The neighbourhood is alive with all kinds of baby bird noises.
Loudest of all, naturally, are the baby crows.
Here is a sample of some of the hilarious baby crow moments I’ve had the joy to observe in the last few days of dog walking. I’m very lucky that Geordie is a patient sort of dog, willing to put up with many unscheduled stops on our expeditions.
Geordie the Crow Watcher
We came across this brand new addition to our block this morning. Could be one of George and Mabel’s, as it was at “their” end of the block. We watched him/her spend several minutes trying to figure out (unsuccessfully) how to squeeze through a garden fence.
Has anyone seen my mom???
Not to worry. Mom (or Dad) was supervising from a nearby roof.
This baby was still in the early stages of flying lessons.
OK, first you spread the wings …
Then, you take a good run and jump …
Oops. Going down …
The baby crows who live a couple of blocks west of us are a week or two ahead in their Skills Development program.
Here’s one taking a deep breath and taking off from the hydro wires.
Woohoo! Here we go. Now, how did that flapping thing go again?
Figuring out what is, and isn’t, edible is a bit of a process of trial and error.
Baby crows are very vocal about their constant state of ravenous hunger.
Mom, mom, mom!!! Food, food, food!!!
It seems that the frazzled parents will try anything to get some peace and quiet.
Look – I brought you this delicious stick.
Hold still and eat this delicious bit of wood!
Look, I went to all the trouble to get you this delicious stick, so you WILL eat it.
Honestly, I can hardly bring myself to come back to the studio to get some work done.
I can’t bear to think what I might be missing in the ongoing reality show of Real Baby Crows of East Van.
We spent our Earth Day morning mounting a small neighbourhood search for George.
From late summer to spring, George and Mabel come by our garden several times a day without fail.
Then, one day each spring, they just seem to disappear. They don’t come to the house. They don’t greet me on my dog walks. I’ve noticed this happen for a couple of years and I assume that they are off doing top secret nesting work somewhere.
But, still, I worry.
A fellow George-watcher in the neighbourhood contacted me on Instagram yesterday to see if I’d seen him lately. She mentioned that she’d seen Mabel and their baby from last year at her end of the block. It worried me a bit that Mabel was around, but not George.
Since the two are usually pretty inseparable, that seemed strange.
This morning, my neighbour contacted me with the news that she’d seen George — several blocks away from where he usually hangs out. She included a silhouette photo of him on a lamp stand with the distinctive broken beak profile.
This morning’s dog walk naturally took us on an exploratory expedition to this distant intersection in search of George. It seemed a little odd that he’d be so far away, but how many broken-beaked crows could there be in one neighbourhood?
Geordie and Nina, fellow George seekers.
As soon as we got to the corner in question, there he was. But wait a minute.
This crow had a broken beak, just like George, but showed no sign of recognizing us. George usually zooms low all down the street to make a dramatic landing right beside me. This crow just continued his diligent turf-turning project on someone’s lawn (looking for chafer beetle grubs.) No interest in us whatsoever.
Although he looked pretty identical to George, I knew it couldn’t be him. It made me realize two things.
One: this sort of beak injury can’t be that rare after all.
Two: crows look pretty identical to our undiscriminating human eyes. We have to use all the clues available to us — behaviour, location, which other crows they’re hanging out with, as well as little physical differences, to figure out who’s who. I figure it’s good exercise for the aging brain. Corvid Sudoko.
I gave our new acquaintance a few peanuts, wished him well, and headed back to our street.
As we got to the area where George and family usually gather, I saw what looked like George Junior. No sign of dad anywhere. Sigh.
Then, like Batman dramatically arriving at a crime in progress, all of a sudden there he was! I think it was only because I was approaching his still-dependant offspring that he broke his cover to come and greet us.
Peanuts were served. Virtual champagne was quaffed.
So, now I’m back to my original theory, which is that George is occupied on some high security nest-related project and won’t be visiting, or swooping down regularly until that job is completed.
Leaving me more time for my other worry project, Eric and Clara.
Their nest is at the other end of the block, high up in the poplars. My concerns for them are, first: the poplar leaves are taking so long to come out that the nest is very visible to predators. It’s too high up for racoons, but just the right height for eagles, hawks and ravens.
Eric and Clara’s nest is about 50 feet up there. The leaves are slowly, slowly providing camouflage.
Which brings to me to my second and latest worry. If the babies do hatch successfully, how are they going to get to the ground safely. Baby crows often leave the nest before they can really fly. They hop around, do a bit of clumsy gliding, but real flying skill usually takes a couple of weeks to develop. So, what happens when you’re born in a high rise??
Once you start getting attached to wild birds, there really is no end to the list of things to worry about!
I’ll keep you posted.
STUDIO SALE COMING UP
I’ll be having my annual pre-Mother’s Day studio sale in a couple of weeks. If you’re in the Vancouver area, come on by and you can find out the latest news first hand.
It was just like a door-crasher sale for crows, with home furnishings 50% off.
Like a gang of bargain bin foragers, they created an explosion of tugging, flapping, snapping, inspecting and discarding. Reject twigs littered the sidewalk. In spite of the massive effort involved in finally getting a stick free, the crows would often cast a critical look at their prize and dump it. Perhaps they decided it was going to mess up the feng shui, or didn’t quite match the colour scheme — whatever — it wasn’t up to snuff so time to head back into find the “right” one. Even if a twig was worth flying off with, it would often be taken to a rooftop for some further DIY modification before being deemed nest-worthy.
These photos are of Eric and Clara. I know it’s them because of where they’re building their nest. That half block has been “theirs” for as long as I’ve been watching them — at least four years.
Eric finally flies off with a “perfect” twig.
Eric and Clara’s nest, way up in the poplars.
Because it’s been such a delayed spring here in Vancouver, crows are building their nests before the trees are leafed out enough to camouflage them. I can actually watch Eric and Clara working on the nest from my living room window at the moment. I only hope the local bald eagles and racoons aren’t also making notes!
There was a definite joie de vivre in the air last Friday. Not only were the blossoms out (three weeks late) but it was also dry and sunny for the whole day.
In between battling to acquire furniture, the crows would spend a bit of time just relaxing in their newly-pink world, and enjoying the novelty of the twin phenomena of sun and “not rain.”
Clara in the pink.
The blossoms were still there the next day, but the weather took a severe U-turn. There was very little twig collecting going on in the pouring rain. Trying to shake a twig loose from the soaking trees would have resulted in near drowning. And the wind!
I think this juvenile crow’s look spoke for many of us when the rain started up again.
Nest Construction Notes
Last year, after nesting season was over, I found this fallen crow’s nest. I brought it home to photograph its architectural features — a perfect embodiment of urban and nature. The main form was constructed from sturdy twigs, grass and moss, then reinforced with human detritus — old zap straps and twine. A bit of packing fluff for a luxurious finishing touch.
This wasn’t supposed to be a blog-writing day, but I feel I have some “stop press” news that must be shared, along with photographic evidence.
I almost hesitate to share this wild idea, but I think there is a small chance that … dare I even speak the thought? … spring might have arrived.
I hasn’t just been the rain.
So. Much. Rain.
It’s also been cold. Brr. We have lived on the same street for 25 years now. Normally at this time of year, it’s a candy-floss fiesta of pink blossoms. This year, it looks like this.
But yesterday, the rain stopped. The sun came out.
It’s actually mild enough to stop and stand in the garden and watch what’s happening.
These are a few of the amazing things I saw going on in the garden in just one hour this morning.
Chickadee calling his heart out in the snowbell tree
One of my favourite hellebores.
A fox sparrow taking a breather on the garden fence.
A crow with nesting on his mind. I saw George with a twig in his broken beak earlier this week.
Norther Flicker on the peak of our roof – taking a short break from hammering on the metal chimney.
The daphne bush that was crushed with snow all winter has survived!
Buds starting on the coral bark maple. Oh, and a crow.
Song sparrow in the Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick (aka Corkscrew Hazel).
A bushtit at the feeder. Only one pair came – not the usual “suet-feeder clogging” crowd. A sure sign that they’re getting ready to nest. And one of them left the garden with some moss in it’s beak.
Goldfinch stopping at the bird bath for a little paddle.
I’m sure the birds have known it’s spring for weeks now, in spite of the weather. They’ve got important business to be dealing with, rain or no rain.
I’ve just been a bit slow on the uptake, what with the amount of time and effort needed to struggle into full rain gear and wellies for every excursion — and then the overwhelming desire to get back inside as soon as humanly possible.
Now that it’s stopped raining for five minutes, I strongly suggest spending a few minutes outside. Just drink it all in and catch up with the birds.
Pardon the rather overwrought title, but it’s true; an elementary school “Nature Collection” assignment changed my life.
It was also, at the age of 7, my first bitter taste of academic failure.
On the face of it, it was a rather fun assignment — go out into nature and make a collection of pods, seed and leaves from a variety of trees.
The one tiny problem was the complete lack of such trees anywhere near where I lived.
Most of my fellow pupils at Saint Andrew’s school, located in the middle of an English industrial city (Newcastle upon Tyne), probably shared my problem. Some of them may have lived within reach of Exhibition Park or the Town Moor, but I lived down on the Quayside. We had the Tyne river, docks, ancient buildings — but no sycamores, oaks or hazel trees for miles.
The Quayside in more recent years (2010). Our family’s flat used to be the area circled in red to the left of the photo. I was much more acquainted with the exact girder pattern of the Tyne Bridge just above my bedroom window than I was with the mysteries of trees.
Now, don’t misunderstand me, I loved growing up down there. In spite of the complete lack of any family-oriented facilities (including trees), it was a truly epic place for childhood adventure.
The High Level Bridge viewed from a part of the old walls where we liked to play. There are a few small trees growing there now, but it was mostly just weeds back in the 50’s and 60’s.
There were a handful of kids in the neighbourhood — my little brother and I, the two sons of the pub owner, and the two daughters of another bank caretaker.
We were “free range” and felt we owned the city.
The ancient city walls were our forts and houses, and many games were staged in the abandoned graveyard of All Saints Church.
All Saints Church had no congregation so it was left to turn into an overgrown adventure playground. Because the church itself was a protected historic building it was never demolished.
It didn’t occur to me for a moment that we were nature-deprived. There were, after all, plentiful weeds on the old World War II bomb-sites with which to create spectacular bouquets.
One of my favourite childhood bouquet ingredients. It’s called fireweed here in Canada, but in the UK it has the more poetic name “Rosebay WIllowherb.”
But the dreaded Nature Collection project was real eye opener. I’d never actually seen the sycamore trees it spoke of, with their clever little helicopter seedpods. I certainly had idea where to go and collect samples. My mum, who didn’t drive and had my little brother to look after, couldn’t really help, other that getting some books out of the library for me.
In the end I just handed in some pictures of the items we were supposed to collect. It felt like a massive failure.
Looking back, I feel some lingering annoyance that we were set an assignment so bound fail. It was a classic curriculum vs real life mismatch.
On the other hand, it was a great gift. I feel as if I’ve been diligently working on that darn assignment ever since.
When I moved to other, greener parts of the world, I pressed all kinds of leaves and flowers in books. Sometimes I composed pictures of with the dried results and sent them to my mum back in Newcastle. I recently came across a few ancient specimens in my massive copy of Wild Flowers of the Pacific Northwest.
I still feel a thrill, fifty plus years later, every time I come across any new or particularly beautiful little specimen of leaf, seed, fungus, nest or moss.
Or crow, come to that. We only saw pigeons and gulls down on the Quayside.
I’m always especially thrilled to see the ways in which nature and the city intersect
I love to see a weed forcing it’s way through asphalt, or human rubbish selected by birds to furnish their nests.
I found this fallen and abandoned bushtit nest and “collected” it earlier this year.
Detail of the bushtit nest. Construction materials include moss, spider webs (for strength and stretch), leaves, grass and fragments of man-made fibres.
This crow’s nest I found on the ground recently is a great town bird/country bird collaboration – an ingenious mix of twigs, moss, twine, packing fluff and zap straps.
So, every piece of moss or rust, every bird I see; every lovely fallen leaf that catches my eye; it’s all being mentally added to the ongoing “Nature Collection” project.
Sometimes a little dip into nature does the trick, but sometimes, nothing short of full woodland immersion is going to work.
Most days my spirits can be revived by a quick dog walk round the block, appreciating the changing leaves, a bit of moss here and there. The crows, of course.
Last week though — I’m not sure it was a touch of flu, too much turkey at Thanksgiving, or watching the second US presidential debate — but I was running on my last cylinder.
Although I felt mostly like sleeping, we went for a walk around Lynn Headwaters Park.
Because fierce rain and windstorms were predicted, last Wednesday seemed bathed in a golden light. It was a perfect fall day, all the more special for the impending weather doom and gloom.
Also, I hadn’t been in the woods for several weeks due to a series of unfortunate lower leg events. I hadn’t realized how much I missed it.
Three hours felt like the equivalent of a week’s magical vacation.
Coincidentally, ever since then I’ve been seeing the Japanese practice of “Forest Bathing” or “Shinrin-Yoku” popping up on my social media, and even in today’s local paper. If you Google the term “forest bathing” you’ll see that everyone from The Globe and Mail to Oprah is talking about it.
It seems that something we’ve always known intuitively is backed up by science. A walk in the woods is good for your health — physical and mental. No need to work up a sweat either. It’s simply being in the presence of trees that provides the benefit.
So, if you can, get out and find some trees to bathe with right now.
If you can’t fit it into your schedule immediately, I hope you’ll enjoy these photos.
Think of it as just a preview of your own real woodland walk, coming soon.
Should you ever doubt the calming effect of a woodland walk, compare Geordie’s before and after pics.
BEFORE – in the car on the way to the park. Geordie always suffers a bit of car-ride anxiety, worrying perhaps that we’ve changed our mind and are returning him to the shelter in California whence he came.
You may (or may not) have been wondering where in the blogosphere I’ve gotten to for the last few months.
Well, puppy training is surprisingly time consuming … and then there has been my City Crow Calendar project.
The puppy training and the cat/dog peace treaty are both, by the way, going well.
But for a while it looked as if there wasn’t going to be a calendar this year.
First, there was the Canada Post dispute over the summer. I was worried that it would linger into to the busy mailing season and I’d have to hand deliver each and every calendar. Time to start Geordie’s sled training!
Happily, the dispute was settled by August. But then I thought maybe I’d left it too late.
Requests and queries started coming in. When will the 2107 calendar be ready? It did sell out by the beginning of December last year, so I guess people were anxious that they might have missed it already.
So in mid-September I finally got into calendar creation mind set.
Narrowing down the 12 images to feature is tough. From the thousands of crow images on my hard drive, it took at least a week to narrow it down to the dozen.
I could have been done then, and have the calendars already printed, but …
I had this lingering thought in my head that I’d like to give people more than just a calendar. I’d like to make it even more of a “crow-promotion” by adding interesting little facts about crows for every month. I also wanted to add some extra photos to help tell the “crow story”. I decided I could do this by using the little bits of vacant real estate on the calendar left by the grid spaces in each month that don’t have dates in them.
It wasn’t too hard to come up with “crow facts” for every month, although it took quite a bit of tweaking and editing to get them concise enough to fit into the little calendar grid boxes. It took a little bit more time to pick out the extra photos.
I thought I was finally finished last Friday, but then I found that the reason that more sensible people don’t make these cute little additions is that it’s a technical nightmare!
I won’t bore you with the InDesign technical reasons why this is such a fiddle, but suffice to say that I spent hours this week going over it with a fine tooth comb to get the weensy boxes of text and mini photos to align perfectly with the grid part of the calendar.
Geordie waits patiently while the crazy woman mutters at the computer screen.
Finally I decided that my nitpicking was going beyond the rational, so Geordie and I took the file off to the printer today. It is now, I am happy to report, out of my hands.
I expect it to be back into my hands early next week when it will be available to order online. I’ll be sending out a newsletter when they’re actually available, just in case you’d like to get your hands on one.
You may think the crows are being neglected. But fear not!
It’s true that I’ve had less time to take photographs of them, but all of the walkies I’ve been on lately have kept me well informed of their progress.
HANK AND VERA
Hank and Vera are our “resident” crows. During the rest of the year the other crow families (Eric and George’s) stop by, but during nesting season they get more territorial. Eric and family do occasionally swing by, but this causes mighty outrage on Hank and Vera’s part.
Vera disappeared for a while, and only Hank came for food so I think they had a nest. But then Vera reappeared, and at the same time I saw part of a dead baby crow on the neighbour’s lawn, leading me to think that (like last spring) a racoon or cat spoiled their plans. Vera seems to have vanished again, so I think they might be giving it another try.
Of all the local crows, Hank is one I worry most about. He’s always had a limp, but his left foot and leg seem to be getting much worse. He often stands only on the other leg, and sometimes has a hard time making a landing.
Vera, on the other hand, has gone from the Cinderella crow of last spring, to Boudicea the Warrior Queen. Still a little smaller than the other crows, she makes up for it with sheer attitude. I think she, rather than Hank, is responsible for jealously guarding their territory from other crows.
Boadicea Vera – Spring 2016
ERIC AND FAMILY
Eric’s clan claim the tall poplars on the west side of Notre Dame School at the east end of our block. Their challenge this year is the fact that the school finally cleaned out the rotting portables and tangle of blackberry bushes. While it does make the area a lot nicer looking from a human perspective, a lot of that “wasted” space was perfect for keeping crow fledglings out of sight of predators until they learned to fly.
Every time I walk by the school on “their” corner, Eric comes down to say hello.
I haven’t seen any young ones yet, but it seems that Eric, Clara and at least one of last year’s youngsters are busy. I’ll be listening out for the lovely quacky sound of baby crows any day now.
LAST, BUT CERTAINLY NOT LEAST – GEORGE
Of all the neighbourhood crows, George has most enthusiastically adapted to our new dog walking schedule. Every single time I walk to the west side of the block, George is there.
I’m especially happy to see him as for weeks he seemed to have vanished. I was worried that his bad luck had gotten even worse. On the contrary though, he and Mabel seem to be doing just fine and George, broken beak and all, looks to be in the best of health.
Every single time Geordie and I get to “his” corner, George comes and lands on a fence right beside us. I always try to have a few peanuts on board for him — although he’s also pretty fond of dog treats. His beak doesn’t look as if it’s going to grow back any more, but it seems to be well healed and I’d say George is managing just fine.
And what does Geordie think of the crows?
Like many of the new things in Geordie’s life, his first crow sightings were cause for nervous fidgeting and fretting. Now, having seen hundreds of them in the last few weeks, and the same ones several times a day, they barely register on his doggy radar.
He does like to listen to whatever Vera is saying from the roof of the house while he’s relaxing in the garden.
Geordie tries his hand at interpreting “crow”.
Geordie gets to the deeper meaning in Vera’s message.
Oh, and if anyone does know of a pub called The Dog and Crow, do let me know and I’ll put in on my bucket list.
Not literally, of course. Crow hugging is fraught with peril at the best of times, but especially in spring when nesting season has them a bit tense.
Please, do not hug me.
But I do suggest that you give the crow (or pick your favourite bird, plant, patch of moss or mollusk) a special thought today.
It’s Earth Day so, ideally, we should be extending our love to the entire planet.
But that’s a hard thing to do, particularly when what the planet needs from us right now is massive change —change that is going to be really tough for us to make.
The majority of the world’s population now lives in cities, where we often feel very cut off from what we think of as Nature.
So, given that most of us are urbanites these days, how are we to develop the necessary connection with nature in order to care enough to make change and move towards saving the planet?
As my dear mother used to say, “wherever you go, there you are.”
And where you are now, even if it’s in the heart of the city, has tenacious bits of nature thriving in it.
It just takes a slight focus shift to start becoming aware of, and amazed by it.
This crow is tending a nest at Hornby and Robson in the heart of downtown Vancouver, right by the Art Gallery. A friend who works at the gallery told me that it’s probably the same pair who nested there last year and caused a traffic kerfuffle when one of their babies flew into the back of someone’s convertible just outside of Café Artigiano.
Collecting nest furnishings in the heart of downtown Vancouver.
Often the thing you tend to notice first, just because of its size and boldness, is a crow.
I find that the crow is your gateway bird, leading to the habit of noticing the bird world as a whole. Once you’ve started to look up to see what the crows are up to, you can’t help but start to notice the robins, sparrows, bushtits, chickadees and hawks going about their more subtle, but equally fascinating, avian business.
And noticing birds is, in turn, a gateway to the wonder of nature in general.
The task of saving the earth often seems far too big and therefore hopeless.
The tools we need this Earth Day are empathy and hope.
Someone who embodies both of these qualities is 87 year old Jean Vanier, who created L’Arche — a unique and loving community for mentally disable adults. Here are some of his thoughts on birds, as told to columnist and writer, Ian Brown in a Globe and Mail interview.
Hmmm, something to think about …
Some notes on the author’s quoted in this blog post:
John Marzluff’s Wikipedia page says this:
“John Marzluff is a professor of wildlife science at the University of Washington and author of In the Company of Crowsand Ravens, Gifts of the Crow, and Welcome to Subirdia. His lab once banded crows with a Dick Cheney mask.”
— so you know he’d be fun guy to know! Subirdia is his most recent book about the amazing adaptability of birds, their importance, and what we can do to help them survive in our urbanized world.
I first discovered Seattle author Lyanda Lynn Haupt when I picked up a copy of Crow Planetseveral years ago. It remains one of my favourite books, combining science, poetry and humour in a way that I could read all day. She’s also written a wonderful book on city wildlife in general (The Urban Bestiary) and I look forward to her next one on the subject of starlings. And she has a blog: The Tangled Nest.
Colin Tudge is a British biologist and entertaining author, The Bird is only one of many books he’s written. I next want to read his book The Secret Life of Trees.
You can read more about the life and work of Jean Vanier on his website.
Sometimes I wonder if there’s a crow memo circulating, directing slightly invalided birds to my place. There’s George Brokenbeak and also Hop-Along Hank.
Hank walks with a limp because of a problem with his right foot that he’s had for as long as I’ve known him. Flying is no problem for him, but I can spot him on a roof top from quite a distance because of his distinctive stance, favouring the sore foot. That and his slightly hooked beak.
Hank and Vera have been around since last spring. I wrote about them in an earlier blog, Here’s Hank, charting their failed effort at parenthood last year. I have a feeling that Hank is one of Eric’s offspring. Eric has seemingly ceded our backyard territory to Hank, in favour of a superior nesting spot in the tall poplars at the end of the street.
Hank and Vera paying an early morning visit. You can see Hank’s slightly deformed foot on the far right.
Now Hank and Vera and George and Mabel vie for my attentions. The four of them often sit together peaceably on the wires in the alley, but as soon as there are peanuts, it’s game on. The two pairs will never cooperate and share the food. Much ferocious cawing and occasional dive bombing ensue if I put nuts out when both couples are nearby.
We seem to have worked out a more or less harmonious system where Hank and Vera come first thing in the morning. George and Mabel take the later shift, coming later in the morning , and sometimes in the afternoon too, for a last minute snack before the nightly journey to the Still Creek roost.
Hank (left) and Vera (right) vociferously stake out their claim to the peanuts.
Most of the time, Hank doesn’t seem too bothered by his foot problem, but when the weather is cold and wet, I sometimes see him standing forlornly on one leg.
Another one of Hank’s characteristics is that he seems to like to yawn. I don’t know if crows actually do yawn, but he often opens his beak very wide without any sound coming out — so it looks very much like a yawn.
Hank’s limping gait gives him a rather model-like pose. Auditioning for a part in Zoolander 3?
So, this is Hank, as I know him. I’m sure Vera could tell some tales too!