Monthly Archives: December 2017

It’s a wonderful raven’s life

Every year, Jimmy graces our screens as countless people watch him help tell the story of the Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life.  I’m talking of course about Jimmy the Raven, though I suppose one could make the same case for Jimmy Stewart.  Between the two, however, even Stewart recognized that it was the raven who was the superior colleague, and acquiesced to being referred to as “JS” to stop Jimmy from flying on set every time the director said Stewert’s name.1

“The raven is the smartest actor on set.  They don’t have to make as many retakes for him as for the rest of us.” – Jimmy Stewart, while filming You Can’t Take it With You in 19382

Among corvid lover’s, Jimmy’s role in It’s a Wonderful Life is surely a memorable delight, but few probably know the full extent of his career and accomplishments.

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Jimmy in a screenshot of It’s a Wonderful Life.

Jimmy’s first role was in Frank Capra’s 1938 movie, You Can’t Take It With You, after which Capra cast Jimmy in every one of his subsequent films.  As a result, Jimmy is sometimes mistaken as Capra’s pet, though he really belonged to animal trainer Curley Twiford.  In fact it was Jimmy riding on Twiford’s bulldog, Squeezit, along with two parakeets that initially caught a director’s attention and launched Twiford’s career as one of Hollywood’s earliest animal trainers.3

To make him more marketable, Twiford trained Jimmy to do a wide variety of things including opening mail, operating a typewriter, lighting a cigarette, flipping magazine pages, and dealing a hand of poker.  In the course of Twiford’s career he trained hundred of animals, but it was Jimmy and his subsequent corvids that he marveled at the most.  In a remark that will probably surprise no one, Twiford once said that of all the animals he trained, cats were the most challenging and corvids were the easiest, remembering their stunts for ten years.3

To achieve such tricks, Twiford taught Jimmy a sizable vocabulary of 53 words.  Since so much of Jimmy’s act (and therefore Twiford’s income) depended on Jimmy’s memory of these words, Twiford had Jimmy insured with a first of its kind “loss of memory” policy.4  Lloyds of London, which remains in operation today, wrote the policy–no doubt with ample side-eye from their competitors.  No word, though, on if they currently have any avian clients.

Twiford claimed that between 1938 and 1950, Jimmy had appeared in over 1,000 credited and uncredited films. IMBD, the contemporary scorekeeper of such things, lists 22 credited appearances, including The Enchanted Valley, God’s Country, and The Secret Garden.  He even had an extended roll in The Wizard of OZ, though the scene was later cut.

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A deleted scene from The Wizard of Oz

At the height of his career, Jimmy might well have been a household name, even having newspaper articles dedicated to his biography and upcoming films.  One such article in 1948 boasted that Jimmy possessed a, “Red Cross gold medal for his 200 hours spent entertaining Wold War Two veterans,” though the article did not specify if it meant the American Red Cross, or some other entity.5  Still, neither Rin Tin Tin nor Lassie (both of whom Jimmy worked with6,7) can claim such an honor, even if its true nature is rather murky .

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The Evening News. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. December 31, 1948. p. 12 (and, no, ravens don’t live until they’re 140 even in captivity.)

Jimmy’s last film was Three Ring Circus, filmed in 1954, nearly 20 years after his first movie.  Sadly, his subsequent whereabouts and death are unknown, though I found one article from 1957 that talks about a raven named Jimmy.7  For iconic animal actors however, their successors are often named after them and, indeed, an article published in 1958 mentions a raven by the name of Jimmy Jr., so it’s possible that other articles published during that time were really talking about different birds.8  Curley Twinford died himself only two years after Three Ring Circus in 1956.

Searching through newspaper databases, it’s incredible to see the amount of attention Jimmy received throughout his career. Like other Hollywood stars, his activities, on-set demands, and pay rate were all the subjects of much ado.  He charmed audiences and his costars alike, no doubt leaving impressions of intelligence that would not be widely accepted until much later.  It would be nearly another twenty years after his death before corvids such as Jimmy would be federally protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.  I can’t say what roll, if any, Jimmy played in shaping the public’s perception of these birds, but it’s hard to imagine that such a star left without leaving a mark.

References:

  1. The Cincinnati Enquirer June 7, 1946: pg 17.
  2. Driscoll, C. New York Day by Day. The Choshocton Tribune. Choshocton, Ohio.  June 29, 1983: pg 8.
  3. Kohrs, K. and Ross, S. Movie Animal Man. The Salt Lake Tribune.  March 26, 1956: pg 109.
  4. Clary, P. Hollywood Film Shop. The Daily Republican.  Monongahela, Pennsylvania. November 18, 1948: page 6.
  5. Jim, the Raven, in new flicker. The Evening News. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. December 31, 1948: p. 12.
  6. Parsons, L.O. Those Film Fauna are Ticklish Detail.  Tampa Bay Times, St. Petersburg, Florida.  March 17, 1946: pg 79.
  7. Burton, R. Film Shop. Odessa American.  Odessa, Texas. April 30, 1957: pg 8.
  8. Performing Raven. The Tribune. Coshocton, Ohio.  August 23, 1958: pg 4.

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Filed under Corvid trivia, Just for fun, Ravens

15,000 crows

I had imagined it like a beckoning flood.  A small sputter of water followed with increasing force until a great river finally makes its way.  Rather than water though, the flood I was trying to envision was the ascent of 12-15,000 crows to their nightly roost in Bothell, Washington.

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Witnessing it in person, I found that my water analogy was not entirely accurate.  Rather than being a steady stream with a predictable course, their arrival ebbed and flowed, sometimes leaving the sky lonely with only its fading grey light while other times exploding into seemingly endless black clouds.  They arrived from all cardinal directions, colliding into a mass that could be deafening at close range.  Although the movement of the flock as a whole was more restrained, individually they showed off with spontaneous dives and barrel-rolls.  Soon the light receded completely, and all I could sense was the cacophony of so many crows settling into the willow trees they would call their beds for the evening.

Time lapse of Bothell crow roost I took with my GoPro in December of 2016.  Music by Andy McKeen.

Since that first experience, I have visited the Bothell roost many times, each as awe inspiring as the time before.  This behavior isn’t unique to my region, however.  Cities and rural areas all over the world call themselves home to the upwards of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of crows that may seek their refuge when darkness falls.  Even in the greater Seattle area, Bothell is only one of two roughly equally sized roosts.  This kind of mass sleepover, known as communal roosting, isn’t unique to crows, but it certainly captures our attention in ways most other birds don’t.  So what exactly are the characteristics and functions of roosts?

For all species of corvid, roosts are places where anywhere from a small handful to hundreds of thousands of individuals may converge to spend the night together.  Though roosting occurs year round, it peaks in winter, when territorial pairs are free from the eggs or nestlings that demand all-night attention.  They may occur in wildlands, but more typically occur in cities, where sequestration of heat is higher than in surrounding areas.  Here in Bothell, the roost converges in a wetland outside of the University of Washington’s Bothell campus, but in other areas they may take over the rafters of abandoned buildings or trees dotted within a business district.

Historically Danville, IL hosted North America’s largest roost, a whopping 325,000 birds but I do not know if they remain the contemporary record holder.  The midwest is particularly primed to host such large numbers because many thousands of crows head there during winter from their too cold territories in Canada and because appropriate roosting locations are few and far between.

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Prior, or just after roosting crows attend “staging” or “pre/post-roost” areas where they gather in the trees or on the ground by the hundreds or thousands.  Since these staging areas often occur on asphalt or turf where there’s little food or water, their function continues to elude scientists though social or anti-predator implications seem likely.1 A new UW research study is attempting to parse why crows are so vocal during the staging period and what they might be trying to communicate.  Perhaps their findings will shed some much needed light on these events. 

Corvids get different things out of roost itself depending on the species or possibly even the region they live.  For example, for ravens roosts act, in part, as mobile information centers.2  A raven knowledgeable of a food bonanza such as a moose carcass will display to other ravens at first light, and recruit others to the food.  Rather than being a sign of food altruism, this kind of recruitment is often the only way a lone raven can gain access to a large carcass.  Finding and gaining access to an animal carcass is challenging both because its arrival is unpredictable but also because it’s intensely guarded by the pair whose territory happened to claim the animal’s life.  Overpowering a pair takes a small army, so by recruiting other birds, rather than giving up food in the name of helping others, the lone raven actually gains access to a resource it would have otherwise been boxed out of.

American crows on the other hand do not have this need because urban waste and invertebrate filled yards are so easy to come by.  For crows, roosts act in large part as predator protection.  The odds of successfully fleeing an incoming owl are much better when there are thousands of you, rather than just you and your mate.  They may serve other purposes as well though including socialization, mate finding, and thermoregulation.  Lastly, while there isn’t strong evidence of information sharing among crows it would be arrogant to claim we know it doesn’t occur.

How roosts are organized remains largely mysterious.  For example some evidence shows that ravens that come from the same food bonanzas also sleep near each other in a roost,2 whereas other work done on crows suggested that group cohesion is low at roosts.3  Still, other research suggests that while group cohesion from the territory is low,  it’s high leaving the staging area.  So perhaps there is deep rhyme and reason for who they sleep with, it just hasn’t been captured by the questions we’ve so far asked.  One thing is for certain though; the one place you don’t want to be is low in the trees with others above you.  There would be no escaping the white shower raining down throughout the night.

Even the people who share the UW’s campus are sensitive to this reality.  In perfect synchrony with the incoming cloud of birds, the umbrellas bloom like moonflowers.  Here in Seattle, people seem willing to take such measures to coexist with the birds (though I’m sure there are many who only do so only by rule of law).  In other areas though the cultural attitude or resulting damage makes such cohabitation difficult, even deadly.  In the most extreme case, 328,000 crows were killed in 1940 when the city of Rockford, IL elected to dispose of a local roost with dynamite.4  Today, crows are protected under the migratory bird treaty act and cities are usually required to take more creative, non-lethal approaches including noise and light deterrents.

City living doesn’t always lend itself to witnessing the kind of mass animal movements we fawn over when they appear in Planet Earth footage, but that doesn’t mean they are devoid of such spectacles.  The mass micro-migration of thousands of crows is an awe inspiring event,  grand in both scale and the mysteries it contains.  Any corvid or birdwatcher would be remiss to ignore such an opportunity and I encourage everyone to get outside, head to your roost, and watch the magic unfold.

Literature cited

  1. Moore JE, and Switzer PV. (1998).  Preroost aggregations in the American crow, corvus brachyrhyncos.  Canadian Journal or Zoology.  76: 508-512.
  2. Wright J, Stone RE, and Brown N. (2003).  Communal roosts as structured information centers in the raven, Corvus corax. Animal Ecology 72: 1003-1014.  DOI: 10.1046/j.1365-2656.2003.00771.x
  3. Donald F. Caccamise, Lisa M. Reed, Jerzy Romanowski and Philip C. Stouffer
    (1997). Roosting Behavior and Group Territoriality in American Crows. The Auk 114: 628-637
  4. Marzluff, J.M. and Angel, T. 2005. In the company of crows and ravens.  Yale University Press

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Filed under Birding, Crow behavior, crow conflicts, Crow curiosities, Crow life history, Crows and humans

Gifts for crow lovers

With the holiday season upon us, many people find themselves tasked with finding thoughtful gifts for their loved ones.  Although birds are seemingly so universally adored that finding bird themed gifts is no trouble, if it’s specific species you’re after, the challenge can be more immense.  Fortunately for crow lovers, there are lots of options to choose from if you know where to look.  Since you’re looking here, rest easy that half the battle is now over.  So sit back, enjoy, and feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments.

    1. Jewelry and apparel
    2. Art
    3. Books and education
    4. Kids
    5. Conservation


    Jewelry and apparel

    Sometimes you want to wear your passions on your sleeve, literally.  Fortunately online marketplaces like Etsy makes this more than possible.  A quick search of “crow t-shirt” reveals hundreds of options for any aesthetic.  Personally, I like to stick with shirts featuring original art.  Here are some of my top Etsy picks:

    Coyotees Maine

    Elusive Catfishery
    Maison Hydre
    Kathy Morton Stanion

    Outside of Etsy the apparel options can be harder to find but they are out there.  Charlie Harper for example, has an awesome screen printed tee that any crow lover will adore.

    For jewelry you can turn, once again, to Etsy but there are other options too.  June Hunter, who I also recommend elsewhere on this list, has a great collection of corvid themed jewelry.  The bonus here is that I can personally attest to the care and passion June has for these birds, so finding something in her shop will not only deem you an awesome gift-finder among your crow friends, but you’ll be supporting the work of someone who is themselves an ardent lover of crows.  Your local art galleries can also be great places to find amazing crow themed jewelry.  A favorite among my own collection was sourced from the Mary Lou Zeek gallery in Salem, Oregon.


    Art

    I can’t stress enough here that your city’s art galleries and boutiques can be great places to find local, handmade, and even one of a kind items.  Many people (including artists) love crows, which is good news for your brick and mortar shopping prospects.  Please, spend your money locally as much as possible.  That said, here are some online shopping options that support talented artists:

    From prints, to wall art, to totes and calendars, June Hunter has you covered.  Her Vancouver based studio celebrates the beauty of urban wildlife, with a special emphasis on crows.

    If ever I find myself with a great deal of disposable money, purchasing one of Jason Tennant’s astounding wood carvings will be among my top priorities.  Seriously, they’re unbelievable.  And wouldn’t luck have it, ravens are a fairly regular subject of his work.

    If it’s illustrations and painting you’re after, Etsy is once again a great resource. From acrylic to watercolor, there’s something for everyone.  Hey, even if you want something more out of the box like stained glass, you’re bound to find something.

    Perhaps the person you are shopping for already has walls covered in corvid paraphernalia and you need to get a little more creative with housewares.  Laura Zindel will help you outfit their shelves and table tops with gorgeous ceramics.  I own a set of plates and can attest to their beauty and durability.


    Books and Education

    There are so many excellent books on the topic of corvids that covering them really requires its own post. Fortunately, that post already exists, so I’ll simply direct you to it here.

  1. Books aren’t the only way, however, to give the gift of knowledge. Back in 2010, PBS first aired their NATURE documentary, A Murder of Crowswhich showcases a number of great studies and anecdotes, including the facial recognition work conducted by John Marzluff. Although you can stream the video for free, $18 is a small price to pay for being able to watch it whenever you please, and showing PBS some love.
    NCI_Logo
    For the ultimate crow education however, you should consider registering your loved one for the North Cascades Institute’s corvid class that’s offered the last weekend in June and is taught by John Marzluff and myself.  It’s a two day class complete with lovely and TAG approved accommodations, great food, beautiful scenery, and more information about corvids than you can possibly retain.  We often see nearly every species of corvid found in Washington, including ravens, crows, magpies, Clark’s nutcrackers, Steller’s jays and grey jays.  Registration for this year won’t open until January or February, but who doesn’t like an IOU for a gift?  It is worth noting the class fills up quickly once registration is open so make sure to stay on the ball.

  2. Kids

    I firmly believe that the indoctrination of crow love into kids should begin early; immediately if possible.  Fortunately, Etsy has your back with onesies, night lights, and probably whatever else your imagination can cook up.  For stuffies, local children’s stores or nature stores often carry raven or crow themed plush toys including this awesome raven puppet.

    There’s no shortage of corvid books aimed at kids either.
    10 roudy ravens by Susan Ewing is a counting book great for early readers.
    Lila and the crow by Gabrielle Grimard tells the story of a little girl who learns the beauty of being different from her neighborhood crow.
    Clever crow by Cynthia De felice uses rhyme to tell the story of a young girl trying to outwit a mischievous crow that is stealing trinkets from her mother.  Obviously the biology isn’t a highlight here, but the reviews are otherwise great.
    If accurate biology is what you’re after, Crow smarts by Pamela Turner promises to introduce children (and adults!) to the astounding minds of crows.
    For a children’s book that is more for adults than kids, consider Aldous Huxley’s The Crows of Pealblossom.  Considering that crows and snakes are both often on the receiving end of misguided public vitriol, I’m not a fan that the crows’ triumph comes at the  expense of the snake’s grisly end.  While the snake’s fate may not be appropriate for sensitive children, any adults that share a love of crows and Huxley’s other works will surely be delighted.


    Conservation

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    Perhaps your family tradition is that gifts should give back, or you recognize that your recipient would be happier knowing money was spent towards helping crows.  The Alalā, or Hawaiian crow, is one of the most endangered animals on the planet. Since 2002, they have been considered extinct in the wild.  Thanks to captive breeding efforts by the Alalā project, which is a partnership between San Diego Zoo Global and the Hawaiʻi Division of Forestry and Wildlife, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, eleven individuals were just released into the forests of the Big Island.  These kinds of captive breeding and reintroduction programs are the only hope for these birds, but they are expensive.  By donating not only can you directly help their cause, but you can demonstrate public interest in keeping this species alive.  Currently, there is no way to donate money online but you can do so the old fashion way.  Make checks payable to San Diego Zoo Global and put in the memo line that the money is to be directed to the the Hawaiian crow project.  I called San Diego Zoo Global to confirm that money can be allocated to the Alalā project specifically.  Mail checks to: P.O. Box 120271 San Diego, CA 92112.

    With these suggestions in mind, I wish you the best in your search for the perfect gift for the crow lover in your life. Happy hunting and please feel free to mention your own gift suggestions in the comments section.

 

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Filed under Crows and humans, Just for fun