Jan 03 2008
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know I like crows, but you may not know I like ravens even better.
This is partly because I’ve read some great books about them: Mind of the Raven and Ravens in Winter both by Bernd Heinrich, In the Company of Crows and Ravens by John M. Marzluff and Tony Angell, and Bird Brains: The Intelligence of Crows, Ravens, Magpies and Jays by Candace Savage.
In every case, ravens shine. They are one of the most intelligent birds on earth, persistent and innovative in solving problems and known to outwit other critters, a feat which earned them human tributes as tricksters and gods. Ravens even play.
In this part of eastern North America, ravens are thought to live only in the mountains, far from people, but last fall Chuck Tague photographed a pair of them at Western Penitentiary along the Ohio River. My interest was piqued!
On New Year’s Day I drove along the Ohio to a spot near the McKees Rocks Bridge. I was looking for peregrines and wondering if there were any suitable nesting sites near the Penitentiary.
I didn’t find any peregrines, couldn’t see any nest sites. I was disappointed, driving away, and muttering about a wasted afternoon when a raven jumped down on the road ahead of my car. Wow! She started to pick up something on the road but it worried her and she did a jump-back. Then I saw the second raven, clinging to a bridge abutment, eating gravel from a crumbling spot in the cement and flapping to stay up there. Double wow!
I pulled off the road to watch. It was late afternoon and the ravens were getting ready for dinner. The one who ate gravel was filling his crop with grit so he could digest the delicacies to come.
I hadn’t even noticed the nearby dumpster until the male raven (he’s larger) flew to it and began to inspect the bags. He carefully picked open a hole and began pulling out garbage and discarding the inedible: foil, styrofoam plates, napkins, boxes. Jackpot! Chicken bones!
His mate began working on another bag. She pulled out paper, folders and coffee cups. Bummer! Office supplies! She gave up and walked the dumpster rim to the male’s side and tried to get a piece of the action. He wasn’t mean about it but it was clear he was in charge and she couldn’t reach the bag. She hopped up and over him twice. Eventually he was sidetracked by a particularly nice bone and she was able to sort through the bag uninterrupted.
I was fascinated and wanted to watch longer but the area is a rather creepy place – all the better for ravens who don’t want to be bothered by people.
I know what you’re thinking. How could I get so excited about birds eating garbage? Check out the videos at PBS’s NATURE episode on Ravens, especially The Bird in Black and you’ll see what I’m looking forward to – right here in the city!