I’m sure I’m not alone in spending hours online seeking a simple answer to the questions, “how did we get to this place?” and “is there a way to get out of this place.”
The fine art of doomscrolling takes up far too much of my days. You too?
And, of course, in world full of confusion, contention and endless, endless complexity, there simply are no simple answers.
One recent distraction has been reading Dostoyevsky’s 1866 novel, Crime and Punishment, in tandem with my son who’s reading it for a course. As you may imagine, it’s not exactly light reading, but it very immersive and a trip to mid-nineteenth century Russia is a getaway of sorts.
Berries and birds have been my other escape this week.
In case you need a distraction, and at least the illusion of simplicity, come along . . .
There is a street near us lined with berry laden trees.
At various times, it’s populated with hundreds of birds. Many species are enjoying the buffet, but robins are the main customers.
Joined by a strong starling contingent ..,
… and a good showing from house finches and juncos.
The rarest visitors (be still my beating heart) are the cedar waxwings, filling up for their journey further south. More on them in a coming post!
And the crows. Of course, the crows. Some of my dog walk followers end up on this street with me and discover the berry delights.
As always, they are excellent models, pleased I’m sure, at how fine the ebony of their winter feathers looks against the scarlet berries.
The world does seem quite simple while I’m peering up into those branches and I actually have to force myself to head home.
Besides, while I’m photographing, Geordie is grazing on the fallen berries, with some unfortunate gastrointestinal results — giving me another reason to tear myself away and get back to the doomscrolling.
This gripping tale is a repost from nesting season 2017 … enjoy!
I didn’t realize it was going to turn into a saga, but now I’ve accumulated about a hundred photos of our local Northern Flicker family, chronicling their ups and downs over the last few weeks.
I kept meaning to post some as things unfolded, but it turned into such a roller coaster, I didn’t want to start telling the story until I had an idea of how tragic (one a scale of one to three) the ending would be.
Now the number of images is just out of control. I feel as if I have the makings of a small novel! And, besides, who knows what the conclusion will be in any family’s story?
So here is part one of the Flicker Family album.
It began earlier this summer when I noticed a lot of flicker calling going on all around the house and garden. This handsome fellow was to be seen, with his mate, working away with their beaks at a hole in the plum tree right in front of our house.
Northern Flickers are a type of woodpecker, and quite common in Vancouver. In fact, they were the runners-up in the recent vote to elect an official bird to represent the city. You can tell the males from the females by the dashing red “moustache” at the base of their beaks.
After a few more weeks, strange noises began to come from the tree.
The flicker pair were on ferocious guard at all times. Here’s the dad, holding the fort against a marauding squirrel. The squirrel eventually gave up and snuck away down the far side of the tree trunk.
Below, you can see the female flicker on the lower part of the tree. If you look closely, you can see also the male’s head peeking out from the nest hole further up.
Here’s Mom visiting the feeder in the garden. She was usually in the nest and you can see that her feathers were getting a bit dishevelled in the confined space.
Dad on guard, nest bottom right.
*** PART TWO OF THE FLICKER FAMILY SAGA COMING TOMORROW ***
Meanwhile – in an unrelated Flicker incident, we had the …
FLICKER IN THE STUDIO FIASCO
In late June a neighbour brought me a flicker that she saw hit by a car as she was waiting for a bus on a main street near here. The bird was stunned and in danger of getting hit again, so she and her son braved the pointy beak and picked him up to bring to me. The plan was I’d keep an eye on him and see if he needed to go to the wonderful people at Wildlife Rescue for treatment.
I put him in a covered box and I moved it into the studio to keep warm. But then I noticed that the scrap of towel I’d put in the box to pad it had become a bit unraveled, and a thread was wrapped around the flicker. I tried to carefully untangle it and … of course … the bird got out of the box and suddenly regained his powers of flight.
Part bird, part Swiffer, he scooped up some cobwebs from the skylight.
Understandably scared, he took cover behind just about every counter and work table in the place, then flying up the skylight (and doing a bit of dusting for me as he went.)
Luckily he finally made its way to a window that I could open for him.
Apart from never wanting to be in a studio again, he seemed fine as he soared off in the direction he’d been rescued from.
Another crow probably came before, but George Broken Beak was the first I knew of to claim the golden ring.
George, fall 2016
Mabel inherited it, and since George died in 2017, only she has been allowed to perch there. Until very recently.
Mabel, February 2020
The coveted golden ring is actually a yellow metal loop on a yellow metal pole — one of a pair used to suspend the chain that guards the local elementary school parking lot.
A relatively humble throne, but apparently of great significance in the local crow pecking order. I have never seen, for example, Mabel’s new mate, Gus, sit upon it.
In January, Mabel on her post with Gus and one of the kids below.
As recently as February, Mabel seemed to retain exclusive rights to the perch. One day I was walking by and noticed one of Mabel’s young ones come in for a landing on the revered ring. His claws a-l-m-o-s-t touched down before he remembered himself, making a last minute mid-air flight correction to land on a spot more befitting his station.
Whew, that was close …
Mabel must be getting on by now. Her one bad eye looks worse, although she is still apparently able to see out of it, and she still seems to more than hold her own with the other neighbourhood crows. But some sort of succession plan seems to be in the works.
Family meeting on the railings.
Just last week I walked by and saw a crow that I assumed was Mabel in her usual spot. But no, it was one of the youngsters, and Mabel was sitting by and watching with equanimity. In the photo below, the crow on the furthest spot from the post was Mabel, supervising and making no effort to chase the young one off.
The Heir Apparent, apparently.
I’ve been by a few times lately to see one of the young ones on the perch. I can’t tell if only one of them is favoured with the honour, or if they’re taking turns.
I’m hoping that, in spite of this apparent abdication, Mabel will be around for many years to come. She still seems to rule the neighbourhood with with a determined personality and impressive feather floofing technique.
I can usually tell it’s Mabel from a distance just from her silhouette — the fuzziness, and the attitude.
Mabel, Queen Boudicea of Crows
In looking for the first photo in this post, of George on his yellow perch, I went down a bit of a rabbit hole of memories of him and Mabel together.
Here’s just one of the photos of the two of them I found …
And here is Mabel, keeping on keeping on all these years later.
I photographed her just this afternoon in the plum tree, with spring just around the corner.
Sometimes the best way to tear yourself away from binge-watching the TV is to drag yourself outside and tune in to the always entertaining Crow Channel.
I’d planned an archival Ken Burns-style documentary for this blog post, going over everything that’s happened with the local crows since I last did an update last fall.
After sorting through months of photographs I was still trying to wrap my mind around a way to fit everything into a post that would be slightly shorter than War and Peace.
A lot happens with crows in a few months!
This morning, while walking the dog. I had a epiphany. (This often happens, don’t you find?)
I decided to write the blog just about the hot-from-the-press crow news as gathered on the current morning walk — coming to you live (-ish) & local from East Vancouver.
No sign of Marvin and Mavis first thing, so Geordie and I headed out and put their Sunday morning breakfast (scrambled eggs) in the fridge for later.
The first star appearance in today’s crow drama is Mabel — of George and Mabel fame, and cover model for the 2018 crow calendar.
She and her new mate “own” the western end of our street. I’m sure it’s Mabel, partly because she knows me so well, and partly because of her bad eye. From one side she looks like any other crow.
But from the other, I can see that the eye that was starting to deteriorate when George was alive has gotten worse. I’m not sure if she can see out of it at all now, but somehow it doesn’t seem to slow her down. She rules her territory like a corvid Boudicca, faulty eye or not. All crows are action heroes.
Time for a short crow calligraphy break in the programming as we spot one of the several Garibaldi School crows, creating an interesting silhouette agains some wavy branches.
Back to some supporting actors in the ongoing crowp opera. There are quite a few characters on Napier Street that I haven’t named yet, although they seem to know me (and Geordie) very well. The white blur in the photo below is Geordie walking between me and the crow. Dog and crow seem to take each other’s presence for granted.
Another un-named, very confident, Napier Street crow …
It’s always a bit tricky when you get to the corner of a block, or wherever the boundary between crow fiefdoms lies. Here we’re on the border of Pants Family terrain, but the Napier crow on the stop sign seems inclined to make a bold incursion this morning.
Napier Street crow on the edge of his territory
Mr. Pants is not amused at the audacity. We might have had to include a “Warning: Crow Violence” sticker on this program, but I traced my steps back a bit so I could distract the Napier crows with a few peanuts before having a short visit with the Pants Family.
Since the great moulting season of 2018 — see Red Hot Fall Fashion Tips — Mr. Pants has been lacking the feathered trousers that earned him his name. Now that it’s getting a bit colder, he does seem to be getting a bit fluffier around the nether regions, but I’m not sure if he’ll ever be quite so pantaloon-encumbered as he once was.
He probably enjoys the more streamlined life.
The Pants power couple.
Mr. Pants, dashing with or without trousers.
Brief pause for a commercial break …
And now, back to scheduled programming …
On to William Street next to check in on the White Wing plot line. I know this is Ms. Wing by the way she greets me, even though I can’t see her distinctive wonky feather from this angle.
There we go …
A brisk wind catches her protruding feather this morning. It looks kind of awkward, but she seems to manage very well. In fact, of all the local crows, she was the most successful mom this year, successfully raising three fledglings to independence.
Another break for a spot of crow calligraphy.
The commotion in a tree near William and Kaslo made me think a crow or eagle must be involved, but it seemed to be an all-crow kerfuffle. The one on the far right had something in his beak and it seems that the others felt it was not rightfully his.
They chased him out of the tree, back to the tree and dive bombed repeatedly, but he stubbornly held on to whatever prize he’d managed to score.
On the home stretch we run into two of our old favourites, Eric and Clara.
They’re Marvin and Mavis’s closest neighbours and there’s been a bit of rivalry between them lately. When I stop to greet Eric and Clara, I immediately see and hear Marvin on a power line, making grumpy territorial calls.
Eric and Clara
As soon as I get a few steps closer to home, Marvin comes down to claim my full attention. Time for breakfast.
But no … there’s a final twist to the plot (isn’t there always?)
Mavis is watching something else from another hydro wire and she seems perturbed.
Raven!!!! Furious cawing and they take off to escort the intruder out of their territory.
It takes Marvin a few minutes to calm down after that little burst of crow-drenelin.
I thinks he’s earned a good breakfast, so the scrambled eggs are brought out again.
Marvin graciously lets Mavis have the first serving. Since she developed a spot of avian pox on her right foot late last year, I notice she’s a lot pushier about getting the food and Marvin seems to know she needs as much nutrition as she can get. You can see the small lesion on her back foot in the photo below. It doesn’t seem to be growing, so I’m hoping she’s got enough of an immune system to hold it at bay.
‘Scuse my table manners.
Marvin the patient.
And so today’s Crowflix programming comes to an end … and we didn’t even cover the Slocan Street Trio. Perhaps they’ll need their own episode. Remember, there’s probably a live crow show on offer in your neighbourhood too. You just have to step away from the TV and out the door.
Somewhere between harvest festivals and soccer riots, these autumnal corvid gatherings are a sure sign of the seasonal shift.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Then suddenly they’re gone. All of them.
The wires are vacant and the nut-strewn street is silent.
A small tributary of crows trickles through the stand of poplars, golden in the last light of the day.
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.
It’s taken me a ridiculous length of time to get to this simple little blog . I’m just trying to update you on the WHO, WHAT and WHERE of the local crow families. But it’s complicated!
I tried writing it all in words and it was confusing even me, so I decided we needed a map. Voila!
Honestly, I did feel as if I could use something fancier, like the opening credits to Game of Thrones to do the situation justice but, alas, the budget is limited and so the map will have to suffice.
In the post-summer corvid reshuffle, you can see we have four families vying for hegemony* in this little corner of East Vancouver.
Let’s have a look at the protagonists in this little neighbourhood drama.
Normally, at this time of year, George and Mabel would have returned from their nesting area at the west end of the block to reclaim our alley way and my back garden.
Since the sad death of George this summer, Mabel seems happy to stay in the nesting area with the junior crow that she and George fledged the summer before last. They claim the elementary school end of the block and the alleyway to the south of our house.
ERIC & CLARA
Eric and Clara are sticking to their traditional territory which includes the south side of Notre Dame School (including the highly prized school dumpster in the parking lot), the east end of Parker Street and points west along Parker to Rossland Street. Of course, their jurisdiction includes the all-important ceremonial fire hydrant.
Sometimes they will make a sortie to my front gate if they see me coming out with the dog, or going to the car. They will also venture part way down “Mabel’s” alley, but turn back at “her” Hydro pole.
Eric takes his Block Watch duties very seriously.
They didn’t have any baby crows this spring. The nest they were working on blew away in an early summer windstorm and they didn’t seem to have the heart to start over.
THE FIREHALL FAMILY
The Firehall pair, on the other hand, had a very successful baby-raising year. They have three surviving adolescents — quite an achievement, given the long drought and tough conditions this summer. Their little population explosion has been one of the major factors causing a fluctuation in the customary corvid boundaries.
The Firehall Triplets
I imagine the three young ones will soon go off and start their own little empires elsewhere but, for now, with five mouths to feed, they’re venturing out of their usual stomping grounds.
Crowded up there on the Hydro wires.
They’ve even had the nerve to go and try pinching peanuts off Eric’s fire hydrant. Such audacity is met with firm resistance. They also come to my back fence sometimes. They’ve never done this in previous years and their visits have led to some minor scuffles with Marvin and his mate.
MARVIN & MATE
In the summer months, when George and Mabel would abandon my garden for their nest site to the west, a notice must immediately have gone up on the Corvid Craigslist. I imagine it read something like: “Temporary vacancy in well-appointed garden with well-trained, peanut-serving human.” This year our summer tenants were a crow with paint on his neck and a companion with the colourful feathers of a younger crow.
I believe that the crows that are most often coming to the garden now that it’s fall, are these same two — but it’s hard to tell for sure as the late summer moult took care of the easy-to-spot painted and the colourful feathers, leaving us with two anonymously glossy black crows. I think, from their behaviour, it’s the same two. I’ve called the formerly painted crow Marvin after Lee Marvin, who starred in the movie, Paint Your Wagon, many years ago. I haven’t yet got around to a name for his mate. Indeed, I don’t really know who’s “he” and who’s “she” for sure at the moment, but you’ve got to start somewhere.
We’re beginning that fun “getting to know you” routine, which involves a lot of “risk/benefit” calculation on their part. You can almost hear their brain cogs whirring as they try to figure out how close it’s safe to get to this crazy human and her dog.
They don’t look too dangerous …
How about from this angle?
I feel safer up on the roof.
Gradually, they’re getting bolder. Or possibly just more desperate as the weather takes a turn for the worse and they settle in for the winter. I think we’ve even got to that cosy stage where they blame me for the weather.
So, for now, things are a bit fluid — and I don’t just mean what’s coming from the sky. When a crow shows up in my garden at the moment, it’s a bit of a guess as to whether it’s Marvin & co, or a Firehall visitor, or even Eric and Clara, testing the northernmost limits of their territorial boundaries.
This time last year I was pretty sure who was who, and now it’s like starting the puzzle over. But, hey, I figure it’s good exercise for my aging brain. I’ve never tried Sukuko, but examining and sorting all of the corvid “who’s who, and where?” clues has to be almost as good.
NOTE* I have been waiting for 40+ years to use “hegemony” in a sentence. I believe I first came across it when reading about the foreign policy of Frederick the Great of Prussia for a very boring university essay in the mid-70’s. I knew it would come in handy eventually.
Let me be clear. Actual owl wrestling is definitely not something I’d recommend.
However, it does feel as if I’ve been metaphorically getting to grips with owls for the last few weeks.
One particular owl, in fact.
Since the wonderful day a few weeks ago when a barred owl appeared in front of my house, I’ve been working on distilling the magic of that day into a small set of images.
It was such a special day, I really wanted to make sure that I did that beautiful owl justice. To that end, I’ve been faffing about with this series for weeks.
First of all there was the issue of making a short list of the photographs to start working from. That gorgeous owl posed so obligingly for me, for so many hours — it made choosing the final four images quite challenging.
Then I had to decide which other images to layer the owl portraits with. Below are most of the final images that, in the end, became merged with the owl — but in the process of working on this series I tried dozens of other combinations of tree, foliage, stamp, fabric and texture images. They all ended up on the virtual cutting room floor, leaving the set of images that are now on my web site.
Lupins, cracked concrete, katsura leaves, sky, forest, an old barkcloth curtain and owls — all combined to create the atmosphere in the final set of four owl images.
Owl Dreams 1
Owl Dreams 2
Owl Dreams 3
Owl Dreams 4
Some of the other images of birds of British Columbia on my web site. Buy four or more, and save 15%.
Some days just don’t go as planned, but in a good way.
Today, for example, I had a number of studio tasks set out for the morning, all of which seemed very important — until the crows started going bonkers outside.
I always try to go see what the crows are on about.
It’s usually something interesting — sometimes it’s just a cat, but often a skunk, racoon or, occasionally, a coyote or two.
This morning’s furor was in the katsura tree right in front of our house. I opened the front door to see what was up, and instantly found myself caught in the hypnotic gaze of a beautiful barred owl.
Well, good morning!
Work rule number one is that when there’s an urban nature event unfolding, it rockets to the top of the to-do list. Everything else has to wait. Tiles remain unfinished, web sites, neglected.
Today that rule DEFINITELY applied.
The katsura tree was full of crows from near and far, all voicing their displeasure at the owl. Even a young Northern Flicker was joining in the scolding. You can hear him in this video.
This next video gives a cool look at the owl’s blinking mechanism – the nictitating membrane that makes the eye look blue, and then the fluffy feathered eyelids. He was also making a little beak movement when blinking. So amazing!
For about half an hour the crows, with occasional flicker input, continued their furious show. Gradually most left, leaving only the paint-splattered crow that currently considers the tree “his” and his mate. Eventually even they grew weary and flew off for a rest.
It’s a rare sight to see an owl in daylight. They’re usually sleeping off a busy night of rodent hunting. It does happen though. A couple of years ago I was lucky enough to see a similar sight outside of the Vancouver Art Gallery, right in the downtown core. I wrote a blog (Owls, Crows, Rooks and Poetry) about that day too.
But this time he was right in front of my own house. What an amazing treat.
He was there all day, so I was able to spend hours watching him. Neighbours came out to watch too. Our owl was a bit of a local celebrity for the day.
Sometimes the owl would fluff up his feathers if he felt the crows were getting too bold.
But no crow with an ounce of sense would get too close to these feet. Owls are one of the reasons that thousands of crows fly every night to Still Creek, seeking nocturnal safety in numbers.
In this photo, the owl looks for all the world like a character from a Harry Potter novel.
Gradually the crow posse seemed to forget about the owl all together.
Most of the afternoon was peaceful enough to allow a bit of a beauty sleep catch-up.
It’s late afternoon now and he’s still snoozing out there. I expect he’ll be there until dusk and then it will be hunting time again.
For me, I’ve spent the majority of the day photographing him, sorting out photos and writing this blog. That’s OK though, because that’s really the most important part of my “job.”
Every time I close my eyes, I see his eyes looking back at me.
I expect I’ll have owl dreams tonight.
See what happened at the end of this amazing day in the next post, Night Owl.