Ode to the Corvidae

When spring comes to this part of the world, so do the birds. In a mere couple of months or so – perhaps less in the case of some species – we’ll start to hear their singing in the morning. They’ll stick around all summer and into the autumn. But eventually all of them leave. All, that is, except for a select few whose domain is the Canadian winter.

Right now in January, of course, those winter birds are the rulers of the air and the glades. And chief among them are a few species from the family Corvidae. The corvids include crows, ravens, magpies, and jays among others.

These birds have long been reputed to be not just the most intelligent of birds, but among the most intelligent of non-human animals. In fact, they are often referred to a “feathered apes.” Their brain is very large in comparison to the size of their body, and this is a general marker for intelligence. It is not difficult to believe that they are highly intelligent either because they can naturally learn, or be trained, to do some amazing things.

But I am not writing this ode simply to expound upon their intelligence and amazing behavior. Both are completely obvious to anyone who spends any time at all watching them. Rather, I am writing to appreciate these birds because of the joy that they have brought me over the years.

Growing up in Calgary meant growing up with magpies. For some reason Calgary (and Edmonton) are inundated with magpies, while crows and ravens are more rare and are more often found in the outskirts. In other places that I’ve lived – for instance Vancouver and Prince George – crows and ravens are more common in the city and magpies seem to stay further to the edges of the urban sprawl. If someone out there can tell me why this is the case, I’d be very interested.

In any case, I can remember waking up many summer mornings to the raucous calls of magpies, all dressed up in their tux-and-tails. At one point as a young teenager I fashioned a predator consisting of a couple of pieces of carved balsa wood and a thick rubber band. I had come across the design in my Outdoor Canada magazine, and the writer promised that using it would bring surprising results. And it did! I could sit out in our front yard and make sounds like an injured rabbit. Very quickly one magpie would arrive. Then another, and another, until the two big cottonwood trees in front of our house were alive with calling birds. The whole neighborhood must have wondered what on earth was going on.

Magpies are seemingly as intelligent as their crow and raven kin. One autumn day, watching our front yard from the verandah, I spied a squirrel dutifully digging a nut into the ground as a provision against the coming winter. Above the squirrel, on a branch, a lone magpie watched the proceedings. As soon as the squirrel had hopped off and out of the picture, down swooped the magpie and uncovered the nut and headed off. Smart bird; poor squirrel.

About a decade ago, while living in Davis California, I got to know the beautiful western scrub jays very well. Our apartment complex had a group of them that roved around looking for scraps and other remnants of student parties. Like all of the other corvids that I have known, they were never shy about letting everyone know that they were around.

We had a tabby cat at the time named – appropriately for California – Sequoia. Sequoia would make a point of sitting at our second-floor apartment window next to a burst of tree branches. As soon as the jays would see her, they would congregate on the branches and holler at her. She would sit there, seemingly saying “just you wait.” The jays would let her know what they thought of that attitude. It would get very loud at times, and was a complete riot to watch.

Once in Maligne Canyon, in Jasper National Park, I had the honor of watching a family of ravens nesting in a small cave. I was able to take a few photographs of them, and I still enjoy going back to look at these years later. I hope one day to go back to the location during breeding season and take some better photographs than these.

Now that we live in Prince George, I am privileged almost every winter morning to be greeted by ravens and crows who make their way from one roosting point to another while I catch the bus. Some of them live in the small forest and creek area near to my house (although lately the group of ravens that was there seems to have moved on elsewhere). Some days they just fly straight along above the road toward the local fast food joints (breakfast!). Other days they tussle and rustle in the sky above me, most certainly oblivious to my presence as they enjoy each other.

One particular winter morning, after a heavy snowfall the night before, two ravens tumbled together above me and the snow-laden trees. It was perfectly silent as it always seems to be after a snowfall. The only sounds were their gentle murmurings and the light clatter of their wings and feathers against each other. A single black feather floated through the still air and onto the white world below, fluttering right next to me on its descent. It was a haiku moment, and I immediately wrote this in my notebook as soon as I stepped onto the bus a few minutes later:

Two ravens tussle
Above the snow-heaped forest
A feather drifts down

I’m the first to admit that I’m not really much of a poet, so I don’t even know if I got that right. Likely some more work would make it better. Never-the-less, it was just one more instance in my love affair with corvids, and I still remember that moment as vividly as yesterday.

I’ve probably gone on long enough now, and to all of you who have bothered to read this far, I want to offer you one more corvid-inspired creation of mine – a small gallery of photographs that I have made over recent years featuring these amazing birds. And I certainly hope to make many more in years to come.