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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