Familiars of the Flock: Book 3 of the Crow Nickels

Familiars of the Flock: Book 3 of the Crow Nickels

I’m taking a moment from blogging about birds to blog about my newest novel about birds.

Eternal thanks to Alice Underwood, who designed all the covers!

Familiars of the Flock is now available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle editions. It’s the third and the last book of the Crow Nickels. Here’s the blurb from the back: Sol, a thinker-linker crow, challenges the Sky Council to work with select humans to put those sharing the planet on a flight path to make the world more habitable. Many members of the Great Flock – including the mischief-loving magpies – master thinker-linker techniques, and use their abilities to encourage humans to make better choices. In some parts of the planet, progress happens, often one human at a time. Alas, not all humans are willing to cooperate. The Sky Council sends Sol on dangerous missions, requiring many sacrifices from him, his sister Ava, their dead brother Peeps and even the magpies. They make progress, but at a cost. Sol is taken captive by a human and faces a set of difficult choices.

Familiars of the Flock is the third of a series, the Crow Nickels (chronicles), in which Sol joins other daring birds in a quest to save the planet. The first two novels are Hunters of the Feather and Scavengers of Mind.

Familiars of the Flock took a while to finish. One reason was because I was including the pandemic in the background, and when that started, I didn’t know how it was going to turn out.

Another reason was because a woman had tracked me down on the internet to tell me that Hunters of the Feather was the only book her husband would read when he was dying of cancer. He kept it by his bed to comfort him during the difficult treatments. Well, being told that is inspirational, but it’s also a bit intimidating. I kept wondering, is what I’m writing good enough? And, at least for me, first drafts are never good enough.

Nevertheless, I loved the journey with the crows and the magpies and a saucy cockatoo. I am sotty that it is over. But in the words of Great Mother Bird, “Grieve, but not too much, for your duty is to go on living.” Familiars of the Flock

Chickens at the Chalet Ingas! – Keeping Chickens #1

Chickens at the Chalet Ingas! – Keeping Chickens #1

In these days of high egg prices – when you can find eggs at all – some people may be wondering if they should keep chickens to lay eggs so they can have a steady supply. I thought it would be interesting to interview Anna Lemchens, who owns the bed-and-breakfast Chalet Ingas, as Anna keeps a few chickens. Note that Anna is in Troistorrents, Switzerland, near the border with France, at an altitude of 1100 meters. This means her environment may not be exactly like yours. Also, Anna is originally from Australia, so her spelling is not exactly like mine.

What made you decide to keep chickens? Were you around people who did it before? A friend has them, and then a neighbour got them and started encouraging me too, and I just got interested. I loved the idea of fresh eggs, and chickens have always made me laugh, and I love the country ‘feel’ of them as well as the idea of recycling kitchen leftovers! As I have a B&B in the mountains, I had the space and thought my clients would also appreciate home grown produce.

Terrace at Chalet Ingas with view of Dents du Midi (mountains)

What do you need to get started? It is quite a job getting organised actually. Chicken owners – once the first egg is laid (a very exciting moment) – joke about how it’s the most expensive egg ever. You can buy pre-fab coops or build your own. I’m not a carpenter so I had to hire someone to do it, but at least we could use recycled wood. If building your own, you need to decide how many you are going to have then check with local councils about their requirements for space per chicken. You also need to work out perching space, summer/winter facilities, whether to have an electric or manual coop door, feeding and water supply equipment, and maybe some ‘toys’ in the run.

What sort of time commitment does it take to keep chickens? What do you feed them? Once you have organised all the above, and have picked up your chooks (ed. note “chook” is Australian/New Zealand for chicken) from the supplier, it can be a little job teaching them to use their new perch at night. We wait until dark when they are asleep – they usually go for sleeping in the nesting boxes at first – and put them on the perch when they’re asleep and that seems to work. Especially if you are introducing new chickens to the flock, this seems an effective way to integrate the new ones more quickly too. But once they’re all integrated and are accustomed to their environment, they’re very low maintenance.

There are various illnesses and infections they can pick up, so you need to get educated about them and keep an eye out. There is also the yearly moult and sometimes they get broody so steps have to be taken when this happens, too.

Their main food is a nutritionally balanced pellet which I buy in huge sacks from the local farm shop. They also get corn and dried mealworms which are a treat & they absolutely love. They get any leftover salad, vegetable cut offs, leftover cooked egg dishes, and they love warm porridge in winter. Other bits of leftover kitchen scraps too but I always check on the internet first as some things can actually poison them.

View of Alps near Chalet Ingas

How many chickens do you have? Do they lay eggs regularly? I vacillate between 3 and 4. A minimum of 3 is recommended, as it establishes the all important ‘pecking order’, which is a very noticeable phenomenon. If you start with 3 and lose one (to foxes, birds of prey, which unfortunately can happen), then you can get 2 more at once, as just getting 1 at a time creates havoc with the pecking order and chickens can be quite mean to 1 newbie.

I’ve found that new chickens will start laying after 1-3 weeks, depending on the age you get them. They lay very regularly except if the weather is very hot or very cold, which can interrupt the regularity.

View of Chalet Ingas, with the cat called Bruce

Do they have personalities? Can you form relationships with them? They have very strong, individual personalities. Some want, or are OK with, being patted and picked up, others you can’t get near with a 20 foot pole. Some are easily trained – I call ‘chook chook chook’ and bang a tin lid so wherever they are, if they’re free ranging at the time, they know treats are available, and the good ones come running. Some take longer.

The cat Sheila, an excellent mouser, and a view of the Chablais Valley and cloud cover

I know you have had problems with hawks and foxes. What’s the best way to keep predators at bay? If they are free ranging, I have a big plastic owl tied to a post which I move around the garden, which is supposed to scare off hawks, and I have a moveable radio which I have on talkback stations which I also move around outside against the foxes. But it’s a bit of a nuisance and I’m not really sure if they’re terribly effective. Having a rooster is apparently a good deterrent, but I’m not prepared to get one of those, as they can be quite aggressive! The best solution is just to let them out of their run when you’re in the garden with them.


Red fox. This picture was taken at the British Wildlife Centre by Airwolfhound, but the same species is all over Europe, including the Swiss Alps. And although the foxes do eat the chickens, the foxes are so beautiful it’s hard to stay mad at them. Well, at least for me, as I am not a chicken. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Tell us about Chalet Ingas, and what visitors can expect. Also, are fresh-laid eggs on the menu? Chalet Ingas is a renovated alpage chalet originally built in 1911, situated in a forest but looking straight out onto the local landmark of the mountain range Dents du Midi. The B&B room is in the dormitory at the top of the chalet, and sleeps 1-4 people, with a private shower and toilet. Home grown eggs cooked to your preference are included!

Thanks, Anna, for answering these questions, and to those who have made it this far, thanks for reading!

Sol wondered from what kind of eggs humans hatched. They had no beaks; how did they break through their shells? With their little noses? How long did it take for their eyes to open? Hunters of the Feather, Book one of the Crow Nickels

Birds Who Nest IN the Ground

Birds Who Nest IN the Ground

Some birds don’t just nest on the ground, they nest IN the ground!

Why do they do this? Sometimes they can’t fly. Or maybe they can, but they tend to live in places with few trees. Or maybe they’re like hobbits, and they think a hole in the ground is just dandy and means comfort. Take a look at some of the world’s wonderful creatures.

Burrowing owl next to its burrow in Florida. By Dino Kanlic, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0

Above we see a burrowing owl. Burrowing owls do exactly what their name says; despite being able to fly, they live in burrows. They are also active during the day, although they may avoid the heat at mid-day. They tend to live in abandoned prairie dog burrows, which can be a problem for them when humans are trying to control eradicate prairie dogs. However, I did see one photo claiming that a burrowing owl had adapted to living in a pipe, which I guess would work if the pipe didn’t have water in it. And why have burrowing owls adapted to life on the ground? Well, in some parts of the Americas, there just aren’t that many trees. That’s where you find burrowing owls: in North and South America.

Kingfisher on eggs in a burrow. Pixdaus.com

Many bird species belong to the kingfisher family; various kingfishers live on all continents except Antarctica. Many, many of them nest in deep burrows made in riverbanks. Above we see a kingfisher incubating some eggs – at least for some species, the males and females take turns.

Making a vertical wall by the river for kingfisher burrows. Natuurpunt Waasland Noord 

Above we see a group of humans making a riverbank more hospitable for kingfishers, by creating a low vertical mud wall, ideal for making a kingfisher burrow. This was in the Netherlands.

Tufted puffin coming out of its burrow, Kuril Islands. By Eliezg, Wikipedia, GNU Free documentation license

Far in the northern Pacific, usually on islands to avoid predation, tufted puffins make their nests in burrows of dirt and grass. They dig these out themselves and then the male and female work together to incubate a single egg. Tufted puffins will sometimes nest in cliffs as well.

Sand martin nest with egg in a sandy burrow. By Axel Strauss, Wikipedia, GNU Free documentation license

Above we have a picture from a very different habitat: a sandy burrow, used by a sand martin. The pictures above and below come from Europe, but sand martins are found in a lot of the world. And in case you want to see a sand martin, here is one in flight:

Sand martin flying over Fife, Scotland. By Nigel Wedge, Wikipedia, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License

Now let’s move to another type of sandy burrow, used by the crab plover.

Crab plover. Photo from the Reconyx Camera showing an adult Crab Plover feeding a crab to its chick just outside the nest burrow. On the right a numbered plastic spoon marks another burrow.  See Research Gate.

Crab plovers live and breed in nest burrows along coasts near the Indian Ocean. Because the sandy burrows are warm from the sun and the position on the planet, crab plovers don’t have to spend as much time bothering with incubation. However, they still take their parental duties seriously, and feed their young – crabs, of course.

Amazonian motmot by Paulo Antonio Santos, CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Wikipedia didn’t have much about the Amazonian motmot, a cousin of the kingfisher, but the site confirms the birds breed in deep burrows in river banks. Besides, I couldn’t resist including such a beautiful bird.

Adult Kea in New Zealand, by Mark Whatmough. Wikimedia Commons.

Kea are parrots endemic to New Zealand. They also live in burrows. Unfortunately for them, their numbers as humans believed they were bothering sheep. Kea are now protected, and their numbers have improved. They are full of curiosity.

Certainly there are more birds that burrow, but above we have seven examples to give you a glimpse of the variety. They seem to do it on every continent besides Antarctica. Thanks for being here and taking joy in the diversity of life.

From the first book in the Crow Nickel series: She was the Great Mother Bird of all of us. She knew that her large, beautiful land, her home, was breaking apart and that the new smaller lands could be very different from the place she called home. In her wisdom she let her many chicks — she thought of them as chicks, even though many were grown — come to her in breeding pairs, to choose which gifts they wanted in order to survive. Hunters of the Feather, by Victoria Grossack

Basketful of Beaks #2

Basketful of Beaks #2

There are something like a gazillion different types of bird beaks out there. Even with this second offering, we’re only skimming the surface. Enjoy!

Female sword-billed hummingbird (with buff-tailed coronet) By Alejandro Bayer Tamayo, available through the creative commons licence 2.0

Relative to their bodies, sword-billed hummingbirds have the longest beaks. They live in the Andes. Why such long beaks? To get the sweetest nectar, of course. They apparently co-evolved with a particular passionflower that has a very long corolla. This means the sword-billed hummingbirds are the only species that can pollinate this plant, but the passionflower rewards them with delicious nectar. Note the female has a longer beak than the male.

Red crossbill. Dave Menke, public domain, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Another set of birds with specialized beaks for specialized diets are the crossbills, whose beaks, as can be seen above, cross. Why have an upper and lower beak that crosses? In order to get seeds out of pine cones. In fact, the beaks of the crossbills vary according to the different pines. The red crossbill breeds very early, in order to take advantage of the greater supply of seeds when the pine cones are available.

Greater flamingo, by Charles J. Sharp, Isabela Island of the Galapagos, Creative Commons Attribution 3

Flamingos have beaks that you cannot ignore, coming in two colors (black and pink above), large and shaped kind of weird. They use these beaks to eat, pushing them upside down into the mud, and then filtering the mud and silt from their food: blue-green algae, but also brine shrimp, insects and insect larvae, crustaceans, and whatever else happens to be down in the mud. They filter their food by pushing out the water and mud with their large tongues (a kind of gross idea for us humans) with the assistance of “lamellae,” hairy structures that line the mandibles.

Great horned owl. By Peter K Burian, Creative Commons 4

So far all of the beaks have been especially impressive or weird. I thought it was time to show a more ordinary beak from another species. The great horned owl is known for many cool things. They have amazing necks, allowing them to turn 270 degrees. Like many other owls, their wings and their feathers are designed so their flights are virtually silent. The picture above shows its powerful talons. Great horned owls use these talons to kill their prey, and not, at least usually, their relatively little beaks. They tend to swallow prey whole and then regurgitate the bones in the form of owl pellets. However, the curve of the beak does help them rip open the flesh of their prey when they’re not swallowing it whole.

Male Canada goose, by Dig deeper. Creative commons 4

Canada geese, which eat a lot of grass and grain, have some interesting qualities to their beaks – they’re serrated. This has got to make getting that grass much easier – they don’t just pull — imagine how tired their necks would get – they slice through, as if they were using a saw or a serrated scythe. Even more interesting: apparently the tongues are serrated too! I’m beginning to think that I should dedicate a couple of these entries to various bird tongues, but it would be a challenge to find photos to accompany them.

Common kingfisher. Luca Casale, Creative commons 4. Also won picture of the year in 2020.

Above we see a common kingfisher – about the size of a house sparrow – using its beak to fish. Although some water birds stab with their sharp and pointy beaks, this kingfisher seems to be using its beak like a set of quick and lethal chopsticks, plucking an unlucky little fish out of the water (in this case, near the River Po in Italy). If you think that would be a skill that would be difficult to master, even if you were a common kingfisher and your life depended on it, you would be right. About half of the common kingfishers don’t master this skill and they die shortly after leaving home, either through drowning or starvation. However, the common kingfisher is still common enough; they have a “least concern” rating with respect to their conservation status.

Grey heron. By Assianir, Creative commons 4.

Kingfishers are tiny (16 cm, or 6.5 inches). Gray herons are huge, about a meter (~3 feet) tall. But they often frequent the same place (at least I have seen them near each other). Gray herons use their beaks for fishing as well. They may stab the fish. Or they may grab the fish, and then slam it on a rock until it is dead. They use their beaks for more than fish: small mammals – I often see them in fields – and in the picture above, it’s got a young common moorhen. Sometimes they use their beaks to break their prey into pieces, because it can be too large to swallow whole.

It’s no surprise that the main purpose of beaks is getting food, because the beaks are the window to the throat and stomach. Hence many of them have evolved to serve that purpose. But those beaks get used a lot of other ways. Many use them, along with their talons, when building nests – either carrying material or arranging it – or to scratch an itch or to preen feathers.

7 examples to give you a pleasant break in your day! Thanks for being here.

From the first book in the Crow Nickel series: She was the Great Mother Bird of all of us. She knew that her large, beautiful land, her home, was breaking apart and that the new smaller lands could be very different from the place she called home. In her wisdom she let her many chicks — she thought of them as chicks, even though many were grown — come to her in breeding pairs, to choose which gifts they wanted in order to survive. Hunters of the Feather, by Victoria Grossack

A Basketful of Beaks #1

A Basketful of Beaks #1

When we think of birds, what first comes to mind are their feathers and their wings. But just as noticeable are the beaks. Beaks are super important, and come in all shapes and sizes. In fact, their variety helped Darwin come up with the idea of natural selection in his Origin of Species, when he studied the different beaks of the different “finches” of the different Galapagos Islands (the word “finches” is in quotes because these are not true finches).

Darwin’s finches, as drawn by John Gould for The Voyage of the Beagle. In the public domain.

What are beaks made out of? Well, there’s some bone. You’ve probably seen some bird skulls, and you can recognize them as birds because of the beak bones, one for the upper and the lower parts. But beaks are also covered by keratin, the same stuff in our fingernails. (Keratin is also the same stuff in rhinoceros horns, which means that the murder of rhinos for their horns – supposedly a substance with virtually magic powers – is the murder of rare animals for the equivalent of a pile of fingernails.) Anyway, the keratin in beaks – like the keratin in our fingernails and toenails – constantly regrows. Sometimes birds even need to file down their beaks. If you see them “wiping” their beaks on a branch, this may be what they’re doing.

Toca Toucan, the largest toucan. By Basa Roland, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52806300

Perhaps the world’s best known beak belongs to Toucan Sam, the mascot of Kellogg’s breakfast cereal, Froot Loops. A real toucan is shown above, with a beak so large you may be wondering how it manages to fly. Apparently, despite the great size of these beaks, they don’t weigh much. According to Wikipedia: “Despite its size, the toucan’s bill is very light, being composed of bone struts filled with spongy tissue of keratin between them, which take on the structure of a biofoam.[6] The bill has forward-facing serrations resembling teeth, which historically led naturalists to believe that toucans captured fish and were primarily carnivorous; today it is known that they eat mostly fruit” (their love of fruit makes them a suitable mascot for Froot Loops), The toucan also uses this beak to scare off other birds and to raid the nests of small birds deep in trees.

Rhinoceros hornbill, female catching a peanut. Photo by Thomas Quine, creative commons 2

Another famous bill belongs to the hornbill, an example above, with a thingy called a casque on top of the beak. Rhinoceros hornbills are devoted to each other; when they mate, the female goes into a hole in the trunk of a tree and the male protects her and the chicks by walling her in with a structure made out of mud. He feeds her, and the chicks when they hatch, through a small hole in the wall. The casques seem to be used for fighting among males, but it’s hard to discern much utility in them.

Rosease Spoonbill, uploaded by user Mwanner, Myakka River State Park, Sarasota County, Florida, GNU Free documentation license

For some species, the raison d’être for the beak’s shape is more obvious. The roseate spoonbill wades in water, moving its beak from side to side in the water, feeding. Whenever something touches its beak – fish, insect, whatever – the beak snaps shut. I guess it’s rather like a Venus fly trap.

Gila Woodpecker. By Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons. Transfer was stated to be made by User:JJ55., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3249300

Woodpeckers use their beaks all the time! They pound into trees (or cacti, preferred by gila woodpeckers) to search for insects and grubs. Whether they’re hammering on wood or on cacti, they are hard, nay, impossible to ignore. The sound may be giving you a headache, but have you ever wondered how come the woodpeckers don’t get headaches? Their brains are cushioned and the strain energy is distributed around their entire bodies. Ever wonder, too, why they hammer for a bit, then stop, then hamer some more? It’s because they need to take breaks to keep their brains from overheating. See Wikipedia.

American white pelican. By Frank Schultenberg, Creative Commons 3

Pelicans augment the utility of their beaks with the addition of a throat pouch, also known as a gular pouch. Apparently the skin hangs from two bones in the lower beak. Also, take a look at the hook at the end of the upper beak. That’s used to “nick” fish and to keep the slimy creatures from getting away. Pelicans’ bills and their pouches may change color according to the season and whether or not they’re mating. Finally, pelicans have among the largest beaks in the world.

Ruby-throated hummingbird sticking out its tongue. Henry Quadling, Creative Commons 4.0

Hummingbirds may be the smallest group of birds, but for their size, they’ve got a lot of beak. They are obviously designed to get down into flowers for sweet nectar, but they also have tongues, as do the rest of the birds.

There are so many more cool beaks and beak uses out there, but I believe in the magic number 7, in other words, that’s about how many pictures a human can tolerate before getting bored. So I will save them for a future Crow Nickel.

Thanks for reading!

She was the Great Mother Bird of all of us. She knew that her large, beautiful land, her home, was breaking apart and that the new smaller lands could be very different from the place she called home. In her wisdom she let her many chicks — she thought of them as chicks, even though many were grown — come to her in breeding pairs, to choose which gifts they wanted in order to survive. Hunters of the Feather, by Victoria Grossack

Reducing Food Waste: A Personal Odyssey

Reducing Food Waste: A Personal Odyssey

If you have read any of the Crow Nickels, you know that the crows are deeply concerned about the climate crisis, which as most scientists agree, is mostly driven by humans. One source of the problem is food waste. In the US, 40% of food gets thrown out by consumers. In other parts of the world, the food is wasted because it spoils before it reaches the consumers or it rots before it even gets harvested. This means a lot of energy and water and land is wasted in producing food that never gets eaten by us humans.

Now, many people are working on these problems, which have many solutions. Some problems can only be solved by producers and those in the food chain. However, we as individuals can work to reduce our own food consumption. This can be done by (1) eating less, and (2) wasting less.

Husband and I have always agreed on the principle of not throwing out food. He’s better at this than I, eating things well past their sell date. But recently, over the Xmas-New Year holidays of 2021 and 2022, we went much further. This was because the omicron variant of covid was raging in our part of the world, and we decided that – despite each of us being boosted – for a few weeks we would avoid all shops and stores. We have always had a good supply of cans, jars and boxes, and this was the time to use them.

First, during this period we reduced our general consumption. For example, in this raclette meal, you can see the two last potatoes in the house. Usually we go through many more!

Eating less may not seem like a way to reduce food waste, exactly, but if those who could afford it health-wise would eat less food, the world could produce less, and hence free up resources. (And also devote fewer resources to transportation, as freighting around lighter people takes less energy.) Besides, we really did get enough, when you include the cheese and the onions and the garlic not pictured. Furthermore, in the time of covid it is much safer to have a lower BMI, and generally it’s healthier, too.

Second, we decided to make the most of what we already had. This meant scouring the shelves, the nooks and crannies of the fridge, and opening tubes and jars I had been reluctant to test. To my surprise, nearly everything was edible. Jalapeño peppers are apparently just too spicy to go moldy.

Now, I’m not recommending everyone start eating expired food. If it appears suspect, don’t eat it. If it might be OK, do the smell test. Then the taste test. After that, wait a while and see if you have any problems. But we have discovered things in the fridge and in the cupboards that seem perfectly good despite being long past their sell-by dates.

Husband is an avid consumer of fruit, preferably fresh. But fresh fruit only lasts so long. He has rationed, but there are only a few bites remaining. To supplement the fruit, he has combined the fresh with some preserved fruits (of course, preserved fruits come with sugar, which is bad for you). Husband even started by opening a jar of rhubarb compote, which should have been consumed a dozen years ago. Not only did it not make him sick (he can consume anything) but he liked it so much he wanted more.

the last lonely plum in the usually crowded fruit bowl

To meet my own fruit requirements, I stirred some (sweetened and still unexpired) applesauce into packages of sauerkraut. This gives me a fruit portion and plenty of vitamin C. Then, there are usually dried plums and raisins available, to supplement the fruit portions.

Me, I really like fresh vegetables, but we’ve had to ration those as well. We are using every bit of our cabbages, even the cores, which are perfectly edible if you chop them thin enough (note this takes some work).

Combining the cabbage with red beans, onions, lardons, and some chili-garlic sauce that was still good after gathering dust for a decade, makes a great meal when served on rice.

Then, there are ways of making other vegetables last even longer. My green onions produced for at least twelve weeks after I bought them. This is what remains at the end.

Green onions: what remains after three months of production

Because there are times when one cannot leave the house – usually due to snow, not pandemics – we always have many canned goods, pictured above, in an old fridge stored in the garage. Combining these with various sauces and spices has turned out really well. In fact, we have enjoyed some meals so much that we intend to do several of them again, but on purpose instead in extremis.

In the past four weeks, we have spent less than $15 at a grocery store, something that only happened because we had been asked to bring dessert to the house of some friends (before the covid numbers spiked). It’s been fun to see how much money we have been saving. But I also hope we’re helping the planet a bit as well.

Victoria Grossack is the author of the Crow Nickels, of which two volumes are available: Hunters of the Feather and Scavengers of Mind. They are about Sol, a thinker-linker crow who has a quest to save the Great Flock from climate change. “Try, and again try, till you win or till you die.” Junkyard Abner, Hunters of the Feather

A Few Fun Facts About Corvids

A Few Fun Facts About Corvids

According to Wikipedia, there are 133 species of corvids. Corvidae are part of the larger order known as Passerines. Passerines are known as songbirds (yes, corvids sing, even if we don’t always like the sound) but also as perching birds. We can all agree that crows perch! Anyway, the corvids include crows and ravens, but also rooks, jackdaws, jays, magpies, treepies, choughs and nutcrackers. They are found on every continent except for Antarctica, and they have made it to many far-flung islands, such as Hawaii and New Caledonia.

Corvid distribution by MPF, from Wikipedia

How did they get to so many different places? Corvids are not powerful migrators, although some do it. They can’t cross the ocean the way some birds can. However, the planet has changed considerably with time. The continents used to be closer together. The corvid family has been around 17 million years, so that may have helped. And, during ice ages, seas were much lower, exposing far more land. Note I am just speculating, but these things seem reasonable.

Corvids, especially ravens and crows, are considered to be some of the smartest birds. Some of them recognize themselves in mirrors, and some of them make tools. Mirrors and tools were the vain ways that humans used to claim superior intelligence to all other species. And yes, humans are smart; we have a new telescope out in space, but just imagine building a nest with a beak and a pair of talons! And you can’t use both feet at the same time, not unless you’re flying.

Anyway, here’s a New Caledonian crow in the wild using a tool. Not one of the New Caledonian crows in captivity who have proved their intelligence by solving all sorts of problems (but they’re in captivity, so they may be less intelligent than their wild relatives).

The largest corvids are ravens, weighing over 1400 grams, or, in the Imperial system, more than 3 pounds. The two types of ravens that meet this are the Common Raven and the Thick-Billed Raven.

Common Raven, found all over the Northern hemisphere
Thick-billed Ravens courting in Ethiopia, Wikipedia, A. Davey

The smallest corvid is the Dwarf Jay. It weighs about 41 grams, and if you want that in pounds, that’s less than one-tenth of a pound! It is about 8-9 inches in length. It lives in a part of Mexico, and due to habitat loss, it is in the “Near Threatened” category. It resembles many other jays. Here’s a picture:

Dwarf Jay, Wikipedia Commons

According to experts, the Alpine chough is the highest flyer in the corvid cousins, nesting in the Alps and the Himalayas. I have spent loads of time in Switzerland and I often see huge groups foraging at lower altitudes in winter. Alpine choughs are pretty hardy; I also saw one take a very cold water bath – a plastic basin I use for gathering weeds had filled up with snow – as soon as it melted, an Alpine chough jumped in, while the other species only used that basin to quench their thirst.

Alpine chough by Jim Higham, Wikipedia

Corvids are especially susceptible to the West Nile virus, which is carried by mosquitos. Humans also get this disease, but we don’t die at the terrible rates that afflict corvids. American crows, blue jays and yellow-billed magpies died at rates of up to 50%, which is much higher than the rates for other birds.

Yellow-billed magpie, Lake San Antonio, US, Bill Bouton

Many corvid species are adapting to humans and our changes to the environment, but some are having a difficult time of it. The Hawaiian crow now only exists in captivity; due to habitat loss, it is “extinct in the wild”. Others are doing much better, despite the follies of humans. Have you ever heard of the cane toads and how they were brought to Australia? The idea was that cane toads would eat pests that eat crops.

To be fair, cane toads do eat pests that eat sugarcane pests in other countries (which is why they’re called cane toads, sugarcane). However, the cane toads did not eat Aussie pests, and they turned into pests themselves. On top of that, the skin of the adults is so toxic that most predators died when they ate them.

The Australian crows were not to be outsmarted. They figured out how to eat this new source of food, by flipping the cane toad on to its back, holding it down with a talon, then eating the soft underbelly.

Not the nicest way for the cane toads to die, but it shows the adaptability of these brilliant birds.

Hope everyone is well in these strange times, and please fly by again to read a few random feathers I have arranged for you.

Victoria Grossack is the author of the Crow Nickels, of which two volumes are available: Hunters of the Feather and Scavengers of Mind. They are about Sol, a thinker-linker crow who has a quest to save the Great Flock from climate change. “Try, and again try, till you win or till you die.” Junkyard Abner, Hunters of the Feather

Happy New Year from the Crow-Nickels

Happy New Year from the Crow-Nickels

Some treats to get 2022 started! First, a reminder of what 2021 was all about:

Even the crows have masks now!

Really hope we can get rid of those masks soon!

Another story: Some crows can talk, but their language may be fowl! This is about a crow that went to an elementary school in Oregon (Lizzy Acker, The Oregonian):

A friendly, if somewhat foul-mouthed, crow became a temporary mascot at Allen Dale Elementary School in November when the bird took up residence at the Grants Pass school.

The fowl-mouthed crow

“This crow showed up at our school just out of the blue one morning,” said Naomi Imel, an education assistant at Allen Dale, over the phone on Thursday.

It began looking into classrooms, Imel said, and pecking on doors. At one point, it made its way into a fifth-grade classroom where it “helped itself to some snacks,” she said. … And, she added, it spoke. The bird could say, “What’s up?” and “I’m fine” and “a lot of swear words.”

Then, this is a frame from a video of a crow that was sliding on a plastic top down a steep roof, apparently in Russia. Wintry fun. You gotta wonder if sledding is more fun than flying? Evidently, this crow thought so:

SnowCrowboarding crow

By the way, I am not a fan of Russian TV, but this one is innocent.

And for those who can’t spell tell crows apart from ravens, there’s this:

Let’s keep our feathers on, and make 2022 less stressful than 2021 and 2020.

“Try, and again try, till you win or till you die.” Junkyard Abner, Hunters of the Feather. Also quoted in the second volume of the Crow-Nickels, Scavengers of Mind.

Jane Austen, Mathematician by Victoria Grossack

Jane Austen, Mathematician by Victoria Grossack

Jane Austen's World

Inquiring readers: Victoria Grossack, FCAS, the author of this piece and an actuary, sent this highly interesting article about Jane Austen and mathematics, a first topic for this blog. Enjoy!

Janeites esteem Jane Austen as a literary genius. Her characters are exquisitely drawn and her dialogue can be wickedly funny. She also uses the stream of consciousness technique before it became popular. All devotees know her novels are classics.

What about Austen as a mathematician, however? She never promotes herself in this regard. Like most female authors in her day, she doesn’t promote herself at all, not even putting her name on her novels – but in her writing, her mathematical abilities are evident. In fact, she uses math in a way that would make most actuaries proud. (Note: Actuaries are specialized mathematicians who generally work for insurance companies, which is relevant to some of the math Austen uses.)


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Five Droppings about Bird Poop

Five Droppings about Bird Poop

All animals do it, even though talking about it is not considered polite. We humans have sanitized rooms (or not) with air fresheners and running water. Remember how, when the pandemic struck, one of the emergencies was a run on toilet paper? Birds, mostly very different from us, have a different approach to the process. Here are five droppings about bird poop.

1. Bird droppings are important for spreading seeds. When a bird eats a berry, it often digests the fleshy part, but the seed passes through its system intact. When the seed comes out, along with the rest of the poop, the fecal material, which has a lot of nitrogen, serves as fertilizer. Because birds fly, this gives some plants the chance to spread their seeds far and wide. In fact, some plants, such as the wild cherry and the bird cherry, depend on birds to scatter potential offspring.

Bird eating berries, Eden Project

2. Humans also value bird poop as fertilizer. When bird (and bat) poop is used as fertilizer, it gets the fancier term “guano”. It turns out that the best bird poop for fertilizer is produced by seabirds, probably because they eat mostly fish. And one of the best known places for guano is a group of islands off of Peru, the Chincha Islands, which have a LOT of seabirds (the most common birds are Guanay Cormorants, Peruvian Pelicans, and Peruvian Boobies). I have ridden in a boat past these islands, which are whitish with droppings and still very stinky. The guide explained that only a few people were allowed on those islands, working to export the guano. This Audubon piece details how Peru currently harvests 21,000 tons per year from the Chincha Islands.

Peruvian booby, photo by Fred Leviez

3. Guano islands can be of national importance. The Chincha Islands (Islas Chinchas) was of such strategic significance that Spain started a war (1865-1866) over these islands as it tried to take them back from their colonies. The United States even passed a law in 1856 allowing (encouraging!) U.S. citizens to take possession of unclaimed islands with guano deposits. The islands could be anywhere in the world, and were considered eligible as long as they were unclaimed and unoccupied (by humans, that is; birds were OK). Why was this so important? Because the guano was good, not just for fertilizer, but for saltpeter. As saltpeter was a critical ingredient in gunpowder, guano was a strategic reserve.

Chincha Islands, photo by Gabriele Giuseppenit

4. Birds poop differently than humans do. First, birds generally have fewer orifices in the nether regions. Human males have two, one for urination/reproduction and a second for poop, while human females have three, one dedicated to urination, a second orifice for poop, and a third for reproduction. Birds, however, usually have just a single orifice for all these functions, called the cloaca (note that some species, such as ostriches, cassowaries and geese, actually have phalluses). In order to reproduce, male and female birds rub their cloaca together to transfer sperm. Second, birds seem to be relaxed about voiding; they can even do it while flying.

Roseate Spoonbill voiding in flight. Photo by Carl Owenby

5. Some birds clean their nests. Although places such as the Chincha Islands are literally known and protected for their guano, and obviously the birds using these islands don’t mind the great quantities of guano (the Peruvian booby even uses guano in the construction of its nesting sites), many birds are more fastidious. The nestlings produce fecal sacs, and some parents make a point of removing the fecal sacs. Why, exactly? It could be to reduce the smell, which could attract predators. On the other wing, some parents consume their offspring’s droppings, presumably because the droppings still contain some nutrition.

Western bluebird carrying out a fecal sac in its beak

Enough about poop for the day! Thanks for dropping by.

Victoria Grossack is the author of the Crow Nickels, of which two volumes are available: Hunters of the Feather and Scavengers of Mind. They are about Sol, a thinker-linker crow who has a quest to save the Great Flock from climate change. “Try, and again try, till you win or till you die.” Junkyard Abner, Hunters of the Feather