For humans, the 2020 autumn season is bringing with it — along with pumpkin spice — a sprinkling of existential dread.
For crows, however, it’s the normal rowdy, rollicking, freedom-from-fledglings social season.
No social or physical distancing for them.
In fact, the normal territorial boundaries are being blithely crossed in search of seasonal bounty. Any block with a nut or berry tree is a “go-zone” this month.
Contributing to the mayhem is the fact that the excitable new fledglings have yet to learn the finer points of corvid etiquette.
A certain amount of chaos inevitably ensues.
I find it’s best to employ my special autumnal version of Peanut Diplomacy at this unruly time of year.
Instead of stopping on my fall morning walks to exchange pleasantries and a few peanuts with each set of crow acquaintances on their territorial corners, a far more parsimonious peanut distribution system is in order.
Normally token offerings are made, accepted with grace, and I move on to visit new crows on new corners.
At this time of year, however, the dog and I seem to be claimed as territory-to-go and crows will follow us from their own domain and into their neighbour’s. This can result an accumulation of dozens of boisterous crows following us for blocks and/or unseemly crow brawling.
Fall Peanut Protocol is best deployed at this point.
Upon leaving the house, I offer a few peanuts to Marvin and Mavis, if they happen to be waiting, then a few more for Mabel and her gang at the other end of the block. From that point on I exchange only kind words with my crow (and human) walking acquaintances. I’m still followed, but it’s a much less fractious group.
Harmony restored …
I generally find that, by December, things will have settled down again and normal Peanut Diplomatic Relations may resume.
Besides, at this time of year, my paltry peanut offerings pale beside the bounty that nature has to offer.
With careful notes made on things that we’d forgotten on our first little “shakedown cruise” in the teardrop trailer, we prepared to set out on our big trip up to the Cariboo district in central BC.
Now, the following is a lesson I have learned before in my life, but tend to forget from time to time. You could call it the “your entire life is a shakedown cruise” philosophy, but it’s probably best summed up by Robbie Burns — “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men Gang aft agley”
You can make all the lists and plans you want, but there’s really no preparing for an overnight switch from a clear, blue sky to an off-the-scale level soup of particulate matter from wildfire smoke blowing in from hundreds of miles away.
Ah well, the morning we left the raven shown above dropped by at our local construction site to wish us well on our journey.
Naively, we thought we’d soon be driving out of the worst of the smoke, but it was still very dense at our first night’s camp site just north of Whistler.
After one smokey night we had a quick toast and tea breakfast and headed off along the lovely Duffey Lake Road, hoping to outrun the smoke.
That dream proved elusive as we passed through Lillooet, Pavillion Lake and Clinton with only minor improvements in visibility.
When it was still smokey, hours later, at 100 Mile House, we decided to just push on to our destination — Likely — instead of spending the night, as we’d originally planned, at Green Lake.
By the time we reached the familiar Likely road the smoke was at least high up and not in our lungs. I drove that road so many times when I had my cabin out there, it always feels like going home, marking off the familiar landmarks along the way.
While we love the Cariboo landscape, what we really, really looked forward to was seeing some much-missed faces. Spending time with old friends was the focus of our visit, although managed to combine catching up with soaking up the scenery — Cariboo cocktail hour, for example.
We camped our little trailer outside the homes of two sets of old friends during our stay in the Cariboo — near Likely for a few days, and then closer to Horsefly, part way down the gorgeous Beaver Valley.
Making some early morning coffee, with a bit of fall chill already in the air.
All very cosy inside the camper.
Looking out onto lovely Lake George, one of Beaver Valley’s chain of small lakes.
It wasn’t just the humans that had a great time socializing. Geordie was thrilled to spend time with his boxer buddy, Samson — just as handsome two years in since our last visit.
Both Geordie and Samson are always eager to jump into the truck for a woodsy adventure!
One especially fun expedition was to Quesnel Forks — home, in it’s 1860’s hey day, to around 2,000 fortune-seeking gold miners, before the chase for riches moved north to Barkerville. Quesnel Forks has been a ghost town since the 50’s when the last resident died, but it’s now far less overgrown now than I remember it in the 70’s. Recently the trails have been cleared and some of the tumble-down cabins carefully rebuilt to give some sense of what it once looked like.
Lichen on some fallen and rotting wooden walls
A rather elegant old outhouse returning to the forest
There’s a rich and well-recorded history of gold mining in this part of British Columbia — with many colourful and gripping tales of exploit, adventure, intrigue and suffering. The excellent little museum in Likely is well worth a visit to learn more about this period, although you can also glean some intriguing snippets from the gravestones in the Quesnel Forks cemetery — full of inscriptions recording deaths by drowning, robbery, smallpox and mine collapse.
Much less is written about the indigenous people who lived in this part of the world for thousands of years before the miners arrived — fishing, hunting, travelling, living and dying in this vast landscape. I imagine that this spot would have been very special to them too, at the meeting of these two powerful rivers, now known as the Quesnel and the Cariboo.
I was thinking of confluences … the turbulence created when people, cultures, rivers collide … when yet another visitor from a distant shore made a surprise appearance, flying, literally, right through my thoughts.
I took a photo of the newcomer when it landed on the rocky river shore.
I also filmed the bird’s incredible aquatic competence, confidently navigating the dangerous currents right where the rivers merge.
As soon as we got back to our friends’ house, out came the full collection of bird books and apps as we attempted to identify our mystery “video bomber.” We really couldn’t figure it out. Some sort of gull … but none of the one’s you’d expect to see … perhaps a curlew of some sort …? Eventually, I posted the photo online with a plea for an ID from my more bird knowledgeable social media community. The answer came back that it was, in fact, a rather rare sighting of a Sabine’s Gull, way, way out of its normal range. They spend summers in the Arctic and normally migrate south via the waters off the West coast. I wonder if this one was driven so off course by the dense smoke that was still clinging to the more coastal areas. Fingers crossed that our little traveller eventually finds its way to the its winter destination.
It seemed sort of ironic for me, who likes to celebrate the everyday birds you find in your backyard, to see such a rarity. Just goes to show, things just show up when the time is right, I guess.
Bears and Salmon
Two things you do expect in the Cariboo in the early fall: many salmon returning to the rivers of their birth to spawn, and bears feasting on them.
Spawning Salmon near Horsefly, 2013
The Salmon Horsefly Festival was actually underway the day we left the Cariboo, but it was going ahead in the virtual absence of salmon. Due a variety of factors, including the 2019 Big Bar landslide on the Fraser River that blocked the spawning route, there were virtually no salmon in the local rivers. We walked along the same river bed where the photo above was taken a few years ago, at the same time of year, and saw not one single salmon.
Bears, however, are very much in evidence and this is not a good thing. The reason they’re so visible is that, with no salmon to fatten up on before hibernation, they’re desperate enough to come into town to dig up garden carrots. Four grizzlies are currently hanging around the small hamlet of Likely — something that was unheard of in years gone by — and a situation that’s likely to end very badly for the bears.
You can see that the bear droppings we saw (all over the place) were heavy on seeds and berries. It takes a heck of a lot of berries to make up for the missing salmon course in a meal. So, next time you’re sad that you can’t get a sockeye salmon for the BBQ, spare a thought for the bears, for whom the shortage is more a matter of life and death.
In spite of the smoke and the worrying lack of salmon it was a real joy to switch for a week from “urban nature enthusiast” to wander the forests and learn to read the landscape from our Cariboo friends, who are all “wilderness nature enthusiasts.” They know their forests, lakes and rivers as well as I know my local streets and crows.
Moffat Creek Falls near Horsefly
I received a message from this Cariboo raven (with chickadee accompaniment) to bring back with me for my feathered friends in the city — a call of the wild that echoes all the way from the remotest forest to heart of Vancouver — as I hope it always will.
As we say farewell to September, it seems to me that we’ve seen fewer golden evenings than is usual for a Vancouver fall. More rainy grey September skies are perhaps what made those few gilded evenings more shimmering and dream-like.
By just happening to walk the dog early on one such lovely evening, I chanced upon a new autumn crow phenomenon. Usually at this time of year groups of roost-bound crows stop at the end of our street to “help” with the nut harvest of a neighbour’s hazel tree. This year, the tree didn’t seem to produce many nuts, so our area has been relatively crow-quiet in the evening.
I thought the crows must just be barrelling on through straight to the roost — until I found they were partying at an alternative fun and refreshments centre.
A short walk from us, there’s a street lined on both sides, for several blocks, with dogwood trees. At this time of year, the lovely blossoms are long gone, but among the brilliant fall leaves are bright, juicy berries!
I expect the clever crows have been harvesting this bounty every fall, but it took me until this year to notice.
On those nights when it hasn’t been raining, I’ve gone up there and watched them.
They seem to move in tandem with the fast fading sun, leaving each tree as it falls into shadow, and flying ahead to the next one still touched with light.
The crow crowd included this year’s juveniles, meaning it’s that happy time of year when the whole family can go to the roost. The young ones were learning the finer points of berry harvesting for the first time.
For some, the berries seem to be a taste that needs some acquiring …
Young crow with berry, like a soccer player in possession of the ball, unsure on next moves …
Older crows showed off harvesting techniques honed over many Septembers.
Now September is over and the berries are harvested. The dogwood street is quiet and the young crows are dreaming about how great they’re going to be at harvesting berries by this time next year.
To keep an eye on Mr. Pants year round is to witness a miracle of transmogrification.
If you didn’t know it was him, by the territory he guards and by the company he keeps (Mrs. Pants), you might think he was a different crow in each season.
We all first came to know him for his breathtaking breeches, his tremendous trousers, his peculiar pantaloonery … I could go on, but I’ll be merciful and stop now, letting a series of summer pictures of Mr. P at his most sartorially splendid tell the story.
Purple haze, all in my brain …
Splendour In The Grass
Mr. Pants with his summer hipster beard, cover model for the 2020 City Crow Calendar
The following video captures his fantastic pantaloons fluttering in the summer breeze.
But. like a perfect truffle, ice wine, or a pumpkin spice lattée, Mr. P’s trouserly splendour is a seasonal offering, and must be appreciated as such.
In winter, he really just looks likes your average pant-less crow.
Suave and handsome for sure, but minus the feathery kilt.
In particularly frosty weather he can, like all the other crows, deploy some feathery long johns, but they’re not the same as his summer finery.
Mr. and Mrs. Pants, January 2018
By spring … still just your normal dapper city crow.
Mr. Pants as seen in the May page of the 2020 City Crow Calendar
But we keep watching.
Around June the fashion miracle begins and the legendary leggings reappear …
But it is perhaps the autumnal transition from summer splendour to his streamlined winter look that is the most eye catching. For Mr. Pants the molting season is very, very dramatic.
It’s true that every one of the local crows looks like a rejected extra from a pirate/zombie movie, but Mr. P takes things to the extreme.
He does nothing by halves on the feathery fashion front, and the late summer/early fall molting season is no exception. Go big, or go home, seems to be his philosophy.
Here he is as photographed yesterday, September 10, 2019
By October he will be smoothly magnificent once again.
By mid-June 2020 we should see the beginnings of tremendous trousers.
It is the circle of life (and of feathery fashion) embodied in one magnificent crow.
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.
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.
Marvin was the first to brave getting up close and personal with the newcomer.
It only took him a few minutes to get quite comfy with the new landing platform.
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.
One small step for Mavis, a great step for crow-kind.
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.
*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.)
Every dog walk with Nina is an adventure these days. Our objectives are in direct conflict.
Nina’s goal: nab a squirrel.
My goal: avoid becoming airborne* — I hear the waiting list for new hips is long.
Nina is my daughter’s dog and lives with her, but Lily works long hours, so I do some dog sitting most days. My dog, Geordie, has a pretty laissez-faire attitude towards squirrels. Nina, on the other hand, considers it her highest destiny to one day catch one. This seems entirely unlikely as she’s a lot slower than a squirrel on the flat, and her tree-climbing capacity is negligible.
However, a girl can dream.
I know you’re out there …
Generally, we see one or two squirrels on every walk. I keep a close eye on the landscape and try to detour us away from dog/squirrel proximity.
At this time of year though, squirrels are everywhere. And I do mean, everywhere. In the garden, outside of the window, velcro-ed to the neighbour’s stucco wall, up every pole and in every tree. Not only that — they seem fearless. They sit, waiting for us on the road, looking like Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry.
Make my day, punk.
Many of the local trees are dropping hazelnuts and walnuts, so I imagine that thought is filling their little rodent brains. The microscopic danger posed by Nina and her ambitions are as nothing to them. “Must store nuts.”
One year, the squirrels in our garden “harvested” most of the LED bulbs from our outdoor Christmas lights. Our next door neighbour still occasionally digs one up in his garden. They didn’t do it the next year, so I presume that they remembered how disappointing that particular nut harvesting effort was.
Evasive action is pointless.
If I make a quick change of course to avoid one squirrel, there are three more, making each expedition with Nina a tense and exciting operation.
This baby squirrel got “stuck” on our neighbour’s “beer bottle stucco” house wall for several hours. Nina, of course, when bonkers every time we went outside, so we had to go out of a side door to go on walks until the squirrel finally figured out how to climb down and escape.
All of the squirrel photos in the blog were taken when not in Nina’s company. Geordie is quite happy to wait while I snap a squirrel. After all, he is now trained to be patient for my endless visits with the crows, so he probably just considers the squirrel another boring delay on his walk.
Looking down as Geordie takes a leisurely pee at the foot of this squirrel’s Hydro pole.
I was sure I left that walnut in there …
I’m not sure if the squirrel in the video below had hiccups, or was making some sort of garbled announcement with a mouthful of walnut.
* I do have past experience of being airborne on a dog walk. We used to have two yellow labs (brother and sister). One day they spotted a cat scooting under a skip full of rubble by the side of the road. The grass was muddy and wet and I lost my footing and was momentarily flying. Luckily I emerged from that adventure only muddy and slightly bruised.
The clouds this morning made me really, really happy.
I was so happy, that I had to question what it was about them that made me feel so darn chipper.
Perhaps is because they made such a spectacular change from skies that have been either blue and cloudless or filled with sepia smoke for the past few months.
They weren’t just any old boring grey clouds, either. It was a symphony of mauve and lavender to begin with. Then piles of dark navy clouds budged up against candy floss threads of peaches and cream.
The clouds seem to mark the change in the seasons more accurately than the falling leaves. It’s hard to tell if the leaf drop is a sign of autumn’s arrival, or the result of the long, hot, dry summer.
All day I’ve been thinking about why the changes in the sky and the season make me feel so excited.
Partly, of course, it’s because I’m a photographer, and intermediate and changing light is always more interesting that boring old sunshine.
But I think also has something to do with “in between” spaces where more interesting things seem to happen. There’s something about seasonal change that seem to open new doors.
It’s like the edge of something and edges are always a bit exciting. One thing ends, another begins, but they get to overlap and mingle for a while. When day is turning to night, night to day, summer to fall, winter to spring: these times, with their transitional magic, are my favourite.
Of course, the other great thing about clouds, is what they’re sometimes hiding.
I could hear a sound like laughing getting closer and closer. A pair of ravens burst out of the clouds over the North Shore, flipping, diving, air-wrestling and squabbling their way across the sky until they disappeared somewhere to the south.
My mother had a storehouse of wonderful sayings — one for every occasion, really.
If I was looking particularly unkempt (a look I actively cultivated in my hippy days, but that’s an entirely different story) she’d say I looked as if I’d been “dragged through a hedge backwards.”
Sometimes, at the end of a particularly hard day of cleaning and chores, she’d describe feeling like “the wreck of the Hesperus.”
I’m reminded of both sayings every time I go outside at this time of year and see the state of the local crows.
They always look bedraggled at this stage of the molting season, but the seemingly endless, long, hot summer seems to be making them even more tattered and grumpy-looking than usual.
Feathers do not last forever, and after a year of hard service, the crows’ feathers begin to lose their glossy blue-black patina and become dull, with muted shades of sepia and grey. Luckily they have the ability to grow a new set of spanking new ones, but this metamorphosis comes at a cost. The process takes a lot of energy, which is why it’s usually timed for a period of relatively low corvid activity — after nesting and before migration (for those who head to warmer climes for winter). They need rest and good nutrition to grow the new feather cloak and hormonal changes associated with the process can make them feel out of sorts.
This summer, with no rain to speak of in months, it must be especially gruelling. Food sources, and even water, are harder to come by than usual. I’ve been putting out a couple of bowls of water in my neighbourhood for Eric and Clara and the harried parents of the Firehall Triplets. I feel especially sorry for the molting crows with young ones, as they have to find food for extra mouths — and deal with the loud and constant appeals for food.
The Firehall Family
Although they continue to try their luck at getting the parents to feed them, the fledglings are, by now, capable of doing some of their own foraging. The photo above was taken just this morning. The parent crow ignored that gaping pink beak and flew off with most of the peanuts I’d left. There were a couple left in the grass, and junior eventually got the hint and picked them up himself.
Baby crow figuring out if the leaves of my neighbour’s squash plants are “food.”
Warning: This is a risky vantage point from which to take a photo of a baby (or any) crow.
Eric and Clara
This is Eric, described by my husband as “the James Bond of crows” for his usually sleek unruffled feathers, and manner.
As you can see, even Eric the Suave is looking rather ragged and disgruntled these days.
Eric and Clara this morning. Only 8am and it’s hot already!
Mabel can be found every morning just down the alley from Eric and Clara. Here she is, her faded feathers looking almost as colourful as the towels on the washing line behind her.
My new pal has conveniently marked him- or herself with some paint around the neck, aiding in instant identification. It’s already fainter now and I guess the little paint mishap will be a distant memory when the new feathers come in.
So, when you slip on your new back-to-school or back-to-work outfit, spare a thought for the poor crows who have to grow their own.
It’s an arduous process, and I’m sure they’ll be mightily proud and relieved when their fall wardrobe finally comes in.