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.

___________

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

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Popcorn recipe for crow friendship

In the winter and spring, when out for a dog walk, I’m sometimes approached by the neighbourhood crows for food. The crows down the street recognize me and fly over. I leave a few pieces of popcorn in the lower branches of the trees along the sidewalk. The crows watch, and then fly to the trees and find the treats.

This summer, the crow couple who live in the area that includes my home, have 2 new fledglings. The couple like to feed popcorn to the young ones. They will gather up some of the popcorn and briefly soak it in the water dish in the Bird Park.

I tried plain popcorn, but they definitely prefer popcorn that has a topping. Greg came up with this recipe:

Melt these ingredients in a small pot on the stove:
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp coconut oil
1/2 tbsp margarine
1/8 tsp salt (probably frowned upon by biologists)
Pour over a bowl of air-popped popcorn.

Keep the popcorn in a paper bag. Give some to the crows around your neighbourhood—it’s a sure way to make friends.

 

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How a crow gave us hope after election day

crow-ecuTuesday afternoon, Nov 8, 2016: “There’s a crow that’s been trapped in the school since yesterday, perched atop the media gallery.” The email was from Matt Stephanson, a technician at Emily Carr University. The US election day was already filled with anxiety, and this message added a sense of urgency. I headed to the school.

The crow was perched 15 feet up, in a space between the top of the gallery and the roof of the building. The cramped area was filled with ventilation ducts, pipes and metal boxes. He looked down at me, and all the students walking to their classes. It was the busiest corner in the University. Over the course of minutes, hundreds of people passed beneath him. His mouth was open and he held his wings away from his body. He was thirsty and hot. Matt had provided a bowl of water and peanuts on a ledge below him, but they were too far away for him to comfortably reach.

”… the crow flew right by my window” said Mindy Bains in facilities. He had entered by the front door, flew through the atrium, up the stairs, through the door at the top, and landed on the Gallery. The University had brought in a ‘pest control’ company, and called the SPCA. The former had frightened the crow and failed to do anything constructive. The latter referred them to Wildlife Rescue. I requested the hydraulic lift be used to move the bowl of water and peanuts to the top of the wall where the crow could reach them. Nic Hubines from engineering did this. In a few moments the crow moved towards the water. He drank. He hopped back to his position on the wall and wiped his beak on the corner. He seemed grateful. He was perkier, had a closed mouth, and his wings were properly folded against his body. Some students stopped and admired him; some asked about his welfare.

I called Wildlife Rescue and they advised on how to lure the crow out of the building. I sent emails and texts to people on campus who might want to help. Mindy and I discussed the shortest route out of the building. The main door is hundreds of feet away. He needed a closer exit. The large photo studio, only 20 feet away has an opening window. The crow wouldn’t be able to see the window from his perch, but perhaps he could sense the outside air coming through it. We used tarps to block all other hallways. We blocked doors and directed the students away from the area. I placed a light in the photo studio to draw the crow in. Ideally, we would also turn off all other lights, but this was not possible in the situation. I put a bit of food at the entrance to the studio.

I pulled up a chair and sat beneath him, looked up and talked to him. This providing a familiar friendly face. Trudy Chalmers from the dean’s office arrived and we discussed the plan. Earlier, she had called the Public Market to ask what they do when birds enter the huge building. “We wait for them to die,” they said. Someone was listening to our conversation, “so be it!” she said.

In the evening Alex Phillips, a faculty member, came to help. Alex and Trudy arranged the window wall of the photo studio; placing screens in front of the non-opening glass so the crow wouldn’t fly into them. The screens framed the opened window to clearly indicate it as the only exit. We talked nicely to the crow, flirting with him, and pointed to the photo studio. We played crow calls from bird apps on our phones. He made a short flight over to a pipe outside the studio, but then returned to his perch. He was comfortable and not ready to leave. He cracked peanut shells and ate the nuts. After a few hours, he headed higher up onto the pipes to sleep. At 9:30pm, we decided to go home, hoping he’d make a dash for the studio during the night. I reassured myself that wild animals have wisdom from previous experiences, and that we’d help him figure things out.

At home that night, I watched news headlines in disbelief—Clinton 215/ Trump 245. The election results were being called. Friend and collaborator Simon Overstall made a Facebook post: “FUCK”

7:00am, Wednesday. The first morning of the Trump presidency. Greg and I were quiet as we drove to the University. Our hearts sank further when we saw the crow. He was in the same place on the top of the wall. We made a few more attempts to lure him. We cawed, whistled, and gave him little pep talks. He seemed interested in us but he didn’t budge. I located executive Janice Wong and Nic and we discussed Plan B.

10:45am, we met back at the gallery. Trudy, Nic, Greg and myself were joined by Terry Plummer in technical services and Matt Skinner in audio visual. The plan was to gently but directly guide the crow into the photo studio. We secured the area from any other people. The hall leading to the studio was clear. Nic turned on the hydraulic lift and the crow started agitating. Greg and Nic, both on the lift, used long bamboo poles to make small gestures behind the crow. Matt, Trudy and I each held a long pole pointing into the rafters. These would discourage him from moving onto a new perch. The crow got the message. He flew, circling around the ceiling. He did this with astonishing accuracy between the complex mechanical systems. We held our breaths! He landed on the beam just outside the entrance to the photo studio. We froze. Together we sensed that he knew this was his only option. He headed through the door. BANG! Matt dropped his pole and ran behind the crow, chasing him further into the studio. I followed. Matt quickly closed the partition drapes as the crow perched on a duct inside. The drapes secured the crow in a smaller space by the window.

It all happened so fast, we almost couldn’t believe it! We all laughed and shared our excitement. We double checked that that crow was indeed in there. He safely sat on the duct and looked around. He would have to figure out how to leave by the open window. Matt set up a laptop and webcam inside the space so that we could watch the crow but leave him in peace to examine the space.

Thirty minutes later, Mark Canning from AV called. He’d been watching the webcam feed. “I thought you’d like to know that the crow just left the building.” I felt a rush of joy! The crow would join his family and friends, and fly with them tonight to the roost in Burnaby. I shared the news with everyone. We were happy and energized.

The crow gave us a ray of hope.

_____

Thanks to Leslie Bishko, faculty member, for the photo and for #emilycarrcrow

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Crow fledgling touches ground for the first time!

July 4

  • Lesson from crow mother: We help our babies leave the nest. 
  • Fledgling crow says, “I can fly!”

firstbabyfeeding

Yesterday morning there was a lot of crow activity on the corner of Woodland Park diagonally across the street from us. I could hear the adult crows—the ones who built their nest in the nearby tree—and their two off-spring from last summer. The adult crows called with excitement. I got up from my office chair to look out the window. The male adult was sitting on the baseball diamond fence scolding too-close people as they walked by. The two juveniles were walking around the lawn not far from the base of the tree that housed the nest (in the photo behind the red car).

Through the binoculars, I could see into the tree one of the crow babies perched on the nest’s edge. This year, the adult couple had a slow start with their babies. They had two nest failures; nests abandoned after damage from strong winds. They finally had success re-using a previous year’s nest in the tree at the edge of the park. The baby was flapping his wings, testing things out. The mother flew from the ground to the tree, over to the telephone wire, and back down to the ground. She seemed to be coaxing the youngster to make his first flight. The male kept guard, continuing to scold humans, while calling to the female. The juveniles walked around the grass pecking at things, seeming ready to provide back-up if needed. Juvenile crows may help their parents with nesting activities until they’re about 3 or 4 years old. This is how they learn to be parents themselves.

After the pedestrian and car traffic settled down, they stopped calling. Then, in this quiet moment, the fledgling swooped down from the nest onto the lawn. His first flight! The mother greeted him and regurgitated a bit of food into his mouth. Crows will prepare a mixture of food and saliva to feed their babies. This mix contains good bacteria for the babies health. I felt happy to have witnessed their group effort getting the baby launched! I went back to work.

After about 20 minutes, I heard the couple calling. The calls were coming from our roof. It was one of their typical calls caw-caaw—caw. The first and second caw paired with a slightly longer space between the second and third caw. The second caw slightly rounder sounding. I went up to the roof to give them their daily popcorn. Every day since their eggs hatched, I’d put a handful of peanuts and popcorn on the roof.

When I approached the edge of the deck I saw three crows, the two adults together on the neighbor’s roof, and the baby on our roof! He sat calmly and watched me put the food out. He had downy feathers on his chest and looked a bit ragged. His parents called a few times. I greeted the youngster and the parents. I felt honored—hello world!

 

reference:
Kilham, Lawrence. The American Crow and the Common Raven. College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 1989.

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