Thursday, January 15, 2009

Quoth the Raven...

I could almost picture the ravens snickering behind the snowmobilers backs, their mantra being “If you leave it, I will come”. Even with warnings in the Park newspaper, and flyers with ‘robber raven’ photos plastered in all the warming huts, careless snowmobilers persisted leaving their backpacks behind. They returned from a geyser basin tour only to discover not only their snacks and lunch, but also any brightly colored curiosities strewn around the parking lot. Or worse yet, missing.

Did they ignore the warnings, forget about them, or…were they just unable to read or understand the obvious meaning behind the photos? Perhaps they were in disbelief---really, how could a stupid bird open a zipper? Some folks actually tied the zipper ties in knots, still to find their possessions in utter disarray.

I must admit that after numerous attempts extending a friendly word of advice to clueless people who assumed I was being neurotic; I gave up and relished my observer status. As a winter instructor for the Yellowstone Institute, my class and I traveled Yellowstone’s grand loop in a snowcoach. In addition to our backcountry ski and snowshoe adventures, we hit the frontcountry thermal areas: Norris, West Thumb, Midway, Upper, Lower, and Mud Volcano.

The ravens had the drill down pat. As soon as the people would walk away from their machines, they would start inching forwards. They were always ready to bolt. Once on the machine, they would start working the Velcro flap on the back compartment. They perfected an all-in-one movement of grabbing the flap, pulling it up and under them so that they could then poke their head into the compartment. Brilliant! They had an easier time working zippers than I do on some jackets. They just grabbed the slider and gave it a good tug, and once they had an opening they could grab the fabric itself to increase the opening size.

Sometimes our group would sit in the snowcoach for the better part of an hour, just mesmerized by the performance. On one particular day, a very persistent raven started pulling something red and green out of a pack. It went on endlessly, and we determined it to be about an 8’ long scarf. The raven kept going, so there must have been something else of interest. Sure enough, out comes a baggie with a bagel sandwich. The raven opened the baggie, peeled off the lettuce and threw it to the ground, and flew off with one-half of the sandwich to a nearby tree. It quickly flew back and retrieved the other half. Besides lots of food items, over the course of the winters I worked in Yellowstone I saw mittens, audio cassettes, maps, hair scrunchies, keys, and I’m sure even a few condoms end up in some ravens secret stash.

Until recently, Edgar Allen Poe might have been one of the few people to appreciate ravens. The group term for ravens is “an unkindness of ravens”---go figure. Ravens in Yellowstone are now being studied at great length---by scientists that is, not just voyeurs like me. Not only is there a symbiotic relationship between ravens and snowmobilers, but there is also a symbiotic relationship between ravens and wolves. Ravens are scavenger birds, feeding on carcasses, kills by other animals. But, they also ‘find’ carcasses, winterkill or natural causes, and their circling flight patterns can actually lead other animals like wolves or coyotes to the carcass. Since a lone raven could easily be kicked off a kill by a wolf or bear, ravens will group up on a kill site, sometimes more than a hundred at a time.

Bernd Heinrich, a raven researcher out of the northeast, has documented his findings in “Ravens in Winter” and “The Mind of the Raven”. Spend a little time with either, an all those raven myths will be Nevermore!


Anonymous said...

Your raven photos are wonderful. Apparently they were bold enough not to be frightened by you being nearby. Obviously, ravens are smarter than your average snowmobiler! HA!


northofandorra said...

Luke, believe it or not, all the time I worked in Yellowstone I never carried a camera with me. These were some stock photos off the internet---somebody with a pretty good lens I might add.