Quoth the raven: 'I'm smart, and I know it'

Wednesday, January 28, 2015 - 23:00
Ravens homeward bound on ridge above Ship Creek Valley.

You need not spend much time outdoors in Alaska to have witnessed the antics of one of the most fascinating and intelligent birds in the Northern Hemisphere, or the entire world, for that matter: the Common Raven (Corvus corax).

In Alaska native mythology, particularly in Southeast Alaska, ravens are known as “tricksters” that can assume any form — human or animal. Immortalized in totem poles, stories and legends, ravens have been described as magicians that could bring gifts and good will. Ravens are also important in Eskimo mythology and culture for their role in creation.

The largest member of the Crow Family, ravens average 24 inches tall, with a wingspan of 46 to 56 inches. They are found throughout Alaska in just about all types of terrain. The Common Raven’s scientific name, Corvus corax, means “Raven croaker.” While their trademark call is a deep, resonant “caw,” they are capable of a wide repertoire of vocalizations — some say up to 30.

(Click here for raven calls: http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/common_raven/sounds).

I have heard ravens imitate other birds, particularly magpies. I have heard them make barking noises that actually sounded like a dog. They can sound like water. And on more than one occasion, when I have made feeble attempts at “cawing,” I am quite sure they “cawed” back in imitation of me trying to imitate them.

While hiking in the mountains with my food completely stowed in my pack, I have on occasion been dive bombed from behind by ravens. I doubt they could see or smell my food. Their dive reminded me of “counting coup,” an act once performed by Indian warriors on their opponents to demonstrate their bravery and superiority. I recall shouting out to one of them, “show off,” as he winged away.

I’ve watched ravens harass and outmaneuver eagles in flight — an act of sheer defiance, as if to say: “try and do this, big shot.”

The daily migration of ravens to the Anchorage and Eagle River areas, if you haven’t seen it, is from deep in the Chugach Mountains to the east, where they nest. On an early spring climb of Harp Mountain in South Fork Valley several years ago, about 200 of them soared overhead, heading south toward Eagle Lake and the mountains beyond. They commute to Anchorage for easy dining at the Anchorage Landfill and restaurant dumpsters. Biologists estimate that some of them make a round trip of about 40 miles on their daily commute.

Fascinating stories: In addition to their inspiring aerial maneuvers, ravens are capable of logic, problem solving and relating to humans. Acclaimed outdoor adventurer Lonnie Dupre, who climbed 20,237 Mt. McKinley solo in January of this yea — the first to do so in this darkest of months — relates a compelling raven story that was adapted into a children’s book, “The Raven’s Gift: A True Story from Greenland” (Library Binding, 2001).

On an expedition across Greenland several years ago, Dupre was visited by a raven. A stick was stuck to one of the raven’s legs by musk ox hair. The raven danced around a bit, and then dropped a small pebble near Dupre. Recounting his story, Dupre mentions it was almost as if the raven was saying, “this is all I have to give you. Could you please remove this stick?”

At that point in the expedition, Dupre was feeling quite fatigued and discouraged by his progress. He said something to the raven like: “if you can give me strength and help me continue my journey, I’ll remove the stick from your leg.” The raven came closer and allowed Dupre to remove the stick. The bird flew off but circled around for a while, as if to say “thank you.”

About six years ago in Fairbanks, ravens made the news. Hundreds of them assembled in a kind of “flying memorial” after two of their kin were electrocuted while roosting on an electrical transformer. Witnesses say it was weird to see so many of them gathered together, some flying, some perched in nearby trees.

Proven intelligence: Scientific experiments with ravens have proven their problem-solving skills. For example, University of Vermont biologist Bernd Heinrich and his colleague, Thomas Bugnyar, published an article in Scientific American several years ago that explored the intelligence of ravens. One of the experiments cited in the article involved dangling a piece of meat on string from a wire cage.

Other birds flew directly at the meat and could not retrieve it because it would move when they touched it. Ravens approached the problem from a different angle. To get this treat, an adult raven first perched at the top of the cage. It then reached down, grasped the string in its beak, pulled up on the string, placed the loop of string on the perch, stepped on this looped segment of string to prevent it from slipping down, then let go of the string and reached down again and repeated its actions until the morsel of food was within reach.

The researchers found that some adult ravens would examine the situation for several minutes and then perform this multistep procedure in as little as 30 seconds without any trial and error.

Canoeing across a lake on the Kenai Peninsula, a friend and I actually believe we heard a raven call out a greeting: “hello.” And neither of us, I might add, were drinking or smoking anything.

Mt. McKinley climbers have ravens follow them to very high altitudes. The obvious reason is the birds associate humans with food. But I tend to think there is another reason. As an intelligent creature, they might become bored and hang around people simply for recreation.

For years my sister wanted a raven for a pet, and I can understand why. After a lifetime of observing these birds, I’m in awe of them. Who knows, perhaps a well-trained raven would serve as a better backcountry route finder than the very best GPS system!


Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer living in Eagle River and can be reached at [email protected].

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