It isn’t a dove, and it isn’t carrying an olive branch.
Probably too early for that, as we bob about in our socially-distanced arks on a vast sea of uncertainty, fear and loneliness, with no land yet in sight.
But it did feel, when I saw this crow flying over, trailing its lovely garland, that I was seeing some sort of message.
Perhaps: “Life is going on for us, and it will for you as well one day.”
Or maybe: “Look out and up, and there is beauty.”
Possibly: “My neighbours are going to be SO jealous when they see what I just got for the nest.”
As you may know, I’ve been photographing crows for many years now. I especially like to watch them in the spring when they’re collecting material for the nest. I love the silhouettes they make against the sky with twigs of various shapes in their beaks.
I have also watched them struggle to get just the right branch out of a tree. It’s not an easy task, as they have to first break the twig off and then wrestle it out of the tangle of branches on the tree. They often lose their prize, or just give up and look for an easier one.
This is, by far, the most impressive and lovely thing I’ve ever seen a crow manage to acquire.
Crows are known to sometimes present miscellaneous material goods to people who befriend and feed them. The crows of my acquaintance never do that, but they do give me wonderful things.
The fact that this determined crow* managed to haul this ridiculously long and beautiful garland out of an ornamental plum tree; that they happened to be poised on a roof with it just as I walked by with the dog; that they chose to fly off with it right in front of me — you must admit that these are a series of rather special gifts.
So, in a spring season like none we can remember, these pictures are gifts from the crows to you, via me. With love.
Ada is only 7 months old, but already one of my most trusted Crow Therapists.
She lifted my mood earlier this year, when I was feeling a bit down about being in a cast, and about world news. Of course, none of us knew back in January that 2020 was only just getting warmed up!
Ada was our 2019 late summer surprise, hatched at the very tail end of the 2019 baby crow season — happy news in a year that saw many nest failures.
I first spotted her on the daily dog walk in mid-August last year, gape still very pink and eyes still blue — hallmarks of a fledgling not long out of the nest.
I was worried that she had so little time to catch up with the other 2019 fledglings to be able to fly to the roost with all the other crows by fall.
Another challenge — she had a touch of avian pox on one foot. You can see the pink spot on the photo below.
Luckily, by December her foot had healed completely, as you see in the next photos, and she was keeping up with her cohort just fine.
She experienced some firsts in late 2019/early 2020.
Her first torrential downpour, which left her less than impressed.
She saw her first snow in January, and seemed to prefer that to rain, overall.
Or perhaps she had just acquired that philosophical attitude towards weather, essential for both crow and human mental health in a Canadian winter.
I’m calling Ada “her” — in this case, with no evidence of her gender. With many of my other local crows, observing them at nesting time has allowed me to see who sits on the nest at incubating time, but with Ada, it’s just a random guess. She could just as easily be a young Adam, but I have a 50% chance of being right.
In any case, she’s a feisty and curious young bird.
She’s still hanging about with her parents, but they’re no longer pampering her when it comes to getting food. When she was young, they would answer her calls for food.
Now it’s every crow for him/herself. If I drop some peanuts for Ada, she’s often shoved aside by Mom and Dad, so she’s learning to be faster and trickier — vitally important crow lessons.
She’s also kindly demonstrated for us the all-important cough into your sleeve/wing technique.
Here is my most recent photo of her, taken on a dog walk earlier this week.
You can see that, for a 7 month old, she’s already acquired lots of crow personality and intelligence. As she edges closer to me you can see in those eyes the subtle risk/benefit calculations being made in real time.
I imagine she’ll be sticking around to help her parents with this spring’s nesting efforts, but after that she’ll probably find a mate and move to a new neighbourhood. I’ll miss her when she goes, but hey — she might end up in your neighbourhood and be your new crow therapist!
Another crow probably came before, but George Broken Beak was the first I knew of to claim the golden ring.
George, fall 2016
Mabel inherited it, and since George died in 2017, only she has been allowed to perch there. Until very recently.
Mabel, February 2020
The coveted golden ring is actually a yellow metal loop on a yellow metal pole — one of a pair used to suspend the chain that guards the local elementary school parking lot.
A relatively humble throne, but apparently of great significance in the local crow pecking order. I have never seen, for example, Mabel’s new mate, Gus, sit upon it.
In January, Mabel on her post with Gus and one of the kids below.
As recently as February, Mabel seemed to retain exclusive rights to the perch. One day I was walking by and noticed one of Mabel’s young ones come in for a landing on the revered ring. His claws a-l-m-o-s-t touched down before he remembered himself, making a last minute mid-air flight correction to land on a spot more befitting his station.
Whew, that was close …
Mabel must be getting on by now. Her one bad eye looks worse, although she is still apparently able to see out of it, and she still seems to more than hold her own with the other neighbourhood crows. But some sort of succession plan seems to be in the works.
Family meeting on the railings.
Just last week I walked by and saw a crow that I assumed was Mabel in her usual spot. But no, it was one of the youngsters, and Mabel was sitting by and watching with equanimity. In the photo below, the crow on the furthest spot from the post was Mabel, supervising and making no effort to chase the young one off.
The Heir Apparent, apparently.
I’ve been by a few times lately to see one of the young ones on the perch. I can’t tell if only one of them is favoured with the honour, or if they’re taking turns.
I’m hoping that, in spite of this apparent abdication, Mabel will be around for many years to come. She still seems to rule the neighbourhood with with a determined personality and impressive feather floofing technique.
I can usually tell it’s Mabel from a distance just from her silhouette — the fuzziness, and the attitude.
Mabel, Queen Boudicea of Crows
In looking for the first photo in this post, of George on his yellow perch, I went down a bit of a rabbit hole of memories of him and Mabel together.
Here’s just one of the photos of the two of them I found …
And here is Mabel, keeping on keeping on all these years later.
I photographed her just this afternoon in the plum tree, with spring just around the corner.
Partly to distract myself from the actual news, partly to distract you, here is a long overdue local crow news update.
Finally out of my foot cast, I’m really appreciating being able to get about and check what’s going on with my various crow pals.
So much to catch you up on! I think it’s best I divide this into instalments lest I overwhelm you with it all.
Let’s start today with the general crow mood.
Apparently, one in three crows already think it’s time to get started on the nest.
The air is full of pre-nesting season energy. In previous years I’ve noticed Marvin and Mavis starting to gather twigs as soon as the blossoms are fully out on the plum trees on our street. Almost there now!
In the meantime, there are lots of crow-diverting things going on.
And it’s always worth going to see what the commotion is about.
On one dog walk this week we first saw the conductor with his orchestra.
A walk down the alley where they were performing revealed the reason …
By far the most spectacular gathering was a few days ago when a whole street was suddenly full of crow fury. Trees up and down the block were venues for cacophonous corvid conventions. No “social distancing” or Skype meetings for them, obviously.
All the fury was directed to one chimney, and once I got to the right angle I could see a lone raven trying to enjoy a leisurely brunch on the conveniently flat surface.
Judging by the feathers that floated from the “table” it looked as if a mid-sized bird (possibly a robin) was on the menu.
Even though the raven wasn’t feasting on one of their own, and even though they’re a relative, the crows were in full attack. The raven is permanently on the crows’ naughty list because they will, when the time is right, snatch crow eggs and fledglings.
In spite of their best efforts, the raven spent a good fifteen minutes in the chosen spot finishing their meal.
The owner of the chimney came out, wondering why her house was under attack. While I was explaining what was going on the raven finished their snack and flew off.
Today was quieter — a blustery day, so a lot of just-for-fun windborn antics and posing.
Tomorrow I’ll update you on the specific news re. the various crow groups. Quite a few to get through — Marvin & Mavis, Mabel and family, The Pantses, Art and his family, Young Ada — so I think I’ll tackle one a day till we’re up to date.
Think of it a little corvid gossip to break up all the COVID19 news.
Diplomacy —peanut and regular — is tricky. It’s only now that I sit down to write about this topic, I’m forced to face how much actual time pondering the the pitfalls and potential of the practice.
Here’s how the Merriam Webster dictionary defines run-of-the-mill diplomacy: 1 : the art and practice of conducting negotiations between nations. 2 : skill in handling affairs without arousing hostility
Pretty similar, really, to my theory of Peanut Diplomacy: 1: the art and practice of initiating and maintaining diplomatic relations with another species (in this example, crows.) 2: skill in handling affairs without arousing hostility (towards yourself, or amongst your diplomatic counterparts.)
Why Peanut Diplomacy?
Let’s face it, unless you have inadvertently tipped a plate of french fries onto the sidewalk, you are of little specific interest to the busy crow population. If you want to open talks with them, peanuts are a great place to start.
Benefits of Peanut Diplomacy
Practiced with finesse, the art of judicious peanut distribution has many benefits. You can have the thrill of being greeted daily by your new crow friends. I am sure they love you for yourself, but the peanuts really help them discover your interesting side.
Over time you can come to observe individuals and small crow families and learn to appreciate how different, funny, and interesting they all are.
Pitfalls of Peanut Diplomacy
As with political diplomacy, things can easily go sideways. You don’t want to bring any harm to your new crow friends. You also don’t want your neighbours starting to hate you.
Peanut Diplomacy Tips
Keeping the Peace
One of the things you don’t want is to create friction amongst various factions of your new friends. In the years I’ve been engaged in the PD field, I’ve always managed to keep the backyard visitors to one family of crows. This takes a bit of diligence, watching out for “your” crows to be nearby before you put out the peanuts and bringing the treats in again if “invaders” try to horn in.
Over the last decade there have been several peaceful coups.
First we had Eric and Clara and their offspring. They moved down the street, of their own accord and Hank and Vera took over. H & V didn’t come back after the mating season one year and we entered the George and Mabel years. Since we lost George in 2018, Mabel has moved down the street and found a new mate and we now have Marvin and Mavis as our corvid garden guardians.
George and his specially adapted peanut collection technique.
Currently, there is some local tension because Mabel has two juvenile crows from last summer and, while Mabel herself (well versed in the rules of territorial rules) doesn’t come to our garden, she doesn’t discourage the two teenagers from exploring this end of the block. Marvin and Mavis are not pleased, so I’m careful not to put peanuts out unless they are right there. I’d hate to see them attacking Mabel’s young ones because of me.
One of Mabel’s kids optimistically hoping for peanuts in our garden.
Mabel takes exception to the intruder.
Marvin on sentinel duty
A subsection of keeping the peace, is distributing peanuts while out walking. In effect you and your peanuts become mobile territory to be squabbled over. I try to avoid this by observing the local boundaries and never dropping peanuts in the “no crow’s land” between domains. Some years it’s more difficult than others to keep the peace.
Mr. and Mrs. Pants didn’t have any surviving fledglings last year — but their neighbours did, and the larger family is trying to horn in on Mr and Mrs P’s corner. We had a few near “diplomatic incidents” when I tried to leave a few nuts for the Pantses earlier this year, so now I either walk another way, or if it seems quiet, try to leave a few nuts near them but out of sight of the bossy neighbours.
Mr. Pants “unpacking” some peanuts he’d just picked up.
If I find I’m suddenly feeling like an extra in Hitchcock’s The Birds, being followed by a small murder of crows, all ignoring the customary boundaries, then it’s time to change my walking route for a week or two to break the pattern.
If there are challenging conditions out (snow covered or frozen, or drought-baked ground) I will offer more nuts. For Marvin and Mavis, when Mavis had pox on her foot, I put out more nutritious food too until she got better. Generally though, I try to just put out enough peanuts to assure my crow pals that I appreciate their letting me take their photographs, and value their friendship.
Marvin and Mavis enjoy their Valentine’s Day brunch
I don’t want them to come to rely on me for food — for their own good, and so I can sometimes go on holiday without fretting about their survival.
I’ve often read that crows prefer peanuts in the shell, and they do! But all those peanut shells end up everywhere. In your roof gutters. Even worse, in your neighbours’ roof gutters. In the interests of human diplomacy, I find it’s better to offer shelled, unsalted nuts. Good quality cat or dog kibble is good too.
Extra Peanut Fun
While Marvin and Mavis always get a “no strings” breakfast, sometimes they come back for visits later in the day and then we have some fun with doing tricks for peanuts.
I “trained” them to pose with my crow calendar at times during the last couple of years, but a favourite is putting the peanuts in more challenging spots. Here Marvin competes in the Picket Fence Challenge.
I’m sure some of you are already accomplished peanut ambassadors, so do forgive my ramblings. And, if you’re just thinking of exploring the world of peanut politics, don’t let me make it seem too complicated. Have fun and make friends!
In spite of local squabbles, crows will come together for a crisis. Instantly.
Border skirmishes, crow etiquette lapses, hereditary rivalries — all forgotten in a corvid heartbeat when the alarm call goes out.
Peregrine falcon in the ‘hood!
People sometimes consider crows’ mobbing behaviour towards larger birds as somehow mean. The collective noun, a “murder” of crows, is referenced, darkly.
To me, it’s one of their more admirable features — having the sense to know that they’re stronger together, and the ability to put aside individual differences in the face of a common danger.
Raccoons, coyotes, eagles, hawks, falcons, owls and even their own cousin, the raven, are considered enemies by crows. All of these creatures will snatch and eat juvenile crows and/or crow eggs, thus earning themselves a permanent spot on the crows’ “naughty” list.
It’s not that they’re really naughty, of course — just doing what nature dictates — going out grocery shopping for the family. The same applies to crows when they feed on smaller birds, and on through the spiralling circle of life.
While nesting season is over now, and most juvenile crows are now smart and fast enough to stay out of the way of the falcon (who is more likely on the lookout for a tasty pigeon) the crow response to a “sometimes-crow-predator” in the neighbourhood is automatic.
Every crow drops what they’re doing and flies off to join the collective effort to repel the enemy. Their job is to convince the “threat” that crows are just way too much bother and get them to move along and become someone else’s problem.
Individual crows will swoop very close to the offending predator. Sometimes too close for their health. Generally, however, the bird of prey will make a pragmatic cost/benefit calculation as to whether it’s worth the caloric output to chase a provocative crow. Most often they decide to wait out the mob for a while and eventually move on to a quieter spot.
All in all, I think “collective” is a much better, and more descriptive, word for a group of crows than a “murder.”
Apart from group defence, another advantage of crow mobbing behaviour is that, if you pay attention, you can catch glimpses of things that would otherwise go unnoticed.
For other posts about crow-revealed nature sighting:
To keep an eye on Mr. Pants year round is to witness a miracle of transmogrification.
If you didn’t know it was him, by the territory he guards and by the company he keeps (Mrs. Pants), you might think he was a different crow in each season.
We all first came to know him for his breathtaking breeches, his tremendous trousers, his peculiar pantaloonery … I could go on, but I’ll be merciful and stop now, letting a series of summer pictures of Mr. P at his most sartorially splendid tell the story.
Purple haze, all in my brain …
Splendour In The Grass
Mr. Pants with his summer hipster beard, cover model for the 2020 City Crow Calendar
The following video captures his fantastic pantaloons fluttering in the summer breeze.
But. like a perfect truffle, ice wine, or a pumpkin spice lattée, Mr. P’s trouserly splendour is a seasonal offering, and must be appreciated as such.
In winter, he really just looks likes your average pant-less crow.
Suave and handsome for sure, but minus the feathery kilt.
In particularly frosty weather he can, like all the other crows, deploy some feathery long johns, but they’re not the same as his summer finery.
Mr. and Mrs. Pants, January 2018
By spring … still just your normal dapper city crow.
Mr. Pants as seen in the May page of the 2020 City Crow Calendar
But we keep watching.
Around June the fashion miracle begins and the legendary leggings reappear …
But it is perhaps the autumnal transition from summer splendour to his streamlined winter look that is the most eye catching. For Mr. Pants the molting season is very, very dramatic.
It’s true that every one of the local crows looks like a rejected extra from a pirate/zombie movie, but Mr. P takes things to the extreme.
He does nothing by halves on the feathery fashion front, and the late summer/early fall molting season is no exception. Go big, or go home, seems to be his philosophy.
Here he is as photographed yesterday, September 10, 2019
By October he will be smoothly magnificent once again.
By mid-June 2020 we should see the beginnings of tremendous trousers.
It is the circle of life (and of feathery fashion) embodied in one magnificent crow.
2019 has been a rough year for fledgling crows and their parents. Marvin and Mavis had three babies up in the nest one day, and then the local bald eagle swooped by and suddenly there were none.
Mr. and Mrs. Pants, Whitewing and her mate, the Kaslo and the Napier crows were all fledgling-less by the time I got back from my UK trip in June.
Mabel and Gus, however (see most recent post) bucked the trend by successfully raising three babies, born in June some time. Their territory has been the neighbourhood nexus of juvenile crow begging sounds this summer. Both parents are looking a bit exhausted at this point and looking forward, I’m sure, to the young ones becoming fully independent any day now.
Mavis and the Terrible Trio back in early August.
The young ones still occasionally beg for food, but you can tell their hearts aren’t really in it. Mabel and Gus are pretty much ignoring their pleas now — encouraging them to become self-sufficient little urban foragers. The neighbourhood was becoming quiet.
So imagine my surprise when, only last week — well into the second half of August — there was a brand now source of begging sounds. It was the tentative call of quite a young juvenile crow. It took a while to spot her*, but there she was, way up in a sycamore maple, softly quorking …
… and playing with leaves.
It was on a corner I pass by at least once a day walking the dog, and one where I don’t usually see any crows. It’s a buffer zone between two crow territories (the Slocan trio and the Firehall Family) and is generally crow-free. I’m not sure where this little family came from, although I suspect they might be an offshoot of the Firehall gang (for reference see: A Puzzlement of Crows.)
She isn’t a brand new fledgling. She can already fly reasonably well and her eyes have transitioned from the just-out-of-the-nest bright blue, to the grey colour that comes next. But she is obviously several weeks younger than Mabel’s brood and still very much dependant on her two parents. Her beak is still rosy pink at the sides, marking the bright pink inner mouth (gape) that makes such a good target for the parents to deliver food to. Over and over again.
All of this begging and feeding is very usual, but not in late August. So what happened?
I imagine these parents lost their first batch of fledglings to one or more of the usual disasters (eagle, hawk, raven, racoon, car, cat, flying mishap, etc.) quite late in the first go-round, and decided to give it a second try. I can only imagine how much hard work went into the repeat project.
If it had been one of the recent summers, which have been hot and bone dry, I don’t think they’d have managed to find enough food and liquid for the baby so late in the season, but this year has luckily been a bit damper. I’m not sure where they kept her, safe and secret, until I first saw her last week, but they did an excellent job.
Our neighbourhood newcomer has the benefit of two parents devoted to her welfare, but she’s going to have to be a fast learner to catch up with the older juveniles and be able to join them all at the safety of the Still Creek Roost as the nights start to draw in.
She’s a lot noisier now than when I first spotted her last week. I can hear her from our garden (a couple of blocks away) calling to be fed. That in itself can be a bit of a predator-attracting risk when your’e the only noisy one around.
Luckily she does seem to be a quick study. While she still needs her parents to break food into tiny pieces for her, she’s already mimicking their food caching strategies.
Here she’s hiding a peanut that was too big for her to eat under a bit of moss. She’s enrolled in the accelerated Being An Adult Crow class, while still a baby.
She’s got all the curiosity needed to gather important information about this new world of hers. What is, and is not, edible is something that takes a while to figure out.
Now that’s one giant berry …
(… so if you find your Christmas light a bit sticky this year …)
She’s beaten the odds to have made it this far, so here’s hoping she makes it through the next few risky weeks and graduates from her Crow Adulting 101 class with flying colours.
May your late summer be full of nice surprises too!
*I’m referring to this young crow as “her” fairly randomly as, of course, at this point I have no way of knowing her gender.
Mabel never did return to our garden after the summer that George died. I’d still see her every day, as she took up residence at the other end of the street where I’d pass her often and exchange pleasantries (and peanuts) on dog walks. The fledgling she and George had that last summer stuck around for a while, then she seemed to be alone for a bit.
Mabel isn’t a classic beauty. If she cared about such things (which I’m sure she doesn’t) she’d always insist on having her photo taken from the right — her “good” side. From this angle, she looks perfectly hale and healthy. From the left you can see her bad eye, which started to look a bit “wonky” a couple of years ago. She’s also got one very elongated claw, which she’s showing off in the photo at the top of this blog post.
Mabel, February 2017
Mavis, Both Sides Now, July 2019
Mabel is one tough cookie. Although she almost looks blind on that one side, somehow she manages, just as George did with his broken beak. She must be able to see out of that eye a little bit as she never, ever misses a dropped peanut and is ALWAYS first to get to it.
In Spring 2018 she built a nest with a new partner. They didn’t have any surviving babies that year, but she and Gus persisted.
This spring, 2019, was a very tough one for prospective crow parents around here. Marvin and Mavis, Mr. and Ms. Pants, Eric and Clara, White Wing and her mate — they all built nests and tended them diligently for months. I think the bald eagle family in the neighbourhood may have had something to do with the fact that none of them had any surviving fledglings by July.
Mabel and Gus, however — they hit the jackpot!
As of this morning they still have three surviving fledglings. There are days (quite a few of them) when it looks as if Mabel could use some baby sitting help from all those footloose, fledgling-free, parents out there.
So far, no childcare offers from the other crows. Luckily Gus is an active partner in the endless care and feeding process.
Stiff fledgling competition for that one half a peanut.
Wing stretching exercises on the Hydro wires.
Full of personality already.
Some days, there is just no getting away from parental responsibility.
You think you’re having a quiet rooftop moment to yourself and suddenly …
Pop-up babies. There is no escape!
I’m just going to walk away over here …
To start off with, all three of the babies needed to be fed constantly. Now that they’re a few weeks old, Mabel and Gus are training them to do some of their own foraging. With varying success.
Two of the three seem to be getting the hang of it, but there’s always that one who just never gives Mom a break. Until she finally snaps …
We’ve all been there, Mabel.
You just need a few minutes of peace and quiet to regain that maternal equilibrium.
Then, back into the child rearing trenches.
Every once in a while, when the fledglings are tucked in for the night, Mabel and Gus get a few moments to dream of grown up crow fun. and being able to fly off to the roost with the other crows. Some time in September …
Mabel has been a past City Crow Calendar cover model. Her “Frazzled” portrait graced the 2018 version. Marvin is the high wire crow on the 2019 cover and 2020 (available now!) will feature Mr. Pants.