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.
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.
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.
Watch for the last few seconds of this baby crow self-grooming video. I think he’s auditioning for his own show on Comedy Network.
It has been a bit quiet in the neighbourhood of late.
That’s all changed with the advent of the corvid triplets. They do not keep their feeling to themselves. When hungry (pretty much all of the time) the whole neighbourhood knows about it.
The parents both look pretty exhausted. That dishevelled “new parent” look is made more extreme by the onset of molting season.
This is one of the parents of the three Firehall baby crows. Although my “babies” are now in their twenties, I still remember the slightly stunned, “Am I really qualified for this?” feeling that this parent seems to be experiencing.
I call them the Firehall family because the parents seemed to have their nest in a tree right beside the fire station that is on the corner of our street.
The triplets are venturing further and further from home base. One of them made it all the way to my garden, looking impossibly cute in the coral bark maple tree.
In the video below a harassed parent tries to get away from the ceaseless demands. Again, I do empathize.
Meanwhile, where are Mabel and Eric and Clara?
Now that George is gone, Mabel seems happy to stay with the “teenager” crow she and George had last year, in the alley one over from ours. I visit her daily and she seems well.
Eric and Clara are in their usual territory. They didn’t have any babies this year, having lost their nest high in the poplar trees to a windstorm early in the season. They’re kind of taking it easy this year, watching their triplet-tending neighbours with something like relief.
City Crows 2018 Calendars
My 2018 City Crow calendar is at the printer’s now and will be ready to ship in the first week of September. You can order yours now! The first 100 orders will come with a large (1.75-inch) Frazzled Mabel button.
If you’ve already ordered a calendar, don’t worry, you’ll be getting a free button too.
This blog post is really just a huge thank-you for all the lovely, thoughtful, funny, comforting, poetic messages I’ve received after my last post about the passing of George. They’ve come via blog comments, email, text, Messenger, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. I expect a carrier pigeon at any moment …
There have been stories of how people enjoyed hearing about him; how he taught them new things, maybe even changed their minds about crows. There have been whimsical descriptions of bird companions loved (and sometimes lost). I’ve laughed and cried reading them all. I have tried to write back as much as I can, but I fear I’m never going to manage as many replies as I’d like. If I haven’t written back to you, please know that I really appreciate your words and feel as if I’ve had a big hug from the world.
This is one of my favourite photos of George when I first met him. You can just see the wisdom and engagement in his eyes.
It was tough to lose George. As my husband said, when called him in tears to tell him the news, “It’s not all beer and skittles, being an urban nature enthusiast.”
So true — disaster and heartbreak is always lurking around the corner. But that is, as they say, life. And to quote Alfred Lord Tennyson, ” ‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”
When I picked George up to bury him, he weighed almost nothing at all. I had never held him before, so it was a surprise.
I keep thinking about how very light he was. That lightness seemed such a contrast to his substantial personality and presence.
George was a gift. I hope he’ll pop into our minds whenever those of us who knew about him see other crows. And we’ll smile when we think of him.
George on one of his favourite perches at the local elementary school.
Meanwhile, I’m trying to get my City Crow Calendar to the printer, but I keep re-writing it. You would think I was working on a major novel, rather than a calendar.
I keep going back and forth on George in the calendar.
No George, therefore no morbid “dead crow” associations?
Lots of George, to honour him?
In the end, I’ve decided on some George, and a special page at the end to celebrate him.
This picture of George’s magnificent feet will be one of several in the 2018 City Crow Calendar.
Thank-you once again for all of the kind thoughts and messages.
I like to think that George, from his perch up in the Great Sky Roost, enjoyed them too.
It’s going to be a scorcher this week in Vancouver. The news is full of dire sunstroke warnings, and tips on how to beat the heat.
The birds know what to do, and here is one of our backyard Northern Flickers to do a little demo for you.
Stick to cool, shady places. Preferably near water.
If the thermometer is really sky rocketing, it’s time to take the plunge.
Get thoroughly soaked. Feel your core temperature go down.
Aaah. Now that’s better.
This part of the flicker post-bathing behaviour might not be so advisable for humans.
I <3 Flickers
NOTE: In this hot dry weather, the birds may need a little help from us to stay cool and hydrated. If you have a bird bath, keep it clean and full. If not, a simple shallow container of water put out for the birds is a big help when there are no puddles to be found.
Apart from enviously watching the bathing birds, I’m working feverishly on putting together to 2018 City Crow Calendar. It’s coming together well. In fact, it would be done if not for the little anecdotes and smaller pictures I’m adding to spare spaces in the grid parts of the calendar.
Anyway, it should be off to the printer soon, and available to purchase on my web site by the beginning of September.
The cover model for the calendar will be … guess who?
This is a quite long story, with many pictures, and some emotional ups and down. You might need to arm yourself with a cup of tea and take a comfy seat before settling in to read. OK, here we go …
By the end of June, the flicker nest was the talk of the street. Everyone was keeping a discreet eye on the plum tree goings-on and neighbours would discuss the activity over the garden fences.
Each morning I was checking the tree to see if the sounds were still in there. Sometimes it was quiet (I guess there was nap time) and sometimes the little murmurings were there. Then, one morning in early July, I was rewarded by this adorable face at the “window.”
Note: If you missed PART ONE, you can read it HERE.
That’s a great big world out there …
Hey, I’m hungry over here!
Ah, here comes Mom with lunch.
Everything was looking so good for the little family. The parents were such fierce guardians, and the babies seemed safe in their tree fortress.
One morning I got up very early to see what was new.
What was new was this: absolute silence at the nest and a sad pile of flicker feathers around the base of the tree.
Further exploration revealed the remains of a baby flicker on the road.
I’m not sure if the culprit was the returning squirrel, the neighbour’s cat, or my buddies the crows. I try to put in the perspective of the circle of life and all that, but I must say I was pretty sad.
The flicker parents were still around, but no sign of any babies. I wondered if they’d lost their one and only fledgling for that year.
Dad at the bird bath.
The following day I took a cup of tea out to the front of the house and was startled by a great flapping in the windowed end of the porch. It was a baby flicker, vainly trying to fly to freedom through the glass.
Luckily, I still had the “rescue box” from the last flicker episode on hand. I grabbed a towel (not fraying at the edges this time!) and put it over the head of the baby. She immediately stopped flapping and I put her in the box with the lid on.
I was somewhat torn about releasing her, worrying that whatever killed her sibling would get her too. However, I took a deep breath and let her go in the back garden, where there’s lots of cover.
Failed picture of release – but you can see her tail feathers as she exits the frame.
She sat for a minute in the lilac tree, getting her bearings.
I was worried that there were no sign of the parents. After a few moments to collect herself, the baby flicker took off and flew away north.
Over the next few days I’d hear calls of adult and baby flickers around the garden.
I heard the soft thud of baby flicker flight mishaps a few times.
My husband was sitting quietly in the garden and spotted the two adults and the fledgling flicker all together at the bird bath. I was happy to think that at least the surviving baby was gathering skills and under the guardianship of the parents.
Yesterday it was my turn. I saw both parents and, not one, but TWO baby flickers in the garden — one male, one female. Below is a video of the mother feeding the female fledgling on the roof of my studio.
Here are the siblings playing around in the lilac tree.
EVEN MORE BABIES!
This morning I actually think I spotted THREE fledglings – one male and two female. Now I’m starting to wonder how many baby flickers can fit into the trunk of a medium sized ornamental plum tree. No wonder there were so many sounds coming out of there!
Male Flicker fledgling
Sisters in the lilac
There are few things cuter than a sleepy baby Flicker.
So, the Flicker Family Saga continues. As is the way of life, tomorrow may bring a sad pile of feathers, but for today things are looking pretty promising for the Flicker Family of Parker Street.
I have so many northern flicker images to work with now, I hardly know where to start.