Seward homesteader losing fowl to attack ravens

Posted: Sunday, July 30, 2000

An AP Alaska Member Exchange

SEWARD (AP) -- The orange survey tape flapping in the breeze over Penny Hardy's chicken pen at her Lowell Point homestead isn't a new gimmick to attract tourists driving the road along her property.

Hardy, 74, thought she had seen about every strange animal behavior imaginable during the 50 years she's lived on her 90 acres -- until two rogue ravens started killing her chickens.

She was burning trash in her yard about a month ago when the first raven swooped into the chicken pen and bonked a hen on the head with its beak, she said.

''He was going to tear her up, but my grandson went into the pen and got the dead chicken,'' Hardy said. ''The raven had about four or five magpies to help him by then. He was hungry.''

The raven brought a reinforcement when it returned about two weeks later, killing four hens and a 2-year-old turkey that had managed to avoid execution with the rest of Hardy's flock.

The two good-sized ravens spared no viciousness, and they didn't react well to any human interference.

Joe Whiting, a Washington resident spending his summer on the homestead, dashed into the chicken pen with a two-by-four to halt the slaughter. But the ravens tried strafing him.

''I don't run,'' said Whiting, 55, matter-of-factly. ''They came at my face and I hit them both.''

With only their pride injured, the ravens took the hint and left. Both Hardy and Whiting hope the zigzagging tape covering the pen will keep them out.

''I've never seen any raven do that,'' said Whiting, who was raised on a farm and has been around ravens all of his life. ''It's kind of weird to have two fly in your face.''

Hardy doesn't know what to make of it either. A dog killed six of her goats earlier this year, an incident that was tragic but not uncommon for the widow who raises a variety of animals. But ravens killing chickens is a puzzle.

''It's just odd. Everything this year has been kind of offbeat,'' she said. ''Everything is growing way too early. Whether that means we're going to get an early winter, I don't know.''

Wildlife biologist Bill Shuster has another explanation.

''It has nothing to do with hunger. It's just a learned behavior,'' Shuster said of the fowl attacks. ''What's happening is the birds have learned a food source and they're refining their technique and taking advantage of it.''

Some research has shown that ravens possess the highest degree of intelligence of any bird, he said.

And it shows.

Because of its brain, social behavior and adaptability, the raven has long been the subject of Native legend and folklore.

Shuster sited an example of two ravens teaming up to hunt seal pups in the arctic. One stands next to the seal's ice hole to prevent the pup from entering the water while the second raven attacks.

Ravens have also been seen digging down 3 feet to retrieve bags of food buried by mountain climbers on Denali. The bags are marked with green bamboo stakes.

''They're quick to exploit new food sources,'' Shuster said.

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