The Amazing Long-eared Owl

Crows bring people gifts.

The gifts most often talked about are the tangible kind — little bits and bobs left by crows for their human friends, seemingly in gratitude for peanuts or other treats.

But the bigger gift they give, for me at least, is their habit of yelling at me “Oi, you! Yes — you! Come over here and have a look at this, right now!” on a regular basis.

When I hear the crows making a ruckus I always, if I possibly can, change plans and go see what it’s all about.

Invariably, it’s something.

Occasionally, it’s something amazing.

Always worth the diversion!

Yesterday, Geordie and I set out on the morning walk, following the usual route to say hi to the Walkers and Wings when crows from near and far started flying over us to a tree a couple of blocks north. They were kicking up a crowcophany audible around the neighbourhood.

Naturally, we immediately made a sharp detour to see what was going on.

I peered at the tree from a variety of angles but couldn’t see what the fuss was about until a woman walking by on the other side of the road said she could see something —maybe an owl!

Not only was it an owl, it was an owl with what looked like ENORMOUS ears. I had a quick look at my Sibley’s bird guide phone app and thought that ears of this magnitude could only belong to the aptly named Long-eared Owl. But, reading on, I saw they were “rare or uncommon” — so that didn’t seem too likely for an urban East Vancouver street tree.

Various other neighbours, of the human variety, stopped by to see what the crow noise was about and we all gazed up into the branches. It was a “Where’s Waldo” situation as the owl was so well camouflaged, and the tree so big, that if you took your eyes off it for a moment it was really hard to locate again.

After about half an hour, most of the crows moved on to other crow business, leaving just the local family to keep an eye on the owl interloper. They would ignore the visitor for a while, pecking around nearby lawns in search of worms and then come back every 15 minutes or so for some pro forma cawing — just in case the owl was getting ideas.

 

Here’s how All About Birds describes the Long-eared Owl …

http://www.allaboutbirds.org
Long-eared Owls are lanky owls that often seem to wear a surprised expression thanks to long ear tufts that typically point straight up like exclamation marks. These nocturnal hunters roost in dense foliage, where their camouflage makes them hard to find, and forage over grasslands for small mammals. Long-eared Owls are nimble flyers, with hearing so acute they can snatch prey in complete darkness. In spring and summer, listen for their low, breathy hoots and strange barking calls in the night.

Surprised expression … check!

All owls excel at looking surprised, but this one definitely earned top marks for channeling pure astonishment.


Long ear tufts like exclamation marks … check!

These aren’t the owl’s real ears — just rather spectacular feather tufts (called plumicorns) that are used to funnel sound into the actual ears, which are cavities asymmetrically positioned on each side of the head. This asymmetry enables the Long-eared owl to hone in on prey by sound alone. The location of the tiniest sound (a leaf or blade of grass rustling, a small movement under a foot of snow) is narrowed down by the way the sounds arrive at each ear cavity at minutely different times, telling the bird whether dinner is to the left or right, up or down.

If you’d like to read more about the marvel of owl hearing and navigation, there are all kinds of amazing articles available. Owls and Owl Hearing is one of them.

Hey, check out my groovy plumicorns!

Owls always seem relatively relaxed when mobbed by crows. This owl was pretty small — about the same size as the crows, so you’d think they might feel threatened.

A glance at the heft of the their feet and the dagger-like sharpness of those claws may give a clue to why they seem so unworried by the crow clamour.

I’m not sure why this lovely owl was caught out in the open in the daylight like this. Perhaps they got carried away with hunting the night before and didn’t leave enough time to get to a more private place for day-time rest. We went back this morning to see if he or she was still there — which would have been worrying  — but saw no sign of them.

I hope, like the barred owl that rested in a tree in front of our house for a whole day a few years ago,  this Long-eared relative just waited until dusk until it was time to fly off into the darkness and become a hunting ghost — and that, today, they’re sleeping peacefully in a more tranquil location.

Oh, and I’m pretty certain now, rare or not, this was in fact a Long-eared owl, bringing an amazing day to our rather urban little neighbourhood.

Sibley’s Field Guide to Birds section on Long-eared owls

This owl was so well camouflaged in the tree there’s no way at all I would have spotted him or her without the crows leading me.

I know the crows had their own reasons for kicking up a fuss — owls are on the crow “naughty list,” along with any other creature that will prey on adult or fledgling crows or eggs — and so will be mobbed by the well organized Crow Cooperative in order to encourage the danger to move on to less rowdy prey.

Crow don’t waste their energy on these loud protests, so it’s always worthwhile to go check them out. While helping us with birdwatching isn’t their goal, it’s a service they do offer if we’re willing to take the help.

Just happening to see amazing birds while watching crows is a little different from “regular” bird watching in that you have to wait for the sighting to come to you, rather than seeking it out.

And, when it does come, out of the blue, it feels more like a gift that a personal achievement.

Other “gifts” I’ve been given by following crows include a juvenile eagle, other owls, coyotes, raccoons, a peregrine falcon, hawks, ravens and, one especially miraculous day, a runaway dog that had been missing for six weeks.

You can read about some of these special events in earlier blog posts:

While that crow “wall of sound” can be a little irritating if you’re seeking peace and quiet, I do suggest that you occasionally give in to your curiosity and go see what it’s all about.

You never know, it might just be a rare owl sighting right outside your door!

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© junehunterimages, 2022. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to junehunterimages with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Young & The Restless

In the many years I’ve been photographing and following crows I had never actually had one make physical contact — until this week.

It was predictable in two ways.

It’s THAT Time of Year.

I never get close to being dive bombed in nesting season, which you’d think would be the riskiest season of all.
Nope, it’s early fall, when the local crows are giddy with new freedom, that seems to be the most perilous time for me. The adult crows are free of parental responsibility and the young crows are (literally) spreading their wings and testing the limits of what they can get away with.

These crows, the young and the restless, are unbound by the conventions of who’s territory is whose and general good manners.

This is an annual phenomenon and I’ve written about it a few times. (See Corvid Flash Mobs  and Autumnal Adjustments.)

My tactics at this time of year include suspending Peanut Diplomacy until the rowdy phase passes. Sometimes I even change my walking route if things are getting too disorderly.

This year’s bonus challenge is …

Dennis the Menace*

Meet Dennis: he is a 2021 fledgling of Pearl and Echo’s. He (or she) has stayed with mom and dad since then. There were no new fledgling this year, so Dennis is a pampered only child.

Crow Without A Pearl Earring — portrait of Pearl

Above is Pearl, so named because she often reminds me (in a corvid way) of Vermeer’s portrait, Girl With A Pearl Earring.

Pearl and Echo
Echo and Dennis last year

I wrote about Pearl and her family in my book, City Crow Stories.

Point Guard Point Guard portrait of Dennis from last summer

Anyway, Dennis the Menace (or possibly Denise the Menice) has always been a little bit cheeky, following me to the end of his family’s territory and often swooping very close — enough for the occasional rush of wind from a wing against my face. While last year he was kind of scrawny and generally stayed close to his parents, this year he seems to be full of boundless confidence.

Perhaps a little too much confidence …

He keeps a close eye on me as I walk by.

Dennis … and a few of his closest friends (none of them being his parents) following me beyond the normal Pearl family territorial boundaries …

I’m used to Dennis swooping after me, wondering where his peanuts are, and I usually turn around in time so that he’ll swerve off to left or right.

Crows, according to crow scientist John Marzluff, won’t fly at you from the front and he recommends affixing fake eyes to the back of your hat if necessary.

A couple of days ago Dennis actually managed to make contact. I think it was the touch of a claw on the back of my head. Very light and no damage done, but it just shows what a determined little character this particular crow is. No meanness on his part, just a spot of over-enthusiasm.

What worried me much more than Dennis was a time when another clever crow, realizing that swooping close to me didn’t faze me, started to try and find my Achilles heel by flying at Geordie from behind. Geordie (my dog) has always been extremely relaxed around crows, but it would only take one crow landing on his back to change all that — forever!!! Luckily he never noticed how close the crow got as I managed to turn around in time to ward off actual contact and we changed walking route for a couple of weeks, just in case.

Back to Dennis. We had a good talk last time I saw him and he hasn’t managed to catch me out over the last few days.  I also turn around a lot when I’m in his neighbourhood.

I was recently thinking of taking up my needle felting again to make some new birds, but now I’m wondering if I should first felt myself a couple of large “eyes” for the back of my head!

Dennis The Menace

 

* when I gave the name Dennis the Menace, I’m thinking (and giving away my age in saying so) about the comic strip, Dennis and Gnasher, from the UK children’s comic, the Beano  — very popular in the 50’s.

 

 

City Crow Stories — available on my web site

 

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© junehunterimages, 2022. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to junehunterimages with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Crow Fest 22 — Part 2

Once the nutty attractions of the Hazelnut Happening are exhausted the crows still just wanna have fun — and seem to know it’s now time for the …

Dogwood Disco

A temporary evening scene of colour and sound, the Dogwood Disco is a kaleidoscope of rosy berries, golden leaves, flapping black wings and excited crow calls.

The whole thing lasts for under half an hour between the arrival of the party guests and their departure for the roost just before sunset. They leave behind a bit of a red carpet situation on the sidewalk …

Dogwood trees run for several blocks along Charles Street and, for some reason, the crows seem to start at the west end and, each evening, move a little to the east. They leave quite a lot of berries uneaten. Some sort of mysterious crow etiquette … ?

Perhaps they’re leaving some of the berries for the humans. Apparently they are edible, though from what I’ve read, it would take quite a lot of work to make something palatable from them. These are Kousa dogwoods, and apparently the pulp of the berries tastes a little like persimmon, but to get to that, you first have to deal with a bitter skin and a lot of hard seeds within the fruit. If you’re interested in doing a little urban foraging, I found this helpful blog post with some tips from T. Abe Lloyd. He aptly describes the berry as “a pink soccer ball on a stick.”

You could also view them as teeny, crow-sized disco balls!

And here’s what the blooms look like in early summer when the street is a river of white …

But back to the crows …

They are clearly undeterred by any finicky concerns about bitter skin or seeds as they dig in for their evening snack, which seems to be as much competition as fine dining.

 

The leaves are still so thick on the branches, it often looks as if the crows are swimming along the surface to get to their prize.

Almost there …. I can already taste it!

Sometimes the berries are consumed in the tree, while others prefer a more stable surface for consumption.

Unless there’s too much competition …

Giving new meaning to the phrase “Fall Launch.”

Like the Hazelnut Happening, it seems that the event is partly about food but, like all good parties, it’s about much more — mixing and mingling, marking the end of summer, and teaching those fledglings about  group etiquette  — all while making as much noise and mess as possible. Woohoo!

Over the course of a week they seem to be getting the the eastern edge of the dogwood feasting area, so I’m not sure how many more nights they’ll be stopping. I expect there’s probably another important Crow Fest venue in their fall itinerary but, if there is, it must be out my walking range.

Who knows where they’re headed next, but keep your eyes open — it might be your neighbourhood!

 

A continuation of Crow Fest Part One: Hazelnut Happening

 

 

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Crow Fest 22 — Part One

Although my last post was about how miserable the local crows are as they go through their annual moult, don’t feel too bad for them — this season is also their most social and joyful.

Several things come together in the the crow world to make fall time the best time:

  • Parent crows are mightily relieved that their fledglings are (mostly) independent
  • Fledgling crows, like teenagers everywhere, are busting to get out there, meet their peers and show off a little
  • Crows, even the still-moulting ones, look fabulous in the golden fall light and glowing autumn leaves
  • There are feasting opportunities/excuses for crow parties all over town

Crow Fest in our neighbourhood begins with …

The Hazelnut Happening

Around the autumn equinox a couple of local hazelnut trees become ripe, and many crows seem to have this date carefully noted in their social calendar. Hundreds of them, and dozens of intrepid squirrels, show up for the event every year.

A few years back a human bravely tried to harvest their share of nuts, wisely wearing a bicycle helmet as protection from the competition. This year, even more wisely, they seem to have left it all for the wildlife.

Normally the crows fly over our neighbourhood at dusk, headed to the roost a few miles east of here with only a few distant caws to mark their passing.

But it’s reliable as clockwork — the very day the hazelnuts are ready, our normally sedate area becomes an evening Crowstock venue, complete with rousing musical accompaniment.

The cawing is accompanied by the random percussion of nuts hitting the tarmac as crows drop them to break the shells.

Bombs Away!

There are other seasonal delicacies on the menu too …

While the raucous crow chaos is the big story here, as with all big events, it’s made up of so many small and personal sub-plots.

I love to pick out small groups or individuals in the crowd and watch them for awhile, trying to parse out the individual stories.

In the seemingly undistinguishable line of crows on the wires, you can often detect a family group — parents and fledglings, or just couples taking a quiet moment in the midst of it all.

The other night I spotted a personal acquaintance on the wires.

White Wing!

I’ve been worried about the Wings as they’ve not been in their usual spot for most of the summer. As if to confirm this was indeed her Wingship, she came down and landed by my feet …

The party rages on, but still full of individual little crow vignettes.

One young, ambitious and agile crow takes a moment to show off the Cirque du Soleil skill set they’ve been working on.

Look, Ma, only one foot!

I’m an a-crow-bat!!!!

Another independently-minded crow in the crowd decides to add a distinctive yip to the chorus of cawing.

A quiet young crow whiles away the time by catching and playing with one of their own recently moulted underfeathers before it floats away on the evening air …

And so the nightly Hazelnut Happening hurtles on for a few days until, finally, the nuts are devoured and relative quietness returns to the ‘hood.

Don’t worry though — the fall festivities are far from over. It’s just time to move on to the Dogwood Disco up the street.

More on this later …

You might also be interest in:

 

 

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Snow Crows

There’s something magically transformative about snow. I’ve amassed a large collection of vintage snow globes, and even made some of my own featuring quirky local landmarks. In summary, I’m a bit of a sucker for snow.

We had what looks to be this winter’s only snowfall here in Vancouver in mid-February. I was excited to write about it then, but since Texas and other US states were undergoing very real suffering from unseasonably cold weather, snow and ice at that point, it didn’t seem tactful to be waxing lyrical about it. I’m feeling that it might be OK to indulge now …

We get very few days of snow in a typical Vancouver winter, so when the flakes start to fall I’m out of the house with my camera as much as possible. On top of the beguiling alliteration, the combination of “crow” and “snow” is pure enchantment.

Here is a crow with snow, folk music and starling accompaniment …

From a technical point of view, snow is both blessing and curse for crow photography. The camera wants to focus on each falling snowflake rather than the bird, so that’s a challenge. The contrast of the black feathers and the all white landscape also needs considerable over-exposure to reveal the detail in the crows.

But the light! The light is magic — beautifully soft, no harsh highlights, bouncing back into those dark feathers and bringing out the shades of mauve and indigo, pearl and navy. It’s as if the whole world is a light box designed especially for photographing crows. Woohoo!!!

White Wing in the snow

The Wings in a Winter Wonderland

And you just never know what might happen. I accidentally found the snow version of a four leafed clover when photographing Mavis in the back garden this year.

Not yet …

Be patient …

Keep looking …

Bingo!

For just one microsecond a snowflake kept its perfect crystalline form on her face. And I got a photo of it!!

Particularly amazing to see this in Vancouver, where the temperature is usually too warm for snow crystals to remain intact long enough to be visible. It’s the little things that make a photographer’s day!

Another fun thing about a snow day is seeing how the crows adapt to it.

The Walkers not only dealt with the weather conditions, they also gave me instructions on how to do so.

Instead of walking along with me to the bump at the bottom of the tree where I customarily leave a few peanuts, as he normally does, Mr. Walker flew over my shoulder and landed on a higher, slightly less snow covered burl on the tree as if to say, “this will be a better spot to leave them today.”

So I did as instructed and everyone was pleased.

It was young Chip’s first snowfall.

A puzzling development,  but she shook it off with aplomb.

Now the flowers are coming up, birds are collecting nesting materials and spring is very much in the air, but I had fun looking back at our brief yet magical period of Crows in a Winter Wonderland. Hope you did too.

 

 

 

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Chip’s Tips For Hanging Around

It would seem that the local corvids took exception to the title of my “Boring Walks” series and have been pulling out all the stops to prove me very wrong.

Young Chip must have been especially offended, as she’s been starring in her own production of Cirque du Corvid this week.

Remember I said in Boring Walks Part One that Chip is fast and cheeky? It seems that she read that and thought, “you ain’t seen nothing yet!”

At first I didn’t notice Chip at all. It was Marvin, sitting on the fence and staring intently up at the sky.

So I looked up to see what he was watching …

In all my years of watching crows, I’ve only ever seen this hanging upside routine once before.

But Chip wasn’t JUST hanging around. Oh no.

She hung there for a minute or so and then let go, prompting Marvin to give chase.

That was so much fun, so she did it again. And again.

Looking to see if Marvin is watching

 

A head tuck and fiddle with the feet

 

And down she goes

Marvin cannot look away

Chip apparently decided that the “hang and drop” routine was too simple, and added to her routine by clambering, using feet and beak, between the multiple rows of wires.

But with the same end goal — flip, hang, drop and get chased. Woohoo!!

Down on the ground, I was literally gasping at the acrobatic skill. At the same time, I was laughing out loud at her determination to draw Marvin, who was trying to look very dignified, into her vortex of fun and games.

Chip’s family, The Mabels, weren’t even around — it was just her, having a laugh with the neighbours. She often visits the garden when Marvin and Mavis are there. They’re pretty territorial and have spent months trying to chase her off, but they seem less fussed about her presence lately.  After all, she is pretty darn entertaining — and way too fast to catch anyway.

Chip’s lesson for me this week — you can just be hanging around, being bored and a bit grumpy — or you can go ahead and make an art form out of it.

 

 

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© junehunterimages, 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to junehunterimages with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Boring Walks Part 2

Chasing after a distant raven call can be a bit of a mug’s game as, nine times out of ten, the raven is long gone by the time you catch up with the sound.

Yesterday morning, however, my raven luck was overflowing. I followed the calls to a street really close to our house and found not one, but FOUR ravens. 

One pair was calling in a large cedar tree, only a couple of blocks from our house.

Across the street another raven pair were calling from a house roof, setting off a cacophony of crow cawing and dog barking.

I should mention that Geordie,  a calm veteran of many a corvid encounter, was not one of the barkers. He was more worried that we were never going to get home.

I ended up following the roof ravens as they moved from one house to another for the next half hour or so. Sorry Geordie.

The wet and windy weather was playing havoc with that majestic look the ravens usually maintain.

At one point the raven pair landed on the roof of some friends. As the raven was calling and I was taking photos from the alleyway, my friend’s head popped out of her attic window to ask, “Is there a raven on my roof?” and I was able to answer, “No, there are TWO ravens on your roof!” We decided that, if a pair of magpies is a “Two for Joy” situation, then two ravens must be a great omen.

The absolute highlight of my morning was watching the two wet roof ravens engage in some allopreening and also the affectionate beak play that I captured as a still moment in my new Raven Kiss image.

At that point I felt that my urban nature enthusiasm batteries were charged to the point of overflow. Simultaneously, my camera battery was drained, so it was finally (to Geordie’s relief) time to head home.

Sometimes it seems as if the world of nature knows just what I need. All I have to do is get outside, even if my jaded inner voice is asking “why bother?” … and just go see.

Sometimes it’s something I’ve seen a hundred times before — in just a slightly different light.

Sometimes it’s a show stopping surprise.

Either way, it’s always worth dragging my boots on. The dog generally agrees.

 

See also: Boring Walks Part 1

You might also enjoy The Gift

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Boring Walks Part 1

There are some mornings when I’m so thoroughly sick of walking the same few blocks around our house. Like everyone else, it’s been close to a year of being mostly confined to same few kilometres.

It’s a proper test of the “Urban Nature Enthusiast” philosophy — finding new things to marvel at in your own backyard and all. I must admit that the last week I’ve been starting to think I’d reached the limit of exploring everything on the same old, same old walk as if it was a voyage to a new land.

Ground Hog Day syndrome had set in.

It was in that spirit of ennui that I set out on yesterday morning’s walk. I wasn’t even sure if I should bring my camera as the weather looked so unpromising. Luckily my corvid therapists must have sensed I needed a boost.

The first part of the walk already cheered me up considerably as I was followed by my new friend, Chip. Small, fast, cheeky, and prone to defying crow territorial convention by following me on the whole walk, Chip always cheers me up.

She’s one of Mabel’s 2020 fledglings, and a clear favourite to follow in her mother’s majestic foot prints. She’s the only one allowed, for example to sit on Mabel’s coveted golden throne. I was glad I brought the camera after all.

Getting a taste for power

Mabel watches on patiently. Sometimes she’ll push Chip off the throne, but she was apparently feeling indulgent this morning.

Further on, the walk also included visits with the Wet Walker family …

… and the similarly rain-spangled White Wing and partner.

The Wings are enthusiastic Block Watch members

Heading home, I was feeling quite satisfied with my “boring” walk. My urban nature battery felt sufficiently recharged and I was ready to pack it in an have a cup of coffee when I heard THAT SOUND.

My husband says it’s the equivalent of the dog sensing a squirrel (SQUIRREL!!!)

Just as squirrels set Geordie’s every nerve end a-tingling, the the slightest whisper of a raven call carried on the wind does the same to me. Raven radar instantly engaged! At first I thought it might have been just wishful thinking, but there it was again . . .

Stay tuned for Boring Walks Part 2, coming next!

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Meet The Walkers

To be perfectly accurate, only one of the Walkers is a keen hiker.

Even then, his perambulations are purposeful, laser focused on a specific destination.

The origin of this routine have been lost in the mists of time.

Who trained who here will forever remain a mystery.

Mr. Walker has no fear of the dog, walking beside him with equanimity.

Mr. Walker’s promenades occur in all weathers …

… and at speeds ranging from dawdle to dash.

Ms. Walker prefers to leave the strolling to her mate, and remains aloft in the tree until the prize is in place.

Ms. Walker on lookout.

Ms. Walker this morning. On the other side her eye is rather damaged, like Mabel’s, but it doesn’t seem to slow her down.

Both of the Walkers will follow me to the end of their block to see me on my way.

Bye-bye, Walkers. See you tomorrow.

 

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Hardly Worth Mentioning

It takes something quite extraordinary to stand out from the generally topsy turvy nature of reality these days.

It seemed, therefore, almost predictable that a tiny upside down house, packed with piano parts and foliage, should appear overnight at the end of our alley.

We do get quite a lot of things dumped in our neighbourhood, but usually the scale tops out at mattresses or the occasional sofa.

An entire shed, however, was something new. It stayed with us for almost a week, so we had plenty of time to determine that it was most likely an old play house, judging by the miniature railing on the front. Or maybe someone’s micro yoga retreat? A potting shed for very small plants??

Amid the stress of the US election, and almost everything else 2020-related, making up stories about our new local landmark proved quite entertaining.

On Friday, I posted some pictures of it on social media and it obviously lit a spark of creativity in many others longing for distraction. Comments and questions poured in.

Theories and jokes abounded — ranging from Wizard of Oz comparisons, to suggestions for US election metaphors. The two things overlapped quite a bit.

Over the course of a few days, news spread of our impromptu art installation.
Vancouver is Awesome did a small story about it.

Someone scavenged the piano bits and pieces — hopefully for an art project of some sort. Another recycler came by to have a look at the motorbike wheel that had spilled out of the front door. Sadly, it was the wrong size for their purposes.

Someone contacted me on Instagram to let me know he was pretty sure he knew who dumped the shed, as he’d seen it on his neighbour’s truck the week before. Sometimes, Vancouver seems like quite a small town.

We had assumed that the true story behind our little conversation piece was as boring as this — the mundane avoidance of legal dump fees — but then again we did have a lot of fun in a stressful time — joking about the increasingly familiar feeling of not being in Kansas anymore, and speculating about Toto and flying monkeys.

Marvin and Mavis remained deeply suspicious about this new landmark and Marvin, when interviewed, had this to say:

The City did finally come and haul it away yesterday.

And, for those of you wondering, I did check and I saw no ruby slippers left behind.

 

You might also enjoy this post about another accidental local art installation:

 

 

 

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