Recently, the Utah Wildlife Board proposed a hunting season for crows. While they are not particularly tasty and are known for their intelligence, crows have often been blamed by farmers for agricultural losses via crop damage—crows have to eat, after all—and so, next September, crows may be fair game for anyone itchy to shoot something.
Critics argue that the crows do not constitute a significant threat to agriculture and, in Utah, are not as prolific as they are back east. And some are concerned that most people can’t differentiate between crows and their larger cousins, the raven. It worries me too.
While a shooting season on crows seems misguided and wrong, I particularly resent the possible assault on ravens. The truth is, ravens get no respect. Wherever they fly, they’re ignored or misidentified. Everyone wants to see an eagle. Nobody cares if they see a raven. It’s always been like this…
One warm summer night, many years ago, I was a seasonal ranger at Arches National Park, collecting fees at the Devils Garden campground. We went site to site in those days, actually talking to the campers, and while it was a thankless job in some ways, (“We already paid at the gate…You mean we have to pay again?), there were some advantages to this kind of direct contact. On this particular evening, a woman from L.A. was about to invite me back for a Hibachi dinner, when I was called away by the gentleman in an adjoining site.
“Oh ranger,” I heard him call. “You’ve got to see this.” A pair of 7X50 binoculars bounced rhythmically off an ample abdomen as the camper from site 29 lumbered toward me.
“What seems to be the problem?” I asked. I always assumed there was a problem when tourists ran at me.
“No problem,” he explained. “But I think I just saw an eagle flying over there by that big arch.”
“No kidding,” I said. “Can you still see it?”
“Well, actually the wife spotted it first…Mother! Can you point out that eagle to the ranger?”
She left her dishes and joined us by the road. “Let me see…give me the binoculars, Gil…Yes! There it is!”
High above Skyline Arch I could see the dark soaring outline of the winged figure. It was a magnificent bird alright, but it wasn’t an eagle.
That’s not an eagle, ma’m,” I said. “That’s a raven.”
“What? Give me those field glasses, Mother.” Gil was not convinced, but the binoculars gave him a sharper and closer view.
“Damn, mother…it’s just a big crow.”
“Now just a minute,” I said indignantly. “It’s not just a crow, and it’s not just a raven. It is one of the most intelligent, graceful, and fascinating birds you will ever hope to see. If I could come back to this life as any creature on Earth, I would return as a raven.”
Gil and Mother failed to be moved by my passionate defense of the raven. “That’s fine ranger…real interesting…Honey, do you need any help with the dishes?”
Sometimes spontaneous interpretive talks are an effective way to educate the public about the wonders of nature. This was not one of those times. I was left by myself, on the top of this sandstone fin by the campground road to contemplate the solitary raven.
I wasn’t always a staunch defender of the Black Wonder. As a kid in Kentucky, my knowledge of ravens was limited to Edgar Alan Poe, and my grandfather regularly shot his BB gun at the cousin crows that inhabited our neck of the woods (The raven, in this country, is mostly confined to the Western U.S., although they’re widely distributed, from Africa and Eurasia, to Australia and Central America.).
But on a trip, many years ago, to a remote section of the Grand Canyon, where the rim plunges more than 2000 feet to the Colorado River, I had my first opportunity to watch the remarkable acrobatic skills of the “Common” Raven. I’d never seen anything like it in my life.
Sometimes in groups of three or four, sometimes in pairs, sometimes alone, the incredible Corvus corax performed flying feats that I thought defied the laws of nature. In groups they engaged in furious dogfights and mutual pursuits. They plummeted into the canyon, their wings tucked in to reduce drag, and as they free-fell, they spiraled and spun in perfect harmony with the other. When they caught an updraft, they would reduce direction in a great swooping rush and ride the wind as high as they could go. When they sensed the apex of their ascent, the ravens arched over on their backs, and started the process all over again.
They kept this up for hours, flying and performing, it seemed, for the sheer joy of it. I never forgot the show and, later as a park ranger, I felt it was my job, my duty, to speak in their defense. There is much to say in their defense too. As omnivores, ravens depend upon a wide variety of animal food, supplemented by some plants. They are also scavengers, taking advantage of carrion when it’s available (and keeping our highways clean, I might add).
Ravens are believed to mate for life, which is more than a lot of us can say, and some raven watchers report that both parents incubate the eggs (the males must be the apple of raven feminists everywhere). Ravens will fiercely defend their nest against intruders, whether they be raptors or humans. I once read of an incident in Oregon where some nosy ornithologists attempted to examine an active nest. Both parents left the nest when the group approached the nest. But as they were climbing down, the ravens returned. One of the ravens picked up rocks in its beak and hurled them down at the fleeing birdwatchers/annoyers.
But to me, more than anything, these birds seem to have an extraordinarily refined sense of humor. Years ago, ravens built a nest on the cliffs above the Arches visitor center. When the young birds fledged the nest, they made a bee line for the front yard of the old rock house, then headquarters of the Canyonlands Natural History Association. All three fledglings and the parents congregated on the grassy lawn and awked and squawked and croaked the mornings away, much to the chagrin of the director of CNHA, Eleanor Inskip. Eleanor was unable to concentrate with all that noise and, on several occasions, ran out the door and attempted to chase them away. But the ravens always came back and after two or three days of being harassed by Ms. Inskip, the ravens shit all over her car. There must have been five or six cars to choose from, but they picked hers. Realizing she’d been outwitted, she gave up and bought ear plugs.
And in 1983, when that despicable Secretary of the Interior, James Watt came to visit the park, all the dirty tricks that Earth Firsters! and other ne’er-do-wells concocted, could not compare to the almost perfect aim of one raven named George.
George was a shameless beggar who spent his days bumming food off tourists and whatever the park maintenance man, Rocky Newell, cared to give him. I used to tell Rocky not to feed all that Wonder bread to George, but Rocky just laughed. “James, my boy, George doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” he explained. “It’s better to stay on George’s good side.”
I don’t know what Watt did to violate that piece of advice, or perhaps George was just a natural judge of character, but as the Secretary walked across the Windows parking lot to his car after an exhausting 100 yard hike, Jim found himself a slowly moving target. With a great flapping of wings, George took to the air, ignoring an apple core and a piece of baloney, and headed straight for the chrome-domed Man. At the appropriate moment, he released a white incendiary bomb, and almost hit his mark. It was a monumental effort by the Great Black Bird, and what really matters is that he tried. Watt left the park shortly thereafter, never returned to Arches, and a year later, resigned (some say in disgrace) as Interior secretary. I firmly believe that George’s symbolic attack was the catalyst the country needed, the statement that had to be made, to confront James Watt, once and for all.
Today, as on any day, I can find great pleasure and joy in watching the ravens. Whether they are performing aerial stunts, and going for maximum aerodynamic efficiency, or lazily flapping from one fin to the next, with their legs dangling freely beneath them, the fact that they are ignored and underrated by most bird watchers may bother me, but it doesn’t bother them…they could care less.
They’re too cool to care. Or be shot.
For more information on the proposed crow shoot:
If you doubt the intelligence of the raven…or crow…check out this YouTube video: “Tool Use in the New Caledonian Crow”
Jim Stiles is Founder and Co-Publisher of the Canyon Country Zephyr.
To read the PDF version of this article, click here.
To leave a comment, scroll to the bottom of the page.
Don’t forget the Zephyr ads! All links are hot!