The Downy Woodpecker is the smallest of all the North American woodpeckers, a compact and handsome little bird, often found in urban backyards.
The male wears a jaunty red cap, while the female restricts her fashion palette to a crisp and dapper black and white.
They are firm believers in the saying “good things come in small packages.”
I was out walking the dog a few mornings ago and heard what sounded like a small jackhammer. A bit rude to be working on a construction project so early, I thought.
But, getting closer to the hammering, I realized the source was the top of a Hydro pole. I then assumed that it was the usual suspect — the amorous male Northern Flicker looking to impress the ladies.
I stared at the pole for quite a while without being able to spot the percussionist. It took my camera lens finally pick him out — a tiny, but talented, male downy woodpecker.
He was exploring the whole T-bar of the pole, testing here and there to find the best reverb. And he’d found the sweet spot for sure, making a noise that echoed richly around the neighbourhood.
So impressive did he sound — he finally attracted a female Northern Flicker to his perch.
They both looked at each other as if they’d arrived on a blind date . . . and both parties had stretched the truth in their dating profiles.
You can see Mr. Downy trying to look inconspicuous on the far right.
After an awkward moment or two, the downy made a quiet exit stage right — off in search of his true love.
Here’s the actual object of his affections, taking a little spa time at our bird bath. I’m hoping they’ve sorted the confusion out now and that we can look forward to some even littler downies later in the season.
Incidentally, my very first blog post, written in spring 2014 was about a Downy Woodpecker. You can read it here: Downy Woodpecker Drama
Two big things to take away from the 2014 story:
Keep your cat indoors
Donate to your local wildlife rescue centre. Nesting season is always an extra busy time for these volunteer run organizations, especially as they try to work through the Covid-19 complications, so help them out if you can. The organization that saved the downy in 2014 (and countless other birds and other wildlife before and since) is Wildlife Rescue BC.
Edgar, so confident that all will be well, now finds himself nodding off during the Prime Minister’s daily briefings.
He is however, adamant that everyone should listen to the Health Officer’s advice and keep on staying the bleep home. Do not cross this cat. You have been warned.
And, just in case you need a reminder about the vital importance of hand washing …
More on the importance of keeping to some sort of schedule during these discombobulating times.
4:57 Edgar arrives at my desk.
4:59 Geordie arrives as back up.
5pm is dinner time and some schedules must be adhered to, regardless of whether the humans have lost track of the days. Honestly, they say, what would the people do without us …? A good question.
Because his own luxury pet bed is starting to seem a bit cramped, or perhaps just because he feels like a change, Edgar has now laid claim to the dog’s bed as well as his own. Luckily Geordie is willing to roll with the punches.
And … a rare win for the human, staring contest-wise.
You know the days are long when you’re competing in staring contests with Edgar.
I had never seen a nuthatch of any kind until Norman arrived in my garden last fall. Suddenly there he was, a tiny flying badger, making peeping noises like the world’s smallest truck backing up in the lilac tree.
Norman is a red-breasted nuthatch, close cousin to the white-breasted, brown-headed and pygmy nuthatches, and the elusive brown creeper.
Now, every morning when I go into the garden, after issuing my standard crazy bird lady greeting to the assembled avian company, “Hi there, Birdy McBirdles!” — I’m looking to see if I can spot Norman.
I’ve given him a name since he’s easy to identify, being the only nuthatch in the garden. Some time in late fall a second one showed up, but after a few days of noisy squabbling we seem to be back down to one.
The Cornell information on them describes the red-breasted nuthatch as “an intense bundle of energy at your feeder” — and that does just about sum up Norman.
He’s a zoomer.
Zooms down to the feeder, back up to the trees — up and down, dozens of times a day.
Pretty fearless too, whipping by inches from my head, and unfazed if I walk right beside the feeder. The other birds are off in a feathery flurry if I get too close, but Norman and his dauntless black-capped chickadee buddies tend to stand their ground.
Norman often zigzags down the trees head first, like a Skeleton competitor. He is aided in this manoeuvre by the large hook-like claws on his back toes.
He’s a picky eater and will often perch at the feeder pulling out, and impatiently discarding, one morsel after another until he finally unearths the specific one he was looking for, usually a nice big peanut.
He’ll fly off to a nearby tree and jam the nut prize into a bark crevice where he can pick away at it at his leisure. The tree bark is also the source of the tasty bugs that make up the rest of his diet.
Beep, beep, beep …
Another cool fact about red-breasted nuthatches — they smear the entrance to their nests (usually excavated in a decaying tree or stump) with sticky resin, presumably to ward off predators or would-be lodgers. To avoid getting stuck themselves, they’ve perfected the art of diving directly and neatly into the nest.
I hope Norman can find himself a mate and they will have fun making a glue-guarded nest. Maybe we’ll see some nuthatch babies later this spring.
I’ll keep you posted on the Norman News.
Norman on a blustery day, showing off that big back claw.
Crows are often the only obvious representative of the natural world that a busy urbanite might see in a day. Many more wild things live among us, of course — but crows are so “in your face” that they’re hard to overlook, no matter how distracted you are. Once they’ve caught your eye, you can’t help but start to notice the rest of the quieter members of the urban nature gang… sparrows, chickadees, coyotes, eagles, hawks, bushtits, raccoons, ravens, squirrels, flickers, hummingbirds … and the precious scraps of urban greenery in which they thrive.
2. Crow as Mirror
Crows have evolved through millennia along an entirely separate path from humans.
And yet, and yet … here we find ourselves, crows and people, living strangely parallel urban lives.
We all —crows and humans — have to deploy every bit of our creativity and hard work to get by in the urban jungle. We take comfort in our family groups, and we commute in tandem— the nightly river of roost-bound crows soaring raucously over their earthbound fellow travellers, the latter inching their way homeward though traffic.
While I love and admire crows, I don’t usually think of them as my “spirit animal” or anything particularly mystical.
And yet, sometimes, when I look at Mavis …
3. Crows Really Don’t Care What You Think
Crows have a rather enviable devil-may-care attitude.
Their gaze is firmly outward, with little or no thought wasted on what others think of them. They know that their crow-ness is sufficient.
I try to be more like them in that regard, … although I don’t think I don’t think I’m quite ready to start digging up my neighbours’ lawns just yet.
As I get older I wonder if I should start doing Sudoku or crosswords to keep my mind sharp.
I haven’t yet, but I find that crow watching is a pretty good substitute. I see a crow doing something rather inexplicable. I wonder about it, read a book or an article about crows, I watch some more, and then — aha! — the puzzle pieces suddenly fit into place. Then I have to try and keep that bit of information stored in my brain as I add more clues to a growing picture. It’s like being a crow P.I.
Take, for instance, the mystery of the barking crow …
See my previous blog post A Puzzlement of Crows for just how much of my brain this sort of thing occupies at any one time.
Whitewing here has a perennially wonky wing feather which helps me pick her out from the crowd.
5. Crows For Kids
We worry that our kids spend too much time inside, screen-mesmerized (much like the rest of us) and rarely keen to get outside and get involved with nature. They’re able to identify far more corporate logos than birds or plants.
From experiences with my own children when they were younger, the most effective way to get them interested in doing something is to create a story around it.
My son was reluctant to come on walks until we found Dragon Alley. A street near our house is lined with massive trees, and the trunks are all covered in various kinds of thick moss. Once we “discovered” that this was were the local dragons came to rub off their old scales, walking was a delight.
I wish I’d started noticing crows when my children were little. The tales we could have spun! The characters we could have followed! They loved books with animals in them, but most of them were not indigenous to East Vancouver. They read about tigers and badgers and hedgehogs in brambly hedges, none of which they were ever likely to actually find on their own adventures. It would have been fun to introduce them to some real life local crow characters.
Well I guess it’s never too late as I do that now, even though the kids are now in their twenties …
6. Crow Therapy is Egalitarian
Just about anyone in a crow-populated city can take advantage of crow therapy. You don’t even need to get up close and personal — you can read their messages of beauty and nature from a distance in the calligraphy they write against the sky.
We simply need to stop for a moment to look up and try to interpret it.
In fact, crow therapy is SO egalitarian that it doesn’t even need to involve crows.
If it’s wondering what the starlings are up to today, or how the light will hit the leaves on your favourite tree this morning, or which dragons left scales in Dragon Alley overnight — whatever gives you a thrill of anticipation as your step outside — that’s Crow Therapy.
Bringing you, direct to you from the runways of East Vancouver, the very latest in autumn fashion inspiration. I encourage you to leaf through the new trends and adopt some elements to create your very own signature fall look.
I can guarantee you will stand out from the crowd.
Eric and Clara model “dragged through a hedge backwards” look that is so of the moment.
The Statement Nostril
I really can’t over emphasize the importance this new must-have fashion staple!
A particularly severe molting season this year has left many a corvid nostril exposed to the elements. As with most things in life, if you got it, you might as well flaunt it.
Flaunt those nostrils …
Own those nostrils!
How To Wear It
This season’s look screams, “I don’t care what I look like!” along with a touch of “I’ve pretty much given up on grooming.”
A determinedly devil-may-care attitude is required to successfully pull off this somewhat challenging fashion trend.
So worth the effort though. Just look at the results when it’s successfully done …
Don’t be shy. Get out there and strut your tattered stuff.
Mabel, last year’s calendar cover model, demonstrates how the careful use of accessories can help pull off this look. A bit of hard old pizza in your beak makes you the indisputable Queen of the Runway.
Who you lookin’ at?
The Neck Ruffle
Hot from the fashion presses, this dynamic new look is a sort of mullet hybrid.
Quite the party in back, although not much business in front (see next trend below.)
The Indie Beard
This electrifying new trend is taking all of East Van by storm. Some humans even sport the look. While thoroughly of the new and now, we see in it a nod to the first beatnik hipsters.
Mr. Pants (such a fashion guru) was an early adopter of this bold new facial experiment …
But now some of the younger crows are hopping on the straggly chin bandwagon …
Marvin thinks he looks pretty groovy.
The Most Important Fall Fashion Question
Of course, these are only fads and foibles. What those of us in the know most want to find out is:
Will Mr. Pants regain his full trousered splendour after the molting season???
Here he was, back in early August when his Pants were at their most magnificent.
Things have been looking a little sparser of late …
This gives me great hope that His Pantship will be back in full regalia once the molting season is over.
We do hope you’re going to try some of these looks, brought to you by the Crow-dashians of East Vancouver. Do send us any photos of the results!
I have felt a bit like one of those fashion bloggers who photograph edgy street fashion over the past few days. It’s been quite a laugh.
Seriously though, the poor crows are kind of miserable and irritable during the molting season, so do be nice to them. If it’s still dry where you are, think of leaving them some water. Kind words are also always appreciated.
This post will have stories … about crows … eventually.
But first, I wanted to share a few thoughts that have been rolling around in my head about the idea of “story.”
Mostly I look at the world in a visual way. I’m a photographer, so I’m always looking for shapes, colours, light, shade, textures and so on. They do say that a picture is worth a thousand words but, for me, the words hovering behind the picture are just as important. Every photograph I take has at least the inkling of a story behind it.
My academic background is in English Literature — so, naturally I’m a sucker for narrative. I guess that’s why, even though my work is pictorial, I’ve come to love writing this blog. The thousand words behind the picture.
Crows seem to be the perfect subjects for both pictures and stories.
Visually, they are fascinating — whether viewed from a distance as inky calligraphy against the sky …
… or closer up, where you can see the myriad colours in the allegedly black feathers, and the soulful intelligence in their restless eyes.
Story-wise, they’re an endless resource. They’re a minefield of metaphor and motif; a stockpile of symbolism and simile.
And character — don’t get me started! Every time I spend time with a crow, I can’t help but see something in their expression that parallels the human experience.
And I guess that’s the value of story.
It lures you into looking deeper into worlds that aren’t your own, and makes your life richer, funnier and more full of empathy as a result.
OK, enough rambling and, finally (as promised) some crow-necdotes!
Tales of Mavis and Marvin
As winter dug in, it became clear that these two had become de facto king and queen of my back garden. For a while some of the younger crows from the Firehall Five would try and horn in on the action, but there must have been some sort of back room deal, because I now never see them in the yard. Occasionally there is some minor skirmish with Eric and Clara who will make forays into the front garden, but generally detente has been reached in the hyper-local corvid community.
On Christmas Day Marvin and Mavis had the garden to themselves, apart from the chickadees, juncos, song sparrow and lone hummingbird.
Marvin continues his fascination with the garden statuary.
Not sure if this was a gesture of affection, or frustration at the failure of his efforts to get a response.
Attempting conversation with the equally taciturn cast iron crows by the studio.
New Year Challenge
The daily offering of peanuts and dog kibble was becoming a bit routine, so I decided to give Marvin and Mavis a bit more of a challenge. Once they’ve had a few easy-picking peanuts and kibble from the back deck, I set up a bit of an obstacle course for them.
There’s a gnarled piece of Hornby Island driftwood in the garden by the picket fence. I wedge a few peanuts in the stick and watch Marvin and Mavis problem-solve how to get them out. First challenge is negotiating a route along the tricky picket fence.
The first few tries had them scrambling and flapping. It’s also a bit of a “beat the clock” affair, since chickadees are snatching them easily from the driftwood while Marvin and Mavis are figuring out how to get to them.
King of the driftwood castle.
After a couple of weeks, they are now experts. This photo of Marvin, showing off his picket fence mastery is now one of my favourites (and available as prints and tiles!).
As usual in Vancouver, we’ve had a winter mélange of snow, rain and wind. Some of my favourite crow portraits are catching them in seeming response to adverse weather conditions. It’s then that they most remind me of myself, waiting at a bus stop or trudging home with shopping. That stoic and and somewhat exasperated look.
Philosopher Crow — or, Mavis adopts a philosophical approach in the face of inevitable.
Curse, you winter! Actually, this was Mavis’s response to Edgar (the cat) being out on the back deck. More like, “curse you, cat!”
So, the crow stories are endless really. I’m sure I’ll have more I can’t keep to myself soon. I hope they get you to look at the crows in your part of the world with more interest and affection, because life is just more entertaining once you let crows in.
Just in case you tire of human news, here’s a “celebrity profile” of a different sort.
I’m not sure “who” this up-and-coming power couple are wearing this fall.
Their lives seem to be pretty scandal-free, although you’d have to listen to the roost rumours to be sure of that.
Politically, I’d say they’re pretty apathetic — although very vocal on some local issues.
Marvin and Mavis have claimed my garden as their territory this fall. We’re really just starting to get to know each other, but I can already share a few juicy details about the lifestyle of the loud and feathery.
First of all, they’re art fans — with a particular fondness for sculptural pieces. Marvin was first wowed by the rusty metal jay bird on the back gate.
Then, he became intrigued by the metal figure on the bird feeder.
He’s so impressed with the whole “birds as art” concept , he’s taken to posing as a crow statue.
Corvid performance art.
It is said that crows can tell each other apart by their calls. Until recently, I thought that the difference must be too subtle for human ears, but Marvin has a particularly guttural caw that I can actually recognize at once.
What gets both Marvin and Mavis really riled up is … cats. This is actually quite handy for me, because they often warn me that the neighbour’s cat is in the garden and lurking under the bird feeder, or by the bird bath. They’re quite pleased with how quickly they’ve trained me to run out of the house, waving my arms and yelling at the evil creature. They also notified me when Edgar, our indoor cat, snuck out during the Halloween preparations. Again, they were gratified to see how promptly the ginger devil was captured and contained.
For Halloween, apart from the usual chocolate bars, I also bought some mini bags of Cheezies. I wanted to save some for after Halloween to test Marvin and Mavis’s junk food susceptibility.
All crows I’ve ever known have had a weakness for these frighteningly orange snacks. I don’t buy them often because (a) I don’t want to fill my crows up with junk food and (b) I can’t resist them either.
I can reliably report that Mavis and Marvin are as weak in the face of Cheezie temptation as the rest of us.
Note that the dog kibble and peanuts have been left for a second trip. Best get the Cheezies while the getting’s good.
Well, that’s about it for the latest hot crow gossip around here. Stay tuned for the next instalment. Perhaps fashion and beauty tips …
Marvin and Mavis, captured in a candid moment by the relentless paparazzi.