of an eagle  … ?

Crow Sky Watchers

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Ordinary Days

Some days there are no ravens.

Most days really. And there are no spare minutes to go swanning off after bluebirds.

There are days that are just endless paper jamming — waiting on hold — stuck in traffic — number crunching — brain numbing — is it over yet? — sorts of days.

At these times you need crows. And rust. And weeds growing in cracks in the asphalt.

Barkerville Rust

Rumpled Morning Visitor

Alleyway Flora

The beauty of crows is …

Ah well, there are so many things that are beautiful about crows …

Style Crows

OK, let’s just say that one of the great things about crows is that, here in Vancouver at least, there is almost always one handy to distract you for a moment.

Antenna Crow

Even when you’re stuck in traffic, waiting for that freight train to budge, or the log jam of cars to clear, you can almost always catch a glimpse of a crow or two doing something interesting and/or silly within view. The trick is not to get too interested so you miss when the traffic starts to move.

Crow Debate on Wires

 

Vancouver Blue Bird

Sometimes a crow in the right light can be the perfect substitute for a Mountain Bluebird — Vancouver’s very own bluebird of happiness.

No matter how rushed and boring a day, there’s usually at least time for a ten minute walk outside.

And, if you look a little bit sideways, put your eyes out of focus a little, you can find beautiful things almost anywhere.

Dandelion Clock


“There are things you can’t reach. But
you can reach out to them, and all day long.

….

I look; morning to night I am never done with looking.

Looking I mean not just standing around, but standing around
as though with your arms open.”

From — Where Does the Temple Begin, Where Does It End?
–by Mary Oliver


Pender St Smithrite

Smithrite with awesome graffiti, including (in elegant script) the word “knit.”

Flowering Quince

Flowering quince in evening light against a the side of peeling set of concrete stairs.

Blue and Green

If you can’t get to the woods, sometimes a miniature horsetail forest will do.

Of course, there are days much worse than the paper jam days.

There are days when you’re in pain. Days when you receive very bad news.

Days when you feel as if you are nothing more than a hollow conduit for an endless river of sadness.

In The Wind

I’ve had days like those too, and ordinary, or even extraordinary,  beauty alone would not do the trick.

But it’s always been there, part of the healing recipe of family, friends, doctors, medicine, therapy and time.

Crows, rust, weeds, poetry, clouds, trees, the sound of wind, bird calls, snippets of graffiti, lichen, peeling paint, the occasional raven or mountain bluebird — they all seem like the dots and dashes of a distant morse code message.

The meaning is alway just out of reach, but it gives purpose to each day to attempt the translation.

Dandelion Seeds


This is a sequel to the previous post, Special Days.

If you enjoyed this blog, you might also like:

In Defence of the Commonplace

The Gift

Collecting Hidden Beauty

Crow Calligraphy

Nest Building Triptych

It’s that time of year again.

Most of the local crows seem to have suddenly become enrolled in some sort of corvid witness protection program.

The normally gregarious garden visitors, and dog-walk-followers, are suddenly either absent altogether, or shifty and secretive.

It’s nesting time, and I’m resigned to not seeing so much of Marvin and Mavis and the others until later in the summer when, if we’re lucky, they’ll come back to show off their offspring.

But I don’t give up on watching crows for these few months.

Instead I watch for the calligraphy in the sky.

Big Twig

The crows start to exist in my consciousness as quick brushstrokes, furtively flitting by with tell-tale beak attachments.

The latest cargo for the nest in the poplar trees has been grass, leading me to believe that we’re at the finishing, soft furnishings, stage of construction.

Crow with Soft Furnishings for Nest

There are only a few short days to gather clues as to who’s nesting where. Just now, the trees aren’t quite leafed out, and the nests under construction are still visible.

But the crows are smart and have tactics to confuse.

I believe it’s Eric and Clara who are building in the poplars and  they have at least two nests on the go. I imagine they will decide which of the two to inhabit (or perhaps they have a third that I haven’t spotted at all) once the leaves give them full camouflage.

It’s a bit of a mystery/thriller, illustrated with simple silhouettes.

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There are characters other than crows in this year’s storyline. Ravens have decided to try the charms of city living in our neighbourhood this year.

Raven Call in Poplars

 

I’m thrilled. The crows are considerably less happy. Ravens will steal eggs from the their nests, so they’re on the “naughty” list, along with eagles, hawks, racoons etc.

As such they are mobbed relentlessly, making for a very busy crow spring.

Not only must nests be built – but ravens must be energetically harassed from dawn to dusk.

Raven Mobbed by Crows

Sometimes, it all just gets too much for the tired corvids.

One day last week I watched this raven in a tree, surrounded for about twenty minutes by a harmonious crowd of crows.

One crow even seemed to getting very close – perhaps trying for a diplomatic detente.

Raven Crow Detente

Note: Video follows, so if you’re reading this in email format, click HERE to go to the blog so that you can see the video.

For a moment it seemed that a crow/raven understanding might be reached …

… but talks broke off and hostilities resumed. I guess the crows were just taking a much-needed breather.

 

So, at this time of year, keep an eye on the sky for calligraphic messages from the crow world. You  might just learn where it’s going to be best to avoid (or at least to use an umbrella when walking by) later in the season.

See Dive Bombed by Crows! for more on this …

Twig Gift

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Snow 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 …

 

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Consider the Grackle …

You see a loud, smart, black bird, hanging around with his gang of mates, giving you fearless looks, and constantly rummaging through the garbage (or your picnic) for a snack.

Must be a crow, right? Or at least a corvid relation?

But no, the grackle isn’t even distantly related to the crow. It’s a member of the Blackbird family, which includes the Brewer’s and Red-winged Blackbirds that we see in the Pacific Northwest, as well as Cowbirds and Orioles.

We went to Mexico last winter and as soon as we got out of the airport  I started noticing these cheeky, opportunistic birds.

They seemed to be everywhere, always with a beady yellow eye to the main chance.

In the absence of any crows, the grackles began to occupy the part of my brain that is usually filled with corvid observations.

The grackles we saw in Mexico were of the Great Tailed variety (Quiscalus Mexicanus). Locally, they’re called Zanates.

In comparison to crows, they’re a lot more streamlined, with light gold-coloured eyes, and legs that go on forever. The males have a long, impressive (some might say, “great”) tails, and a have vivid blue and violet sheen to their feathers.

The females are much, much smaller (about half the size), with more modest tails and dullish brown feathers.

Her and him doing a bit of foraging in the sand, as  you do …

They’re so different that it took me a while to realize that they’re the same species — I thought for a long time that they were two kinds of grackle that just liked to hang out together.

Female Great Tailed Grackle paddling at the beach.

We did see a dazzling variety of birds in Mexico (pelicans, spoonbills, herons, parrots, hummingbirds, chachalacas, caciques, woodpeckers, buntings, doves, cormorants …) but, for some reason the grackles kept calling to me. I guess I just can’t resist a bird that looks me right in the camera lens and dares me to press the shutter.

Buzz off,  paparazzi!

Look out, make way for the Great Tail.

Like crows, the grackles could be pretty raucous. Here’s one making some sort of statement in the early morning near our hotel. Luckily we were up early anyway, on the search for the elusive red cardinal that paid a fleeting and tantalizing visit on the first day, never to be see again. But that’s an entirely different story.

NOTE: video follows. If you’re reading this in an email, the video won’t play. To see it click HERE to go to the actual blog post.

 

Once I got home to Vancouver I planned to do some more research and write a blog about the grackles, but, what with one thing and another, the cheeky grackles slipped my mind and that mental space got recolonized by corvids.

Luckily I was reminded about grackles last week when I got an email from a friend who’s in Mexico now. She was wondering about the crow-like black birds she was seeing everywhere …

My interest rekindled, I started going through my photos from last year and doing a little more research. I’d looked up Great Tailed Grackles online when we were in Mexico —enough to identify them and glean a few facts — but our internet was a bit dodgy, and there were other distractions of course, so I didn’t get too far.

The ingenious modem set up at our hotel in Mexico.

My recent online search for grackle facts turned up news of  a fascinating study by Corina Logan of Cambridge University. The Great-Tailed Grackles she encountered in Costa Rica  reminded her of crows, and spurred her to wonder if they shared any of that famous corvid intelligence. In 2016, at the university of California, she performed some tests to find out. A series of food acquisition challenges she set for them proved that, like crows, they were very good at deploying a variety of solutions to solve different problems. This particular skill is known, in bird scientist lingo, as “behavioural flexibility” and understanding it is an important piece in solving the bird intelligence puzzle.

Famous crow expert, John Marzluff, commented on the study, saying that Logan’s study “ clearly demonstrated variability that different individuals have when it comes to learning. That’s really cool. You’d see the same thing in people.”

So crows and grackles, apart from the casually observed similarities, also share a special avian ingenuity. I don’t know if they overlap in any territory and, if so, I wonder if they compete, or use their street smarts to divide up the neighbourhood like avian gangs.

Does anyone reading this live in a place where Great Tailed Grackles and crows both reside?

UPDATE: For an answer to the above question,  see Crow vs Grackle.

With brains like ours, the sky’s the limit.

If you’d like to keep reading about grackles, I found an very entertaining article by   John Nova Lomax  entitled Eight Reasons Why Grackles Are Awesome, published by Texas Monthly.  His attitude to grackles reminds me of mine towards crows here in Vancouver.

Postscript

I did see one member of the corvid family when we were in Mexico. The Urraca or White Throated Magpie Jay was sometimes to be found on our early morning bird watching walks. An impossibly exotic looking bird, with a “fascinator” head adornment, it would not have looked out of place at a royal tea party. I’d have liked to spend more time with this bird, but it was a lot harder to spot than the ubiquitous, and always entertaining, Grackle.

www.junehunter.com

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