Plot Twist

Sometimes you start reading a book, and it takes you somewhere you had no idea you were going.

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I have a weakness for vintage natural history books, so I was quite thrilled to find this treasure on the shelves of a used bookstore in Nanaimo a while ago. I was immediately taken with the lovely 50’s typography, and a quick look inside revealed some lovely illustrations of animals and birds of the Rocky Mountain area. I had to have it!

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The charming cover page, with it’s fabulous typeface and a little engraving of a beaver, credits the author —Kerry Wood, and the illustrator —Frank L. Beebe.

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No date was listed, but a quick online search found that it was published by Herbert R. Lawson Publishing Co. Ltd. of Victoria, BC in 1955 . A year after I was born.

The Table of Contents looked very promising, with headings like The Big Fellows, The Long Sleepers and A Lazy Loafer.

contents

I skipped ahead to the conclusion, or L’Envoi in which our author charmingly bids us adieu with the wish that we “could meet beside some campfire there in the Parks, with a chuckling stream just beyond the flame-glow, a majestic mountain behind us, and the zestful perfume of the pines combining with the wood-smoke to enrich that wonderful mountain air. Amid such a setting, we could take time to tell each other more about those fascinating creatures of the wilds which share this marvelous gift of life with us.”

Mr. Woods sounded like such an affable companion for an excursion through the Rockies!

I skipped back to the animal section, leafing from wolverine to coyote.

Coyote

A whimsical passage on the coyote describes the character of the animal:

“And there you have Don Coyote; pup, hunter, clown, epicure, speedster, vocalist, and ghost, the most versatile animal-actor in the West!”

We learn that the marmot is untroubled by  “coal bills, galoshes, a “gold in da doze,” and other nuisances of winter”, because this animal is one of “The Long Sleepers”.

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Mr. Wood tells us that black bears love to wallow, “perhaps as a way of defeating the attentions of insect pests which may be attracted by the unsavoury B.O. afflicting all such animals.”

black bear

I felt as if I could wander through the Rockies with Mr. Wood and enjoy this lovely folksy, conversational style of his all day.

Of course, I was anxious to get to the bird section. My flipping through had revealed some lovely pages of illustrations.

swallows

The hawks are given the honour of “finest bird family” although the author acknowledges that “someone is sure to get indignant about listing hawks as the finest bird family; folks will vehemently point out that hawks steal chickens and therefore are bad birdies.” Our author goes on to point out, that while chicken stealing does go on, hawks also keep mice and insect pests under control. And, besides, hawks are protected by law from hunting.

hawks

But what about  the crows and ravens?

Time to find out what our author had to say about my favourite birds.

This is where the plot twist comes in, as we segue from “charming period nature writing” right into horror.

I guess it should have come as a bit of clue that crows, ravens and magpies were listed under the heading, “Mostly Rogues”

Mostly Rogues Title

Thankfully, Mr. Wood declares himself against the practices of egg stealing and shooting and collecting the feet of these “rogue” birds, although mostly because these methods are inefficient.

The more cost effective method for crow control he describes sounds both horrific, and faintly ludicrous.

roost bombs

He suggests placing “shot bombs” in areas where crows roost in order to “humanely kill hundreds and thousands of the offending birds.”

Shot bombs, “costing less than a dollar apiece,” could be made by “enclosing two or three pounds of lead shot with a stick of dynamite inside a sheath of concrete.” Add a detonating cap and battery, and voila! The mind boggles.

It’s incredible to me that crows, such intelligent and charming birds, could be dismissed simply as vermin to be eradicated — although I know that the corvid species is still regarded in this way in many parts of the world, with a bounty placed on their feathered heads.

But this particular method of blasting hundreds of them into oblivion while they sleep in their roost seems both gruesome and vaguely absurd.

Would a flyer be circulated earlier in the day for the benefit of all the wildlife not on the “naughty” list so they can vacate the area? Pity the poor cat, dog or child who might wander into the detonation zone at the wrong time. And what of the trees and foliage caught up in the carnage? I was reminded of a story told to me by an Irish man about his ill-fated aunt. Her cottage was near a rookery and she didn’t like the noise the birds made. She tried to get rid of them by smoking them out, and wound up burning down her own cottage.

Mr. Wood goes on to explain how the “roost bombing” method could reduce crows to “negligible numbers” in a few years. Clearly it did not. Probably not because people felt sympathy for the crows, but perhaps because someone saw the holes (literal and figurative) in the scheme.

Although also listed under “Rogues,” ravens are not as vilified as the crows and magpies, if only because they seem to have been scarce at the time. We even get a little Edgar Allen Poe humour here!

raven

From the rest of the book, it’s clear that Kerry Woods (you can read more about him here)  loved the wilderness and most of its inhabitants. He even had a nature centre named after him. I can only conclude that his attitude to corvids must have been a reflection of the prevailing view at the time.

So, while we may, from time to time, harken back to simpler times and the “good old days” I don’t imagine you get many crows from the Rockies wishing to go back to the 50’s!

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Vera would not like to be living in the 50’s!

I still like my book, Birds and Animals of the Rockies, for its beautiful typography and illustrations, the jaunty writing style, and the window into the thinking of the times.

But, if you’re interested in curling up with some more up-to-date books and blogs on the corvid species, here are some of my favourites.

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Crow Planet, by Lyanda Lynn Haupt
Lyanda also has a lovely blog called The Tangled Nest

Corvus — A Life with Birds, by Esther Woolfson

Gifts of the Crow and In the Company of Crows and Ravens by John Marzluff

Mind of the Raven by Bernd Heinrick

Corvid Research, a very informative blog by Kaeli Swift

 

 

www.junehunter.com

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George’s Tough Year

I would describe George’s 2015 as “catastrophic”. Still, there are lessons to be learned from his persistence.

His year has been so awful, it’s taken me a while to prepare myself to tell the story, and look again at some of the images.

George Waiting

George appeared in my garden about midway through the long, hot, dry summer last year. He was waiting for me one day when I came out of the studio, resting on a branch and looking at me as if we were already well acquainted. It turned out that George had a family — a mate (Mabel) and one fledgling.

Mabel and Baby

The baby crow at first seemed like the average disheveled juvenile, doted upon my both of his parents. But as the summer continued, it became clear that all was not well with Junior. Lumps appeared on his face and then on his feet. He had avian pox, which is often fatal and very contagious to other birds of many species.

George preening baby

I had a crisis of conscience. Fearing for the health of all the other birds that come to my garden, I considered ignoring George’s pleading looks so that the family might start to seek food elsewhere and leave the area. Easier said than done.

Waiting for me outside the studio. Hard to resist.

Waiting for me outside the studio. Hard to resist.

After a couple of miserable days of looking at George’s expectant face through the studio window, I moved to plan B. This consisted of a rather rigorous schedule of feeding George and family at only one spot on the deck and then, after their visit, immediately cleaning the area with bleach and rinsing thoroughly. I also bleached the birdbath daily, and emptied and cleaned all the other bird feeders every few days. I went from crazy crow lady, to crazy bleach lady!

Of course, when I noticed the sick baby and family perched on the hydro wires all over the neighbourhood, I realized that there was a limit to what I could do in the sterilization department.

By the end of the summer, George and Mabel looked completely worn out. All Vancouver wildlife had a tough time dealing with the drought, and many birds started molting early in the summer. George looked thoroughly bedraggled by the time new feathers started to come in for the fall.

Bedraggled

Finally, in early fall, his new feathers came in and he looked much more handsome. More importantly, he and Mabel showed no sign of having developed avian pox symptoms.

George in new winter feather finery.

George in new winter feather finery.

 

A little more on Mabel: she’s a lot more reluctant to get close to me than George. A problem with her right eye probably causes some vision impairment,  naturally making her more cautious. At times the eye is completely closed and, at other times, it looks quite normal. Mostly it doesn’t seem to cause her great problems.

In this photo you can see Mabel's eye problem.

In this photo you can see Mabel’s eye problem.

Moments later, Mabel's right eye looks just fine, as she deftly juggles some peanuts.

Moments later, Mabel’s right eye looks just fine, as she deftly juggles some peanuts.

Sadly, the baby crow grew sicker, although both parents continued to feed and preen him with single-minded dedication. He could still fly, but his damaged feet made it hard for him to land and rest. We could hear his plaintive cries for food from one end of our alleyway to the other.  Then the weather turned suddenly cold and he fell silent.

George’s bad luck did not end there.

Shortly after the sick baby crow died, I saw George waiting for me as usual in the garden and went out to say hello.

I gasped in horror. My brain couldn’t comprehend what I was seeing. George the magnificent, was missing half of his top beak.

George - still magnificent.

First of all, I couldn’t for the life of me imagine how this happened.

I still can’t. If anyone has ideas, I’d love to hear them.

Then, I was grief stricken. After all that George had been through, this new catastrophe seemed so unfair.

I was afraid that he wouldn’t be able to survive this new challenge. I didn’t post anything about it on Facebook because I was still mentally processing both the event, and my reaction to it.

I struggled with whether it’s wrong to be so very upset about the difficulties facing a crow — given all the terrible things going on in the world.

There’s a whole other, more thoughtful, blog post being pondered to answer that question. Until then, in brief, I’ve decided it’s OK. And even if it isn’t, I can’t help it.

Jaunty George

George's injury doesn't seem to have made less confident. Here he calls a warning to Hank and Vera to stay away from his food source.

George’s injury doesn’t seem to have affected his confidence. Here he calls a warning to Hank and Vera to stay away from his food source.

It’s been several weeks now and I’ve become accustomed to George’s new look. I’m cheered by the adaptability he’s demonstrating with his food collection methods. When he comes for peanuts he turns his head almost upside down for better “shoveling” action. I try to help out by putting the nuts in contained space so he can trap them. It’s rather amazing how efficient he’s become.

Modified Technique 2

Modified technique 1

And, happily, Mabel seems to be standing by her crow. George’s injury doesn’t seem to have affected her loyalty – the two of them remain a fierce team when it comes to protecting their territorial rights.

George and Mabel share a quiet domestic moment.

George and Mabel share a quiet domestic moment.

Clearly Mabel still thinks that George is the top crow, so I’m hoping the two of them together can survive and thrive. I’m full of admiration for George Halfbeak and his resilience. I’m even starting to see a certain dashing charm in his new look.

George this morning, braving the think frost for a few peanuts on the deck.

George this morning, braving the cold and frost for a few peanuts on the deck.

He had a pretty devastating 2015, but looks set to take on 2016 with typical crow determination. Good luck, George and Happy New Year.

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Just Another Day

It started as a normal Monday in East Vancouver. The dawn made it’s spectacular appearance (an hour late due Daylight Savings).

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Birds began to reappear in the sky, taking their posts for the coming day.

Dawn bird

Eric and his family arrived at their spot — in my garden, waiting for the first peanut handout of the day.

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I was thrilled to see the first downy woodpeckers had returned from whichever winter destination they’d chosen.

Downy Woodpecker male

I noted that the house sparrows were collecting nesting material. And giving the pine siskin some interior design ideas at the same time.

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Suddenly, trouble in paradise.

Eric and his family of crows dove into the lilac tree where all the small songbirds like to be.

I thought the crows had suddenly and unexpectedly decided to start dining on full-grown sparrows and chickadees.

But no — the crows had spotted a juvenile Sharp Shinned Hawk darting into the lilac.

No doubt the hawk had certain designs on the songbirds, snack-wise.

Sharp Shinned Hawk

The hawk fled, pursued by Eric, his family and the neighbourhood watch committee of concerned crows. They flew around the neighbourhood all day.

Hawk soaring, crows cawing.

Hawk on High

A crow keeps a wary eye on the hawk from the top of street sign.

 

So, now we have a new kid on the block, adding to the daily excitement. Another hazard for smaller birds, like the bald eagles and ravens that already cruise the skies. But another thrilling ingredient into the mix of wildlife that calls East Vancouver home.

Vancouver’s Urban Ravens

 

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One evening I was leaving Granville Island after a day at the market. Daydreaming as I wandered back to where I’d parked, it took me a few moments to realize that I was experiencing an audio disconnect. My ears were hearing ancient forest soundtrack, but I was actually under the mighty iron girders of the Granville Street Bridge. What was causing me to feel momentarily off-kilter was the unmistakable and haunting call of a raven — presently answered by a second. I caught a glimpse of them retreating to a high perch under the bridge.

That was a couple of years ago and since then I’ve caught fleeting glimpses of this pair. Once, one of them flew right over my shoulder. I was between her and a dumpster and it was dark, so maybe she didn’t even see me. Quite a wind from those wings!

Last weekend I was bike riding with my husband near our home in East Vancouver. This time I knew the sound I heard was a raven, but with a twist. It sounded different from a raven in the way that a baby crow sounds different from an adult crow; a plaintive quality to the cry. We peered in the direction of the sound and way, way up, on the roof of an almost finished office building we saw a pair of black silhouettes, much bigger than the usual crows. From their posture it was clear that one was a baby and the other a parent. Excitement!

It's the classic "feed me" pose.

It’s the classic “feed me” pose.

There was even more delight when we cycled back that way later and found that parent and baby had come to ground level. And I had my camera! With the long lens! I spent a happy 15 minutes photographing them. Neither baby nor parent seemed very perturbed by my presence. Perhaps they are more confident than the frantic swooping crows. Just the thought of being dive-bombed by a raven is pretty hair-raising.

Just hangin' with mom (or dad) on the dumpster.

Just hangin’ with mom (or dad) on the dumpster.

Like the baby crows, the fledgling raven has pink at the side of the mouth.

Like the baby crows, the fledgling raven has pink at the side of the mouth.

We returned to the same area a few days ago to see if we could see any sign of the raven family. It was crow migration time and the spot was right on the crow flight path. We concluded that hanging out there at such a time would mean a world of aggravation for the ravens so they had probably wisely relocated, at least for that time of the evening.

The building that was a perch for the ravens a few days earlier is a popular stopping point for crows on their evening migration to Still Creek.

The building that was a perch for the ravens a few days earlier is a popular stopping point for crows on their evening migration to Still Creek.

More urban raven watching today – this time back on Granville Island. I had dropped my daughter off at the market where she was going to be minding my table of art and jewellery for the day. I headed to Opus Framing for some supplies and noticed the ravens making repeated trips between the cement plant and the bridge. Luckily, I had my camera with me again,  so I was able to get some shots of them making their gliding trips.

A raven soars effortlessly over the Granville Island cement plant.

A raven soars effortlessly over the Granville Island cement plant.

Then (bonus) one of them landed right in front of me to pick up some food someone had dropped.

Just hanging out with the tourists and traffic.

Just hanging out with the tourists and traffic.

Raven remembers he has somewhere else to be

Raven remembers he has somewhere else to be

No getting caught in traffic for ravens!

No getting caught in traffic for ravens!

I did some research on “ravens in the city” online. I found this National Post story about the bird watching community being “abuzz” at finding nesting ravens in that city.

So I guess we should be pretty abuzz here too. A bit of bad news for crows and smaller birds that will be part of the raven food chain, but still, so very cool.