The crow world is one of the most fascinating and beautiful hidden elements of the urban landscape. These sleek, black intelligent scavengers help to keep the streets clear of food waste, are quick learners, and live in co-operative family groups. More shy than gulls, they watch and wait for food sources to appear and remember their urban food maps very patiently, and are an under-appreciated part of symbiotic urban living.
In Fratton, as in most of densely packed Portsmouth, we have crows nesting. And, at this time of year, if the nestlings have successfully turned to fledglings, the parents tip them out of the nest. The thinking behind this is that the parents regard the nest as a magnet for predators, whereas the ground is safer for the fledglings - which cannot yet fly - as they can hide in bushes and shrubs. I'm not entirely convinced of the 'evolutionary fitness' argument for this in urban settings, as little Mortimer's story will show.
(Obviously it's not hugely advisable to name an animal you are intending to return to the wild if you want to stay detached - but the little crow we rescued somehow became Mortimer and this is his tale.)
Ten days ago my friend Nik and I noticed a crow on the ground right next to the Newcome Arms Inn, as we were walking up Samuel Road. He was huddled by the access gate, opening and closing his mouth. We did what you are supposed to do, and left him for his parents to deal with. We assumed he'd be gone soon. Growing up on the Isle of Man, I'd always been taught not to intervene with wildlife unless absolutely necessary. My friend grew up on a farm and felt the same. So we walked away.
But the fledgling crow was still there the next day. And a few hours later, we saw it trying to move towards Newcome Road - and it was clear it had an injured right leg and wing. This was a dilemma for us. The only circumstance where it's appropriate to rescue a wild bird is when it's injured and there is danger nearby - and this little bird was most definitely injured, still flightless, next to a main road and at the mercy of cats, dogs, foxes, rats, people and traffic. He'd survived one night but its parents - who were watching from a rooftop - were going to struggle with this situation. The little crow was thin and dehydrated, and likely not being fed enough. There were no bushes, no shrubs, and no shelters in this built environment of terraced streets and pavements.
I went home and prepared an animal carrier as a bird transporter, and brought it back for the crow. Someone from the pub came out to talk about it, and pointed to the nest it had come from. It had been a long fall from the crow's nest high up in the tall sycamore trees down onto the concrete pavement. And so it began, our effort to 'rescue' this little bird for a few days to assess its injuries and get some food and water into it, with the intention of releasing it back into its territory as soon as possible next to the Newcome Arms.
We had the privilege of looking after Mortimer for eight days. He spent the first five days at Nik's house, and the last three days at mine. Our immediate priorities were to let him rest quietly in a calm, warm place, and to re-hydrate him. Feeding him was a bit of a learning curve at first, getting the knack of getting tiny bits of food - dipped in water - into the back of his throat.
By Day 2 he was already perkier and we ordered a dog crate for him as a large cage, and Nik made and fitted some perches. By Day 3 he was perching well, and eating a better diet than we were - lightly scrambled egg, slivers of beef mince, chicken and turkey, mashed fruit and soft insect pellets. He liked his bird bath (a shallow tray) and scooped the water up in his beak. He grew stronger and he was healing. He never stopped shitting. It was a big relief (not the shitting), as if he hadn't started to show improvement the options left were limited - I'd either have to keep him in some form of captivity forever, or take him on a one-way trip to the vet.
It was important that he didn't become dependent on us, and that he learned 'crow stuff'. By Day 5 Mortimer was having supervised small flights in Nik's house and garden - and many thanks to Nik's daughter for acrobatically retrieving him from next door's garden and the vicinity of a quietly lurking cat - and I'd spend hours every day teaching him to peck at food and to drink from a bowl, rather than having everything dropped into his mouth. We hoped that when he was returned to his home that his parents would help feed him for at least a few days, but there was no guarantee of that.
And then, on Day 8, he was ready to leave us. It was obvious he was ready. He was jumping like a gymnast from perch to perch, vocalising more, and preening and stretching his wings frequently. The weather was dry, the strong winds had died down finally, and this was his launch window. Ellie, who runs the Newcome Arms, let us release him in the pub garden, and the three of us watched in amazement as Mortimer, without hesitation, flew straight out of his carrier, over the tall back gates, and straight into Samuel Road and onto the pavement where we originally found him!
And then something extraordinary happened. One of Mortimer's parents swooped across the sky and down onto the roof of a nearby house. It cawed for the other parent who arrived within seconds. They sat together on a rooftop watching him intently; and Mortimer watched them back.
A human spooked him by nearly pushing a buggy into him and he tried to fly upwards, but one of the parents flew down into him and the flight was aborted. Mortimer then hopped onto a bollard, then onto a high wall, and then flew up onto a lower roof, opposite and below his parents. It was the submissive stance of the young crow wanting to be accepted and fed by his family. The parents became much calmer and settled onto 'their' rooftop, their black feathers glistening in the sun as they watched their fledgling watching them back, his mouth gaping slightly at times as he reconnected with his crow world.
And that's where we left him.
I went back this morning at 5am, just after the sun had risen, to see if there was any sign of him. I saw his parents, and gave them a bit of a breakfast banquet, to make sure there was plenty of spare food to go round in case they wanted to include Mortimer. I hope he's safe; I hope he's nestled in somewhere in the far-up land of chimney pots and gables and tall trees.
The survival statistics for young crows in cities are not good. I don't doubt that Mortimer faces dangers and risks, but I have to be optimistic for him. I hope he survives. Most of all, I hope I see Mortimer again one day.
POSTSCRIPT (15th June 2017)
We released Mortimer on Day 8, Monday. On the Tuesday evening we were pretty sure we saw him roosting in one of the sycamore trees next to the pub, with one of the parent crows nearby. We left a water bowl and some food on a low roof of the pub where he and his parents could easily reach it.
And on Wednesday - we saw him. He flew down for food, the underside of his outstretched wings still white and grey, and then he flew up to the chimney pots, again with a parent nearby keeping an eye on him. Mortimer looked fine, and, as we watched, he took off and flew away over the rooftops and out of our sight.
POSTSCRIPT #2 (June into July 2017)
On the 18th June we had a really good sighting of Mortimer. Our rescued fledgling crow was with his parents on the pub roof, spreading his wings in the strong afternoon sun, with his beak open. He then flew up to stand next to one of his parents, on a chimney pot.
The last photograph I (inadvertently) took of him was on the early morning of the 3rd July, as he perched on a gable opposite the Newcome Arms. He'd grown. He knew that I was there, leaving him and his parents some food - but the strange thing was, I was using a zoom lens and standing well back, so I didn't even know it was him for certain until I got home and looked at the photograph in detail and saw the feathers and the stance.
Nik saw him again on the 4th of July, hopping along a nearby roof top. The young crow still had his characteristic limp but he again appeared strong and healthy otherwise, and he flew up onto a tv aerial and looked across to one of his parents sitting in a sycamore tree. Nik texted me the photo, and I replied one word - 'Mortimer!' This was a definite sighting.
I miss that little crow, but he's where he should be. Free. Oh, and Nik says Mortimer's a girl. Now he tells me.