Category Archives: Just for fun

Meet Ferdinand

Around this time last year I was both delighted and intrigued when a reader emailed me about a very usual crow showing up in her yard.  Unlike its flock mates this crow was not black, but white and brown, like the kind of milked-down coffee that inspires the comment “would you like some coffee with your cream?”.  Understanding what would cause such a unique coloration in her crow sent me down a most unexpected rabbit hole where the science of what I call ‘caramel crows’ turned out to be somewhat subject to mystery.

Within months of publishing that article, I couldn’t believe my luck to encounter a caramel crow of my own named Blondie.  Whereas the science of their pigmentation may be up for debate, their beauty most certainty is not and I considered myself exceptionally lucky to lay eyes on one in person.

Photos of Blondie from 2017

Now, it seems my perception of their rarity may not have been quite justified as I have since discovered yet a second caramel crow, who I call Ferdinand, in a completely different part of the city.  Unlike Blondie, who lives exclusively in a residential area, Ferdinand’s haunts include a public park.  I won’t give his or her precise location, but if you’re a Seattle native I encourage you to use the clues provided in the text and photos of this post to see if you can find Ferdinand.  If you do use the hashtag #FoundFerdinand to update us on its activities but remember not to give away its precisely location.  This is both to encourage people to get outside and explore on their own, and to protect Ferdinand’s safety.  If seeming him in person is not possible I hope these photos will suffice.  As a last bit of fun feel free to let me know in the comments who you think wore it better, Ferdinand or Blondie.

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Filed under Birding, Crow curiosities, Just for fun

ƨ’ileɒꓘ story

It still leaks through my writing sometimes.  Missing or misplaced letters, even whole words conspicuously absent as if a miniature black hole opened up mid sentence. My grammar and punctuation leave something to be desired too, and all these problems are exasperated when I’m stressed or rushed.  Childhood ghosts that love to pay visits at the most inopportune of times, haunting me with their reminders that my grasp of written language was a war hard fought, and not every battle was won.

As a kid, a mixture of ADHD and dyslexia made learning to read and write feel impossible.  While my peers were in the worlds offered by their chapter books, I was getting lost in the world provided by my own imagination; a much friendlier place at the time than the outside one where my literacy progress seemed to be causing great distress among my guardians and educators.  Things came to a head near the end of second grade, when an art activity to decorate flag with our name went a little ~backwards~.  A meeting was set to discuss that I would not be permitted to move forward the next year with my peers.  The repercussions of that fact pierced even the densest layers of my imaginary world.  Instead of watching my friends sail away from me while I stayed in place, I chose to switch to a public school that had programs for kids like me.

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The flag has been a staple of my parent’s home ever since 2nd grade, always stationed across from the bathroom mirror.

Over the next two years I saw psychologists and therapists, attended special literacy classes, got Hooked on Phonics, and made the dreaded daily trips to the nurse’s office for The Pills.  I hated the pills.  I can’t even remember why at this point.  It could have been because of how they made me feel, or with what other kids chose to do with the information that I was on them, or some combination.  Either way, it became my mission to get off them.

Returning to my old school had always been the goal, and by the end of 4th grade they agreed I had made enough progress to rejoin my peers the next year.   I advocated that coming back wasn’t enough, I no longer wanted to be medicated.  I would do whatever I needed to make that happen, and my 5th grade teacher took the reins in planning a strategy to help me.  I never turned back to the medication, even over the next three years as I continued to struggle and intermittently fail classes.  Then, in 8th grade, my family moved out of state and I switched back from a private school to a public one.  My new 8th grade coursework was almost identical to the 7th grade coursework at my former school.  Suddenly, rather than trailing my peers, I was slightly ahead.  Although slight, the margin was just enough to afford me the mental bandwidth of learning time management and self imposed structure in conjunction with my coursework.  By the end of 8th grade I, for the first time, was excelling at school.

I would never go on to be a top 10th percentile kind of person, and when it came to applying for undergrad and graduate programs I had more than one institution look no further than my numbers and pass.  In place of the skills that might make me an excellent test taker, however, some things much more valuable to me bloomed.  A sense of creativity born out of those years deep in imaginary worlds.  A willingness to ask for extra help and the ability to say the words “I don’t understand.” Finally, a sense of resiliency.  I can fail or struggle many times and either overcome it, or make the choice to exert my energies in other ways instead.  In any case, my value as a person, as a scientist, are not contingent on those successes or failures but how I respond to them.  And that’s entirely up to me.

***

I wrote this piece in response to the handful of parents and kids over the years who have identified with my story.  I wanted to offer a more permanent legacy that could be read and shared by those who wanted it.  I do not mean for it to act as a roadmap for other people, because I recognize that not all families have access to the resources that my family did.  Above all it’s because I recognize that there is no roadmap or magic wand.   I process things differently than most people, and getting a handle on how to make that work within our current educational system required tireless effort on behalf of myself, my family, and my educators, in addition to the simply the passage of time.  Time to develop self-specific skills and coping mechanisms.  Time to grow into my brain.  Time to embrace that it’s not the mid sentence black holes that define my writing, but the way the message resonates with the reader.

♥♥♥

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Filed under Being a scientist, Just for fun

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

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.
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    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

My first caramel crow 

A few months ago I was both bewildered and delighted when someone emailed me some photographs of a brown crow that regularly visited them.  I had never seen such a bird myself, and was eager to arrive at an explanation for the crow’s strange caramel-colored appearance.  If you follow the blog, you know that I came to realize there was little to offer by way of explanation.  Instead, this color abnormality presents a rather fascinating mystery of conflicting opinions and an overall dearth of science.

So, after penning my answer I tucked this bird away in the back of my mind and moved forward with the science more relevant to my PhD.  Namely, testing how different crows across the Seattle area respond to dead crows.

To this aim, I spend my days wandering the neighborhoods of Seattle looking for crow families to use for my experiments.  Since I need lots of data points it means I encounter lots (think hundreds) of individual crows.  And wouldn’t you know it.  Sometimes the twain shall meet.

Its mate first caught my eye because, of course, I was looking for black things, not blond things.  Even after I registered the bird, I instinctively thought pigeon.  But then it called, and I realized what was happening.

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At 60m away with my naked eye, I first mistook Blondie for a friendly pigeon.

I FOUND A CARAMEL CROW!  And not just a caramel crow, but a caramel crow with a mate and three fledglings.  A black mate and three black fledglings.  Which suggests that whatever is going on is either recessive or not genetic.  It also shows that, for at least this one caramel bird, the color abnormality did not prohibit it from successfully reaching sexual maturity or finding a mate.  After speaking with the neighbors, it appears “Blondie,” as they call it, has been in the neighborhood for several years and it’s possible she’s not the only caramel crow, though I never confirmed any others.  Outside of that, I can’t say much more from a scientist’s standpoint that I haven’t said before.  So I’ll simply finish the post with a photo story of Blondie.  Enjoy!

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Meet Blondie

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Blondie and its mate.  Since I discovered this bird after its nestlings had already fledged, I have no way of determining its sex.

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So beautiful in this juniper tree!

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Blondie’s fledglings were typical looking crow kiddos.

The next batch of images are probably one of the most hilarious bits of fledgling dramatics I’ve ever seen.  It is a scene familiar to many parents I’m sure.  Forgive me for taking my scientist hat off, but I couldn’t help but add some anthropomorphic captions.

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Hello parent I am hungry.

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DID YOU HEAR ME, I SAID I’M HUNGRY.

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(whispering) help, parent, I need sustenance for my growing body.

 

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(muffled whispering) please, have mercy, it’s been over 15 minutes since I was last fed.

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MAYBE I’VE ALREADY DIED AND NOW I’M A GHOST IS THAT WHY YOU AREN’T LISTING TO ME???

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I’m sorry.  I’m just hangry.  I love you.

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Cheers to yet another beautiful crow.  Goodbye for now!

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Filed under Birding, Crow curiosities, Just for fun

Are you playing #CrowOrNo yet?

Crows, ravens, magpies, even blackbirds or other non-corvid species can be tricky to distinguish from one another if you’re a beginning or even experienced birder given the right angle or blurry photo.  While some of it is a matter of learning key field markers, a big part of effectively learning to distinguish these species is an eye for the subtle differences in portion or appearance that comes with practice.  I believe learning these skills is not only fun, but makes us more informed corvid lovers and birders.

To that aim, I’ve started a weekly #CrowOrNo “quiz” on my Instagram (@swiftcrow) and Twitter (@kswift_crow) accounts.  Every Wednesday at 11:30 AM PST, I’ll post one photo and it’s up to you to decide whether or not it’s really a crow.  At the end of the day I’ll share the answer and any tips or tricks that would have helped to discern the true species.  Play, share, or simply spectate.  Whatever you’re comfortable with is fine for me, as long as you’re enjoying the process and learning more about these wonderful animals!  Check out the photos below for examples from past weeks.  I hope to see you there!

Oh, and have photos you think would make good fodder for the game?  Send them my way!

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Filed under Birding, Corvid trivia, Just for fun

Crows caught play wrestling

I’ve posted before about the generals of crow play behaviors, and it’s something I’m routinely delighted with as the kids of late summer start testing the limits of their world and their peers.  Adult play (or what I’m fairy confident are adults) is something I’ve encountered far less often, however.  Even more rare is a camera on hand to capture what’s usually a rather fleeting behavior.

You can imagine my excitement then, when yesterday not only was I present to witness either two adults or one adult and one subadult play wrestling in the grass but I also had a camera already rolling.  Granted the footage isn’t great (it’s an old camera and they were far away) but you can make out enough to see what’s happening.

Here’s a play by play of them moments leading up to and during the event.

  • I had been following a family group of three, presumably composed of two territorial adults and one subadult based on mouth lining color and general behavior (allopreening).
  • Two of them were foraging when they joined together and began to roll in the grass.
  • No audible calls were given, which I would expect if it had been a malicious attack.
  • You can see moments where one crow appears to have the upperhand and then willingly falls to its side to allow a shift in power and continue the play.
  • The roughhousing only stopped after the third bird flew overhead and gave a short loud ‘caw’.
  • After they disentangled they continued foraging near each other rather then taking chase, another indication that is was mutual and fun rather than antagonistic.

Pretty cool right?!

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Filed under Crow behavior, Field work, Just for fun, Uncategorized