Ode To The Starling

‘Tis the season of starry, spangled things and thus seems a good time for a post in praise of the humble starling.

Many find starlings to be a bit of a problematic bird here in North America.

Invasive, too many of them etc.

I could explain how it’s not their fault that some enthusiastic but misguided human immigrants to 1890’s New York thought it would be a great idea to try and introduce every one of the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays to North America by releasing them in Central Park.

Also not the starlings’ fault that they proved to be by far the scrappiest and most adaptable of all the birds involved in this ill-conceived project, going on to colonize most of the continent and reaching their current  population of more than 200 million.

But, you know (as one of my favourite authors, Lyanda Lynn Haupt, noted in her book Crow Planet)  we humans do end up with the birds we deserve. Often we end up with much more  than we really deserve, in fact.

Starlings at the Still Creek crow roost, winter 2022

People have been a lot more invasive and destructive than any bird, and as we continually modify the landscape for our own purposes we crowd out a lot of the more sensitive and specialist birds, leaving more room for the opportunist and generalist starlings.

And crows, of course.

Starling and crow, sharing the view

While we mourn the decline of many native birds and do our best to lobby for the maintenance and  restoration of their habitat, we can also keep our spirits up by enjoying the rabble rousing birds we do see every day.

Lyanda Lynn Haupt also wrote about starlings.

Her book Mozart’s Starling is about the bond between the composer and his pet/muse starling; about Carmen, Lyanda’s rescue starling and much loved family member; about the incredible personality and vocal complexity of the starling; and (a theme running through all her books) about wonder …

“But the earth and its beings are extravagantly wild, full of unexpected wonders. It is time to turn from our textbooks and listen to the birds themselves.”

Lyanda Lynn Haupt, Mozart’s Starling


So let’s have a look at the joy to be found in these starry, fizzy birds.

As always, poet Mary Oliver says it perfectly …

Chunky and noisy,
but with stars in their black feathers,
they spring from the telephone wire
and instantly

they are acrobats
in the freezing wind.
And now, in the theater of air,
they swing over buildings,

dipping and rising;
they float like one stippled star
that opens,
becomes for a moment fragmented,

then closes again;
and you watch
and you try
but you simply can’t imagine

how they do it
with no articulated instruction, no pause,
only the silent confirmation
that they are this notable thing,

this wheel of many parts, that can rise and spin
over and over again,
full of gorgeous life.

Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us,
even in the leafless winter,
even in the ashy city.
I am thinking now
of grief, and of getting past it;

I feel my boots
trying to leave the ground,
I feel my heart
pumping hard. I want

to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.

— “Starlings in Winter” by Mary Oliver, Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays


While many think of starlings as rather drab brown or black birds, their colours are actually among the most spectacular of our local birds — once you see them in the right light.

Indigo, aquamarine, periwinkle, lavender and midnight are all there, tipped with stars of white and pale ochre, all shifting and threatening to vanish as the bird moves in and out of shadow.




As with crows, you can almost always spot an anonymous starling somewhere in the landscape — looking reasonably poetic for a “pest.”

Often, you can see hundreds of them at once …

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Visitors to the Burnaby crow roost at Still Creek will notice that the thousands of crow visitors have now been joined by a large starling contingent.We don’t seem to get quite the volume of starlings necessary for the breath-taking murmurations I’ve only seen in videos.

Here’s a particularly lovely sequence by wild life cameraman and travel journalist Dylan Winter: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eakKfY5aHmY
British writer Helen MacDonald eloquently describes and explains the logistical marvel of a starling murmuration in her essay, The Human Flock:

The changing shape of starling flocks comes from each bird copying the motions of the six or seven others around it with extreme rapidity: Their reaction time is less than a tenth of a second. Turns can propagate through a cloud of birds at speeds approaching 90 miles per hour, making murmurations look from a distance like a single pulsing, living organism.

 — Helen MacDonald, The Human Flock


Now, zooming back in from the thousands of starlings to one particular bird …

… this is Sparky, a lame-footed fellow who’s been visiting me for over a year now. He manages to grab the odd peanut when Marvin and Mavis aren’t looking and always has a lot of bubbly and vaguely pinball-arcade-sounding things to say.

Sparky last spring. Note the grey tinge to the base of the beak which is a clue that he’s a male. The females get a more pink colour during breeding season.

This focus switch from the the anonymous flock to the individual bird takes me back to Helen MacDonald’s essay in which she reminds us that even what looks like “a single pulsing, living organism” is also, miraculously, made up of many individuals, each with their own story.

“in the face of fear, we are all starlings, a group, a flock made of a million souls seeking safety”.

Helen MacDonald, from The Human Flock (an essay for the New York Times)

This post is for my friend, Debbie — a lover of many birds, but especially the effervescent starling.

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

The Amazing Long-eared Owl

Crows bring people gifts.

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

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

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

Invariably, it’s something.

Occasionally, it’s something amazing.

Always worth the diversion!

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Surprised expression … check!

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


Long ear tufts like exclamation marks … check!

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

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

Hey, check out my groovy plumicorns!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Young & The Restless

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

It was predictable in two ways.

It’s THAT Time of Year.

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

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

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

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

This year’s bonus challenge is …

Dennis the Menace*

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

Crow Without A Pearl Earring — portrait of Pearl

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

Pearl and Echo
Echo and Dennis last year

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

Point Guard Point Guard portrait of Dennis from last summer

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

Perhaps a little too much confidence …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dennis The Menace

 

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

 

 

City Crow Stories — available on my web site

 

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

7 Reasons Why You Need a City Crow Calendar

I’m hoping to pick up the 2023 City Crow Calendar from the printer in the next couple of days — and then will begin the mad flurry of mailing out all the pre-ordered copies.

In the calm before the storm, I’ve been thinking of the reasons why you, or someone you love, might find you really need one … if you haven’t already booked your copy, that is.

Like all calendars, they’re handy for jotting down birthdays and dentist appointments and the usual day to day stuff, but here are a few more reasons to consider dedicating some precious wall space to a City Crow Calendar.

If you’ve owned one of my earlier versions, you may have thought of other uses, so if you have suggestions (polite ones only, please!) send them to me and I’ll write a sequel to this post!

FOLLOW THE SEASONS CROW-WISE

Sometimes, living in the city, you start to recognize the passing of the seasons only by the changing nature of the items on display in local shops, or in our social media feeds (back to school items … must be July, Halloween décor … what, August already?)

I like to think that City Crow Calendar owners will:

(a) be inclined to get outside to see what their own local crows are up to, and thus witness first hand what the sky and vegetation have to say, and

(b)  start to see the crows themselves as messengers of seasonal change.

Crow seen with sticks in their beaks … aha, must be the beginning of nesting season.

Croaking duck-like sounds, followed by slightly strangled cries of ecstasy … obviously summertime with crow parents feeding their insatiable fledglings!

Raucous gangs of crows roaming the neighbourhood … yup, it’s the beginning of fall and the crow parents are feeling their first freedom since nesting season started, and the fledglings are now teenagers meeting other teenagers, and the suburban trees are dripping with fruit and nuts — it’s party-time!!!



GET IN TUNE WITH THE MOON

When everyone is saying “that moon looks amazing — is it a full moon?” you will be able to answer sagely “not quite, but tomorrow night will be the Full Crow Moon” and your friends will be duly impressed by your one-ness with the universe.

(Really, you just had a quick look at your City Crow Calendar, but I won’t say anything if you don’t. )


BE AN URBAN NATURE ENTHUSIAST

There are any number of calendars you can own that will show you breath taking scenery on the coast, in the mountains or in the deep woods. The City Crow Calendar (the hint is in the name) is specially designed for those of us who, for one reason or another, spend most of our time in the urban jungle.
It’s a daily reminder that you don’t have to wait and wait until you can finally get out of town to experience really being in tune with Nature  — you can find those moments any day, any time by just going outside (or even just looking out of your window) and checking in on what your fellow city dwellers, the crows, are up to now.

Of course, in addition to the calendar, you can also subscribe to this blog, and/or follow me on social media for regular reminders on the wonders of urban nature.

 

 


CONVINCE THE “CROW CAUTIOUS”

We all have at least one friend who has not yet realized (poor benighted soul) how amazing crows are, and how worthy of watching every single day.

Buy them a City Crow Calendar and see if it can sway them.

It HAS been known to happen!


ENHANCE YOUR COCKTAIL PARTY CONVERSATION

Now that people are starting to attend social gatherings again, it’s time to dust off those small talk skills. Looking for a conversation opener?

Try, something like this …

“Did you know that if you see a crow in springtime with white goop on their beak it’s probably because they’ve been removing their offsprings’ fecal sacs from the nest?”

Just watch those jaws drop!


MAKE SOME NEW FRIENDS

If, for some inexplicable reason, the party poop chatter doesn’t earn you a mass of new human friends, you can always be inspired by the City Crow Calendar to get out there and get to know some of your corvid neighbours on a personal level.

Like Marvin here, most local crows will at least pretend to be impressed by your wit and wisdom if you happen to have one or two peanuts in your pocket.


WALLPAPER WITH CROWS

Of course, I LOVE IT when people buy my signed crow prints as it keeps the wolf from the door, but I’m also happy to know that City Crow Calendar owners don’t usually chuck their copies out at the end of the year, but keep them — and sometimes put the pictures up around the house.

If you’d been collecting my calendars from the beginning, you’d have enough crow portraits by now to wallpaper a small room!!!

 

 

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

Crow Parenting, Summer 2022 Part 3

Family life with a pre-teen. I think I remember those days myself.

One minute they’re all grown up and don’t need their parents AT ALL, next — they just need a snuggle and some comfort food.

At least, when I was raising my kids, I didn’t have moulting to deal with as well.

A moulting crow is a cranky crow, and the whole family is starting that process now.

At least the fledgling can entertain himself with his own escaping feathers

At the same time, Marvin and Mavis are dealing with a pre-teen (Lucky) who is going through the two steps forward, three steps back process of learning to feed himself.

Lucky can definitely come and get his own peanuts from our deck. He has demonstrated prowess (well, competence, at least)  in this field.

At first he’d just get one peanut and then wonder what exactly to do with it, but now he’s on to the advanced level of stuffing his gullet to capacity before flying away and hiding some for later, just like mom and dad do.

Other advanced skills include perching on the water bowl and dipping snacks to moisten them.

For most of the day, the family is off on adventures around the neighbourhood, while Marvin and Mavis are presumably teaching Lucky the skills needed to grab more “in the wild” food.

Yet several times a day I still hear Lucky making his begging calls, and every once in a while see one of the parents wavering in their determination to get him self sufficient by stuffing a snack into his waiting beak.

More often the scenario plays out like this …

… and even …

 

 

 

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

Crows in the Boardroom

On Monday I jokingly posted the suggestion that crows would make excellently determined school zone speed limit enforcers.

I’ve often thought that an intense corvid stare might help bring home all kinds of messages.

Room for 28 crows more up here

The Wings enforcing their local stop sign

Today’s crow thought: why stop at traffic signs?

Put crows where the big decisions are made!

Instead of stuffy CEO portraits or generic landscapes, let’s see crows adorning the walls of the centres of power. We need giant judgemental crows gazing down at the humans sitting down to set policy in government and corporate settings.

A thoughtful corvid presiding over a meeting might help decision makers remember that any new plan should meet the objectives of that most important of all stakeholders — Nature.

At the very least, it would remind meeting attendees to not take themselves too seriously.

Crows — the ultimate influencers!

 

 

 

 

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

Small, But Determined

I started to write this post about my song sparrow friends last week, but then world events, already dark, turned even more grim and made writing about small birds seem ridiculous.

Now I’m back to thinking that small things are sometimes the best subjects to hang onto at certain times. Also, their tiny determination seems somehow even more appropriate at this moment.

While Ben (the crow with broken foot I wrote about last time) is always the first crow to greet me in the morning, the very first birds there, every single day, are the song sparrows. Half a dozen or so seem to be in our garden at all times — more reliable companions than any other birds this winter.

Song sparrow on his favourite perch, as close as possible to the back deck..

The trees begin to rustle as soon as I open the door and small, drab, brown shapes emerge. At first it looks as if sad winter leaves are being blown loose, but it’s always the song sparrow gang.

They see the crows gathering but they always dive in fearlessly first, grabbing at least one peanut each before melting swiftly and seamlessly back into the foliage.

I always cheer them on.

And when I said they were drab — that is ONLY upon the most cursory of glances. Give these birds a single moment of inspection and it’s obvious that they’re one of nature’s more complicated works of art — and all created with a palette of infinitely varied browns, creams and a touch of pearl grey.

I’ve been spending time making simple bird figures by needle felting wool. Mostly it’s just an excuse to relieve stress and spend more time thinking about birds, but it’s also practice in noticing things about them that I might not properly see when photographing them. When I look at the intricacy of a song sparrow from the point of view of trying to reproduce it I am both defeated and filled with joy at their modest and complex beauty.

A pair of needle felted Mountain Bluebirds.

I have reference binder of my own photos to work from, and so far I’ve tackled rudimentary versions of bushtits, chickadees, a spotted towhee, a ruby crowned kinglet, mountain bluebirds and a whiskey jack — but, honestly, I don’t think I know where to start with the quiet but infinitely elaborate patterns in a song sparrow!

Song Sparrow with an acorn cup

While the feather markings seems truly daunting, I’d love to have a go at the facial expression of a song sparrow. They have, I would submit, the very best “judgemental” faces of all the small birds.

Midweek brought terrible news from Europe, and also a skiff of snow here.

That morning the sparrows left some cryptic messages. They looked like a combination of frost patterns and a more intentional series of documents in a forgotten script.

So many big and very small things to think about these last few days and, as usual, no real wisdom to be found aside from trying to find wonder where and when we can.

If your mind is drawn to those suffering in Ukraine, you can make donations to the Red Cross Ukraine Humanitarian Crisis Appeal. (Funds donated will be matched by the Canadian government until March 18.)

 

 

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

A Tale of Two Robins

It seems that nostalgic European settlers have long been prone to naming any bird with a flash of red on the chest “robins” after the beloved little birds they remember from home.

The European, and seemingly original, robin is a small bird — part of the flycatcher family, with a red orange breast and face. The North American robin is an entirely different bird. Part of the thrush family, it’s much bigger, with a yellow beak and striking white markings around the eyes. Really the only point of commonality is that red breast.

Further afield, in Australia you can find the Flame Robin, Scarlet Robin, Red-Capped Robin — none of which are related to either the European or American varieties, except in that little flash of red breast. More homesick settlers, I’m thinking.

I grew up in the UK, so I have tended to think of the British robin as the “real” one.

In reality, the only birds I was actually familiar with as a child growing up on the industrial docks of the Tyne,  were gulls and pigeons. Lots and lots of pigeons!

But robins did loom large in my imagination. Each Christmas my mum decorated the snow-peaked ( and rock hard) royal icing on the Christmas cake with with a small flock of plastic robins, to accompany the rather frightening plaster Santa with mis-matched eyes.

Somehow, I still have a single one of these little robins, although most of his red breast paint has now worn off.

Robins were, and still are, as far as I know, featured on cards and stamps to celebrate the Festive Season in Britain. In the Victorian era, when the sending and receiving of festive greeting cards first became fashionable, the mail carriers wore red tunics and were nicknamed robin redbreasts — bringers of winter cheer, just like the birds.

The British robins stay put all year round, but are less obvious in the summer months — probably being busy with nesting and all, and are more associated with chirpy, charming and colourful company through the winter months.

Whenever I go back to Britain I’m constantly on the lookout for a robin. For some reason, the only place I ever see them close up is at the tea rooms of Portmeirion village in North Wales.

Portmeirion Tea Room robin, 2010

Welsh robin on a picnic table

Portmeirion Tea Room robin, 2019

I like to imagine they’re all there, just waiting for me, one robin generation after another.

British robins are very, very territorial, so that’s just about possible. They are so very fierce about defending their home turf that 10% of mature male birds actually die doing just that.

Welsh robin and stone wall photo collage by June Hunter
Having been in Canada now for most of my life, my Robin Reality has now switched to the North American variety, which has its own charm.

American robin in cherry tree photograph

Seasonally, the robins here are most associated with spring, when they’re the first birds to sing in the morning, and the last to fall quiet at night.

Although we think of them in connection with spring, when their courting song fills the air, they’re actually around all winter here in Vancouver. Perhaps we don’t notice them so much because they behave very differently during the colder months.

American robin camouflaged in gum tree photograph by June Hunter

Spot the robin …

In spring they form pairs and are territorial like their European namesakes, but in winter they live rather cooperatively in large nomadic flocks, sometimes with starlings and other birds, like Cedar Waxwings. They pop up in large groups whenever they find a good source of fruit on trees. Holly, juniper, crabapples and hawthorn are all robin-approved winter fare.

American robin and crabapples photograph by June Hunter

Fun fact: American robins have an extendible esophagus, which allows them to store berries harvested in the daytime for an evening snack to help survive the cold nights.

(I am reminded of the rather terrifying Horlicks TV ads of my youth, where a scientific looking graph traced the worrying arc of “night starvation” — a fate that could only be avoided by imbibing a nice cup of pre-bed Horlicks. I expect night starvation is much more of a reality for a wild robin than for a well fed child of the 1960’s.)

Once spring arrives, the flocks disperse and robins break into pairs, staking out and aggressively defending nesting territory.
When the berries are finished they’ll happily switch to yanking worms out of lawns.

One of my favourite things about the spring and summer robin, apart from the singing, is the gusto with which they take a bath. If the birdbath is suddenly empty, I assume that an enthusiastic robin has just used the facilities.

The folklore around how robins of all types first acquired that fiery red breast is strikingly similar on both sides of the Atlantic. In all versions of the tale,  the brave little robin saves sleeping humans from freezing, using their wings to fan the embers of a dying fire, in spite of the heat and danger. As a reward for their heroism, the robin is awarded the red breast as a badge of honour.

Here’s a beautifully illustrated version of the Sechelt People’s version of the story by Charlie Craigan.

Click fo enlarge

It’s nice to know that however far you travel, they’ll always be some sort of robin to fall in love with.

Echoes of If You Can’t Be with the One You Love, Honey, Love the One You’re With.

Here’s lookin’ at you …

 

 

For more posts on the joy of watching robins, and other birds, bathing:

 

 

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

Bonus Raven

Not having made it up the mountains this week, I wasn’t expecting to hear that heart- lifting and immediately recognizable raven call.

And yet, wandering out to the alley with the recycling and no expectations — there it was. Unmistakable. And loud.

It was so loud because it was on the Hydro pole right beside me! Dropped recycling and pelted back to the house for the camera, just in time to catch a quick shot of a crow (undoubtedly Marvin or Mavis) dive bombing the visitor.

The raven flew off to the most unlikely of destinations — the construction site where they’re building the artificial turf sports facility for the private school at the end of the street. Naturally, I followed.

The upcoming video isn’t as pastorally playful as the one I took a couple of weeks ago of them enjoying fun in the mountain snow, but I think it’s just as interesting a display of how a raven brain ticks. Our resourceful corvid friend had a bundle of something in his/her beak. I couldn’t really tell what it was, but it seemed precious. Perhaps bones. Watch how carefully that treasure is cached under whatever material is available — in this case, great lumps of grey road crush.

My favourite part is the ultra-casual “nothing to see here” saunter away afterwards.

Adding extra excitement, the flag person for the construction site yelled at me and told me I wasn’t allowed to take photos! Huh? Not wanting to get into the dubious legality of that statement, I just pointed out the raven and continued filming. Luckily for all concerned, they decided to just let the crazy corvid lady alone.

After a short site inspection, taking in the piles of gravel and some of the heavy machinery, the raven tried out the acoustics. Even before all the extra concrete was poured for the sports facility, this area was occasionally appreciated by visiting ravens for its echo chamber qualities. (See: Special Days, 2018) Yesterday’s calls , shown in the following video, reminded the crows to renew their official protests.

After a brief stop in nearby tree and being re-mobbed by crows (mostly likely Marvin and Mavis again) our visitor decided to move on.

I often wonder if the ravens we sometimes we see in our neighbourhood have just popped down from the local mountains. Vancouver seems very close from there, all spread out below, and not too many powerful wing flaps away for a raven with an urge for some urban excitement. Anyway, it makes me happy to know that, even if we don’t see them every day, they’re close.

I’m always, always straining my ears for that call.

 

 

For more ravens in the city, see:

On raven intelligence studies:

 

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

Being Adept at Adapting

2020 so far has been pretty tough for many of us, requiring all kinds of adjustment to ever-changing conditions.

Our local corvids sympathize. While free of covid worries (as far as we can tell) — they too have faced a lot of challenges in 2020.

The trees that had provided them with shade, shelter, nesting sites and a navigational landmark for the last 60 years suddenly disappeared in mid-nesting season. The bit of grassy wasteland they used as a refuge and a food source was dug up. The ear splitting racket going on 6 days a week makes it hard for them to hear each others’ calls.

Their small corner of the world has changed beyond all recognition since early summer, when construction of the sunken artificial turf sports facility for Notre Dame School got underway. For a glimpse of what used to be there, here’s a post from 2018.

Heartbroken and worried for the local environment as I am, I can’t help smiling when I see the local crow and raven reaction to the situation. I shouldn’t be surprised, as corvids have a long and illustrious history of making silk purses out of the sow’s ears that humans have left them over the centuries.

With no leafy branches to perch on, they sit instead on the construction fence and watch the crazy human shenanigans during the noisy construction hours.

Marvin and Mavis settling in for a new shift.

When, at last, the machines stop beeping, roaring and pounding for the day, the site then becomes a corvid beach resort of sorts.

Yes, that is rather a lot of water. To be expected, as the area once was marshland and has streams running through it, including Hastings Creek.

Some corvid commentary …

One Sunday a couple of ravens even stopped by to check out the “beach” scene.

While it was fun to see the ravens exploring the weird new landscape and drinking at the new “lake,” I can’t help worrying about the safety of the water as a thirst quencher. Part of the area’s history before the school was built was as an unofficial dump site. I see that tanks are now on site to remediate the water, so I’m hoping the crows and ravens haven’t been harmed by drinking and playing in it.

Marvin and Mavis are keeping a very close eye on proceedings — on wet days …

… and hot dry ones …

For now they’re keeping their opinions close to their feathered chests.

Although I rather think they might be muttering amongst themselves …

 

 

 

 

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© junehunterimages, 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to junehunterimages with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.