Crying for a Crow

DSCN09861 (600 x 491) This morning I did the usual circuit of the garden before going out across the fields with the dogs and as I passed Merlina’s aviary I did a double take. No ‘caw caw caw’. I stopped and looked in disbelief at the little sanctuary I had created for her. Empty. With a growing sense of horror I went in and found a hole right in the corner – a fox had got in, I’m sure. But there was no sign of a struggle and we heard nothing in the night and she is usually VERY vociferous if anything unknown approaches her house.

I blubbed like a baby. I saved her life three years ago when the dogs found her in the field dragging a broken wing. She went off to LIPU (equivalent of NSPB) to have an operation to amputate the wing and then she was mine again as she couldn’t be set free. I built her a shelter and took great delight in spending time with this beautiful and intelligent creaure. She began cawing as I passed or whenever we went out. She did cute thngs with her food, hiding it in odd places. She lined up twigs or beads or cones in patterns and watched with keen interest whenever the dogs and I were in the garden.

I often felt she was lonely but I never found another crow to put in with her. I felt so sorry she couldn’t fly and wondered what she must be thinking as her fellow hooded crows soared above her in the sky cawing down at her. But she hopped around and although she quite often plummeted to the ground from one of the intricate arrangement of branches I set up from her she would always pick herself up again and clamber back up.

And now she’s gone. I miss her caws punctuating the day and I miss her. I am clinging on to the hope that maybe the dogs made the little hole in the aviary and then she hopped out of it and is somewhere in the garden.But I know that is a vain hope.

All I wish is that maybe, somewhere, Merlina is flying again.

Merlina the Hooded Crow

Merlina the Hooded Crow

Merlina the Hooded Crow

It’s early morning in June on a day that promised to be scorching hot. The dogs are excited and race across the field behind the house which is full of purple flowering Lucerne, known as erba medica. They screech to a halt and start barking at something in the grass. I run over to investigate and see them circling a wounded crow which is valiantly but unsuccessfully trying to hop away. I scream at them to get off and to my surprise they back off and stand watching me as I try to approach the poor bedraggled bird. It is clearly badly injured, dragging a wing and seems to be lame too. I put the dogs back on their leads and take them back to the house then grab a little dish and a bottle of water and go back into the field. I manage to lift the crow and put it into the shade, leave the water for it and go away. I will let it take its chances as I’m not really equipped to deal with an injured crow.

At lunchtime I am back in the field on a crow hunt, red-faced and sweating. God knows what the neighbours think as there are a couple of houses overlooking the field and I am always out there on some mission or other. The crow isn’t where I had left it (fortunately, as I have forgotten that shade moves about and the water has long since evaporated). I spot the unfortunate creature under a bush trying to make itself invisible and I terrify it some more by going over – a menacing giant, I imagine, from a crow’s point of view. It hops, pretty bloody fast actually, into an impenetrable thicket, impenetrable to me anyway, so I give up and go back inside. I explain to Alan what I have been doing as I have twigs in my hair and am the colour of a plum tomato. He nods and says nothing as usual, being well-acquainted with my animal rescuing exploits.

RETURN OF THE CROW

That evening Alan calls me outside. ‘I think your crow has come to see you,’ he says. There she is (I am sure ‘it’ is a ‘she’) making her way slowly up our long drive, pursued by a cat. What can I do? Clearly she has come to me for help. I explain this to Alan, who raises his eyebrows at my pathetic attempts to be liked and wanted, at least by a crow. I race down the drive, chase the cat away and scoop up the crow, who is now cowering in a drain by the side of the road. My heart bleeds for us both.

As luck would have it, we have a giant-size dog crate set up in the storeroom on the ground floor of the house. It is giant-size by mistake as I ordered it from the UK a few years ago and didn’t quite know what size to get for our Labrador puppy ZsaZsa. Put it this way – a small elephant would be able to live there quite comfortably. Anyway, I try to make this crate crow-friendly with a branch some twigs, rocks and newspaper. I put the crow in there with some water and some grass and a worm (what the hell do crows eat?)

I race to the office and go online. There is a surprising dearth of information on crow injuries, but I finally manage to find an article on bandaging broken wings – with pictures – which I print out. I gather reams of bandages, scissors, tape, a stick to use as a splint and head off to minister to my patient.

It is an hour later. We are both exhausted. There are bits of bandage everywhere. I am sure I have hurt her in my misguided attempt to re-enact an episode of Casualty. She has struggled, grasped my finger with her claws in an iron grip, pecked me hard, cawed as if her life was ending,  and then just accepted her fate. Whenever I have managed to put the bandage on she has waited until I collect everything up and then pulled it off. I give up and leave, certain she will die from shock or something and it will all have been my fault. Bloody animals! More heartache. Why do I do it?
In the morning she is still alive. Bright eyed and looking at me warily. ‘Oh my God, the bandaging woman.’ I know by now she is a hooded crow rather than the more spookily-named carrion crow, as she has a collar of grey feathers, the rest being a glossy black.

MERLINA’S AVIARY

She needs a name and so I call her Merlina. Over the next few days I find I am fascinated by her and attached to her, even though it isn’t at all mutual. In fact, much to my dismay having saved her life and everything, she seems to be terrified of me. It isn’t like this in films.

I call the local animal sanctuary, who collect her and take her off to a wild bird rehab centre in Florence, Tuscany. I give the rehab people a message that if she can’t be released I would like to have her back to take care of her.

After a short stay, during which I sustain a terrible injury to my hand rescuing a run-over cat, the wild bird people say she is not ‘auto sufficiente,’ that is, she can’t take care of herself. And although they have tried to save it, they’ve been forced to remove her wing, plus she still has a gammy leg, although other than that she gets around pretty well. So, three weeks later, we are reunited. I am thrilled, and maybe she is too. Hard to tell.

Once I have recovered from my injury, I build her an aviary from an old grape pergola in the garden, which takes me two days, a lot of swearing and a hundred euros worth of wire netting. I set it up with some branches, trying to calculate the angle she can manage with the one wing and the wonky leg. It gives me a ridiculous amount of pleasure trying to recreate a natural kind of environment for her – trying to think like a crow. I find this weirdly easy.

THE BRIGHTNESS OF CROWS

I decide as she is staying that I had better get educated in crows. I know from my research that I have a very bright bird on my hands who needs to be kept amused. It has long been known that crows are highly intelligent, some studies claim they are the most intelligent of all birds, others put them at number seven on the most intelligent animals in the world list, just behind dogs and dolphins. I watch some incredible footage on You Tube of crows in Japan that drop walnuts from their vantage point over a set of traffic lights. They wait for the cars to crush the nuts but don’t swoop down and collect them till the lights have turned red. I even watch with my mouth open as a crow fashions a hook from a piece of wire and uses it to access food which has been placed in a tube. Some crows talk, sounding like parrots. I realise I have chosen to get up close and personal with the bird equivalent of a genius. I bore everyone who will listen to death with my crow stories.

Apart from keeping her amazing brain occupied with an array of toys, I have the problem of food. I am unsure at first of what to give her to eat, but by trial and error I now have a kind of routine established. She gets a daily mix of chicken liver, insectivore pellets, salad, fruit, pine nuts (which cost a fortune), some puppy food (the most expensive kind) and dandelion leaves, when in season. I also give her a raw hen’s egg every two or three days. The builders come to do some work on the house and stand and watch incredulously as I take her breakfast. “Antipasti!” they laugh when they see the plate of delicacies I’ve prepared for my avian gourmet.

I have given her water in various containers (for fun) and she takes great delight in hiding her food under one of them, an upturned dog dish. This dish has also proved to be an excellent hiding place for her collection of small objects. Stones, beads, pinecones and even silver paper are regularly plac
ed under the dish and then moved on a whim.

She doesn’t hate me anymore, I don’t think. She doesn’t hide when I approach the cage but just pecks at the branch she’s sitting on as I talk to her. ‘Ciao Merlina,’ I say. She lowers her head, fluffs out her feathers and caws slowly between three and five times. I have no idea what she is saying, although I like to think it is ‘Ciao Fiona, thanks for looking after me and I forgive you for the crap bandaging.’

My feathered friend sits on the highest branch in her aviary and bobs up and down cawing when we go out in the car or when I reach the gate on my daily walks with the dogs. She even tolerates the dogs sitting against her aviary and the cats sleeping on the roof, but gives a warning shriek if anything other than the animals she knows approaches. The dogs then go racing to her rescue. She is part of the family now.

She looks sleek and healthy, she hops about and keeps herself entertained, but now I worry that she is lonely. So I’m scouring the fields for any other injured hooded crows. But you can’t force these things and I think when the time is right, one will just turn up. And I really hope it will, because if one crow creates magic, just imagine what two could do.

My Magical Crow

DSCN09861 (600 x 491) As I was preparing breakfast for Merlina the crow this morning I stopped to think about how privileged I am to be responsible for such a beautiful wild bird. Merlina the hooded crow can’t look after herself as she has only one wing and a dodgy leg. I have no idea how she got those injuries but anyway, she is with us now in a home-made aviary and seems content enough with her lot.

She has a number of different caws. One is a low sound of between three and five caws if I pass her and say ‘Ciao Merlina.’ Her feathers all stick out and she lowers her head when she does this. There is a caw for when I go out of the gate with the dogs and a different one when we leave in the car. A shrieking cry brings the dogs hurtling over to see what’s up. It’s usually something unfamiliar that causes her to make this alarm call.

To me she is really a magical creature and of course there are many myths and legends associated with crows and ravens. I have written a longer piece about Merlina if you would like to read it here.

So What Do You Give a Crow For Breakfast?

crow's breakfast

A Breakfast Fit forRoyalty

We’ve had Merlina the hooded crow for over two years now and she seems quite happy in her voliera (aviary) which I made by enclosing part of an existing pergola with vines and adding an old gate I found under some overgrown bushes.

Like the story of Tantalus, the grapes on the vine are just out of reach on the other side of the wire. I always make sure she has a big bunch available though and that is just a small part of her daily diet.

She is not self sufficient, having only one wing and a gammy leg and so she relies on us for her food and entertainment. I have put twigs, sticks and cardboard plus a few beads and thngs in the aviary to keep her entertained and I find various ‘treasures’ hidden under her water dishes or actually in them on a regular basis.

By a bit of trial and error I have found a diet that seems to suit her and you can see a typical breakfast in the photo. When the builders spotted me carrying it to her cage last year they all laughed and said “antipasti!” because I suppose that’s what it looks like.

Every day she gets black insectivore vitamin pellets, salad, chicken liver, sunflower seeds, fruit, pine nuts and every other day or so a raw egg. She almost eats better than we do!

Snakes on the Catwalk

We must have looked quite a sight this morning – me and the two dogs and three cats on our daily walk to the woods.

The cats have only just started coming along. Sometimes all three of them decide to take some exercise, sometimes it’s only one. Today they were a symmetrical cat sandwich, the two white and black females Monica and Misha topping and tailing little black and white Jimmy in the middle.

Cats on walks are very serious and determined, their attention totally focussed on keeping up. They look straight ahead, and walk or trot with heads down. If there is more than one then they walk in a line one behind the other. They tend not to like to cross open spaces (no trees to tear up if danger threatens) so they cross the field behind the house in a strange lope, their bodies curved into a comma shape. It’s very funny to watch.

Snakes Alive! (Not)

This morning, on one of the stony paths through the woods we were stopped in our tracks by a dead snake. I haven’t seen that many snakes in Italy, but know there are two main ones -grass snakes and vipers. This one was enormous, probably a metre long and greyish olive green with black markings. I think it was a harmless grass snake or a water snake. I have looked it up on Wikipedia to see, but I’m still not sure. I might have to go back and check! (I did go back and it had gone).

grass snake narix natrix

A grass snake natrix natrix

A European grass snake, also known as the water snake or ringed snake natrix natrix, for those of you who like the terminology, is quite harmless except if you happen to be an amphibian as they dine on frogs, tadpoles and fish. They vary in colour from green to grey and have a yellow collar. They like water and woods. I have seen several water snakes in Italy  including some spectacular luminous green ones. You’ll often see them in the middle of strade bianche (unmade country roads) having been squashed by cars.

vipera berus, European viper or adder

Vipera berus – a viper – these are dangerous.

The dangerous snakes in Italy are the viperivipera berus – although they are quite timid and tend to slither away when they hear you coming. They can be quite big and fat – up to 60cm (2 feet) long and have a distinctive flat head with an X or a V on the back. Their colour can vary from grey to almost black and they have a black zig-zag pattern all down their backs.

The cats approached cautiously, while I managed to distract the dogs with a biscuit and they soon lost interest in the coiled creature that had turned up so unexpectedly. But for me a snake is more than just a snake. I tend to view these events from nature symbolically and a snake is a strong symbol of creativity. I hope that is a good omen for my work today!