On ravens

Posted: Friday, February 19, 2010

We Alaskans tend to get blas about things. Take our ravens.

Ravens provide year-round entertainment. Their aerial acrobatics are amazing. I've seen showoffs among them do barrel rolls. I've watched a raven harass a bald eagle until the "national bird" gave up and left the area to the much smaller raven.

Our Alaskan version of this fascinating bird is the common raven (Corvus corax). The largest songbird, ravens are members of the corvid family, which includes the smartest of the birds, the jays, crows and magpies.

Ravens have been known to lead wolves and coyotes to the carcasses of large animals, apparently so the large canines will "unzip" the hide, allowing the birds to get at the meat. Some say they've seen ravens lead predators to live prey.

At parking lots, ravens sometimes rip the rubber from windshield wipers. At golf courses, ravens will sometimes steal and hide balls, giving "getting a birdie" another meaning.

A Scandinavian raven learned how to fish through the ice. After the fisherman had set his line and left the area, the bird would pull in the line, pulling with its beak and holding with its foot the line gained.

Scientists have studied ravens for years, but much about the birds remains a mystery. A couple of winters ago, Don Lynch, a retired University of Alaska professor, told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner he saw about 20 ravens circling a raven perched on a telephone pole. On the ground below lay a dead raven, wings outstretched. The circling birds were making sounds that Lynch described as " keening, that is the wailing done by Irish women at a funeral." In his view, he'd witnessed a raven funeral service. Referring to this event, Bernd Heinrich, who probably has more time studying ravens than any other zoologist, noted that ravens don't come together to scavenge their dead. "Indeed, my ravens will scavenge anything -- but never a big black bird," he wrote. What the birds were doing remains a mystery.

In some national parks, ravens have learned to unzip backpacks, knowledge that's likely to spread with time.

Are ravens becoming bolder than they were in the past?

As I remember, when I first came to Alaska, in 1964, ravens never stayed on or even beside the road when a vehicle went by. They always flew some distance away. I've noticed that nowadays they usually just hop out of the way when you drive past. If they're on the roadway, they might fly, but only for a short distance. If you look in the rearview mirror after passing them, they're right back on the road. Is being this bold something they've learned since 1972, when the Migratory Bird Treaty was amended to protect corvids?

Ravens deserve our respect and admiration. They aren't some limp-wristed snowbird that flies south at the first sign of winter. They stay in Alaska year-round, thriving all over the state, even at Prudhoe Bay. Alaska wouldn't be Alaska without 'em.

For more stuff about ravens, visit the American Society of Crows and Ravens Web site (www.ascaronline.org/ccmain.htm).

All corvids are protected by federal law. To hold one in captivity requires a special federal permit.

Les Palmer lives in Sterling.

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