The Crows of Woodland Park by Greg Snider

raccoon in a crow's nest, Woodland Park

The resident raccoon in Baldy’s nest, Woodland Park

This post is by guest writer Greg Snider.

June 7, 2020

Woodland Park is a two-square-block park in East Vancouver, bounded on the north by Frances Street, on the east by Woodland Drive, on the west by McLean Drive, and on the south by Adanac Street. It is bisected east-west at East Georgia Street by a field house, playground, small outdoor pool and community garden, dividing the park and creating north and south grassy playing fields. The park is heavily used; even in the pandemic lockdown, it has become an open-air beer-garden for local families, with dozens of people getting drinks from the local craft breweries and pizza take-out from the regular food-trucks, and picnicking in the park.

The perimeter of the park is edged with fifty-two magnificent elms; some mature trees are over 100 feet tall, with numerous younger infill trees. Many of these trees contain crow’s nests; there are at least half a dozen active nest sites that are recolonized every year.

Several of the crows are regular visitors to the purpose-built Bird Park Survival Station established on our roof, that provides small trees and bushes for perching habitat, and daily-replenished feeders and water trays. Along with the crows, we have seen sparrows, chickadees, hummingbirds, flickers, goldfinches, house finches, nuthatches, bushtits, starlings, juncos, swallows, gulls, as well as Cooper’s hawks and bald eagles. Over the years we have come to recognize several of the crows, who arrive regularly every day to feed and drink. We watched one couple in particular with whom we grew very friendly; they did not mind our presence as we went about our business on the roof and were eventually quite tame, but never let us get closer than a foot or two. We learned their calls and behaviors, and watched as they started nest-building and egg-laying. You could see them going around the trees in Woodland Park examining potential nest sites, testing the suitability of twigs with their beaks, and flying sticks to the nests. Then all would go quiet for weeks as they brooded on the eggs; you could see the females in perfect stillness tucked down in their nests, with the males looking out nearby. You could hear our female call for food, a single low ‘maw’, repeated every few seconds; the male would come to the roof for something to bring her. Sometimes she would abruptly fly to the roof in a flurry of calls, to take a quick break, and the male would feed her food he had soaked in the water trays; then she would dash back to the nest. 

You could tell when their babies had hatched because the male would be in the Bird Park breaking up wet food and filling his craw, then ferrying it to the nest for the babies. Once the blue-eyed young had fledged, the parents would bring them over to the roof for introductions and food and water. The gangly fledglings tipping on the wires were perfectly adorable, their little red mouths wide for food from the parents. But once the young were capable of independence, the parents chased them away, forcing them to establish their own feeding territories elsewhere.

Nesting is a dangerous time for birds, and they are clearly anxious; predators know just when that narrow window of vulnerability has arrived. Raccoons, hawks, squirrels and cats are always prowling around.

Last summer the parents moved further away after two nest failures, probably from predators; they later returned to the roof, but the banished young, grown to adulthood, continued to frequent the neighborhood. From tree to tree they would follow us down McLean Drive, expecting handouts. That year a new couple we had often seen in Woodland Park took over the roof. The female was very noticeable; every season she lost most of the feathers on her head and had fungal infections ringing her eyes; first we called her Scrawny-neck but later settled on Baldy. She would look normal right after the molt in August, but soon after would start losing her head-feathers again until she was down to a gray skull with white rings around her eyes. Her partner, on the other hand, was an outstanding large glossy male, a beautiful bird. The year Baldy started coming to the roof, she had four healthy offspring, a good brood for a crow. She brought the young ones to the roof for introductions.

This year Baldy changed nesting spots from an earlier site on the southeast corner of the park to a small pine across the street from us on McLean Drive. The site had been attempted before by others, but unsuccessfully. It’s not a good location – only about 12 feet off the ground, with easy access for predators. One day after the quiet nesting period, the couple came over in a great noisy fluster, and it was only later we realized they had lost their brood. For about a week after, Baldy would come to the roof and hunker down close by on the deck railing and sit with us; we had just lost our dog Tom, and it was evident there was some shared grieving going on. Then they both disappeared for a while, as crows will do after losing a nest, and when they came back we saw them flying twigs to the old nest site in the southeast corner of the park; they were working on a second try.

Three nights ago we were walking our dog Sugi in the park and, near the field-house on the side of the park by East Georgia Street, there was a raucous murder of crows up one of the elms. We took a closer look and sure enough, a raccoon was draped over a fork of the tree, trying to sleep through all the racket; the hanging tail had a noticeable kink. Having raccoons around was not a good sign; several of the nests in the park had not produced any young this year and nests were abandoned, and now we realized they may have been ravaged by raccoons. (About the time the first brood would have been ready, we had seen a raccoon seventy feet up one of the trees in the middle of the park, having a nap.) 

Yesterday morning we walked by the same site, and there was the raccoon on the sidewalk ambling toward us; they scrambled up the nearest tree, and we watched each other for a while; then they headed further up the tree and settled into a crow’s nest over the road. An unfortunate confirmation. It may be that the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown has made the raccoon’s usual food sources less productive, and egg-and-young hunting has become an opportunistic alternative protein source in difficult times. 

This morning we went past Baldy’s new nest at the southeast corner of the park; she was calling from a tree further north, and her partner was on the telephone wire beside the nest tree…and there was the raccoon, rooting around in their nest. It confirmed for us that for the second time this year, a raccoon was systematically going around every elm, cleaning out nests. They’re doing about one a day, so will take a while to get around the park. With luck, some crows will have fledged before the raccoon arrives. So far this year we’ve seen no young crows in the park.

We continued our walk through the north field, where two crows were dive-bombing a man and his dog crossing the park. There is another nest in the elm just south of the northwest corner, and if that family has made it to the fledgling stage, they are trying to keep everyone away. They just need a little more time until the young can safely fly.

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Greg Snider is a sculptor and installation artist and writer living and working in Vancouver, BC. website: www.gregsnider.ca

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Clark Park, Vancouver’s second oldest park, demonstrates climate change.


July 2, 2019

Walking up the hill to the grove, I breathed in the wonderful scent of cedar and fir, and felt the age of the trees. On Canada Day (July 1), Greg and I took Tom and Sugi to a park I had recently discovered while riding my bike.  Clark Park is the second oldest park in Vancouver (Stanley Park is the oldest), bordered by Commercial Drive on its east side, and sandwiched between 14th and 15th Avenues on its north and south boarders. It has a cleared areas for events, but more interestingly, it has a few of acres of old trees—cedar, fir, oak, chestnut, sequoia—on a hill gently sloping up to the east. Clark Park was donated to the Vancouver Park Board by E. J. Clark, and the trees there seem to be at least as old as the donation date of 1889. They are also some of the largest trees in the City.

We walked around the grove taking in the variety of planted trees, and the old-growth indigenous trees. I noticed a cedar at the edge of the Park that was brown compared to the green of the rest. This was a unhappy reminder of the imminent extinction of Western Red Cedars in the region. Climate change has created dryer conditions in BC, and this has resulted in large scale die-off of our beautiful native tree. Scientists say that this will be the species that will be first to disappear due to lack of moisture caused by global heating.

Make a trip to Clark Park to do some forest bathing, and to witness these large beauties. Also, next time you pass your neighborhood park, have a look at the condition of the cedars.

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Tips from scientists for addressing the climate emergency

“No flights, a four-day week and living off-grid… What changes have the experts made to their own lives to tackle the climate emergency?” The Guardian. June 29, 2019.

https://www.theguardian.com/science/2019/jun/29/no-flights-four-day-week-climate-scientists-home-save-planet

This is a great article that lists a number of climate scientists’ responses to the climate emergency. Recycling is great to reduce the amount of plastic pollution, but it does little to reduce one’s carbon footprint compared to going vegan and not flying.

This Guardian article from June 29, 2019, is an interview with climate scientists who have made changes in their lives to address what their research reveals about the climate crisis. The top actions are: stop flying; go vegan; generally reduce your consumption. The latter can be achieved by working a 4 day work-week which leads to a less intense working life, less stress, and less need to consume. Recycling is great to reduce the amount of plastic pollution, but it does little to reduce one’s carbon footprint compared to going vegan and not flying. One of the researchers relays the data “… eating a plant-based diet for one year saves over 150 times more greenhouse gases compared with a year of using a reusable shopping bag. And you would have to recycle everything in your household comprehensively for almost eight years to equal the greenhouse gas emissions saved by skipping just one round-trip flight from London to New York.

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