Posts Tagged ‘Ravens’

Teaching Ravens to Fly

April 11, 2010

From time to time, a little nonsense is needed in our lives. Here is an interview with a man who spent his career trying to teach ravens to fly underwater. (The piece is about six minutes long and has sound.)

Just a Thought

October 16, 2009
Bottlenose dolphin from

Bottlenose dolphin from

Here is a thought from Douglas Adams, the writer and dramatist who died in 2001.  I was thinking of this watching the Grand Canyon Ravens last week.  By exchanging “fly around” for “swim in the water” and “eat anything” for ” eat fish”, you get exactly the same thought about animal intelligence.

Humans think they are smarter than dolphins because we build cars and buildings and start wars etc., and all that dolphins do is swim in the water, eat fish and play around. Dolphins believe that they are smarter for exactly the same reasons.

Sleeps with Elk

October 13, 2009

Some of the Grand Canyon’s California Condors often congregate for the night on the cliffs below the South Rim’s Bright Angel Lodge, but not on the one day we could be there to witness.  That’s the trouble with Nature: She doesn’t reliably bend her schedule to fit the desires of her human species, so we missed the condors once again.

California Condor on South Rim overlooking trail from Indian Gardens to Plateau Point

California Condor on South Rim overlooking trail from Indian Gardens to Plateau Point

One man, from North Carolina, getting out of his pickup with an Audubon field guide in his hand, testified that he had been about a mile and a half down the South Kaibab Trail that day, eating lunch when one of the Condors soared overhead and the park rangers all report that the condors are doing well, so we’ll see them and get you a photograph one of these days.  You can read the latest condor update at this link.

We’re not complaining too much though.  We were privileged to watch earth, moon, and sky in their glory.  The backpacking tent stayed in the car, never once out of its stuff sack, which is exactly how tents should behave.  On the first night, a small juniper fire cooked the bison steaks perfectly and fresh juniper berries were a fine condiment.  The Milky Way is high overhead right now and the Andromeda Galaxy is barely visible to the naked eye.  Later in the night the waning moon rose and marked the night’s passage as it moved through the branches of the juniper and pinon trees overhead.  Coyotes serenaded the night while the humans slept in sleeping bags stuffed with down feathers borrowed from geese. Dawn brought a Pinon Jay which announced its presence long before favoring us with a sighting.  Shortly after, the Ravens flew in from their nightly roost, wheeling, soaring, doing barrel-rolls, and other acrobatics, talking to one another; you’ll never convince me that only food and fear motivate Ravens: Those birds were joyous.  At least one of them was thinking, “I’m a lucky bird, living here on the edge of the Grand Canyon and I must be a lot smarter than that human down there with the camera who doesn’t.”

USFW Photo of Bugling Wapiti

USFW Photo of Bugling Wapiti

But the highlight of that night on the edge of the Grand Canyon was the elk.  It is rutting season for elk and the bulls bugle to attract females.  Scientists think the cows more strongly attracted to males who bugle the loudest and most frequently.  Early in the evening we heard bugling from a long distance away.  (If you’ve never heard it before, it is an eerie sound to the ears of a human. Here is a recording.)  The bulls, about 25% larger than the cows, stand five feet tall at the shoulder, are eight feet long, and weigh upwards of 700 pounds. (320 kg.)  Loaded with testosterone this time of year, they know what they want and they bugle to get it.

The Footprint

The Footprint

Elk — also known as Wapiti from the Shawnee word meaning “white rump” — got to North America the same way humans did: They walked.  They were here long before the Ancestral Puebloans  drew petroglyphs of them on cliffs and in caves all over what is now the southwestern United States. Revered by the Lakota, young males were given an elk’s tooth — the last part of an elk to rot away after death — as an aid for long life.  Elk, for the Lakota, were teachers, embodiments of strength and courage.

I was dreaming of elk that night but soon realized it wasn’t a dream. Two bulls were bugling within a stone’s throw of our camp.  One off to the left and another that was so close it sounded like it was lying next to me.  We found a footprint the next morning, maybe thirty feet from our sleeping bags.

Elk's-eye view of human camp

Elk's-eye view of human camp with the print in left foreground.

I saw one of the bulls at sunrise the next morning but, in another example of Nature’s refusal to comply with humans’ desires, he was gone before I could grab the camera.  But he will live on in memory’s eye.


For more on elk, try the National Geographic. That site also has a video of Elk with the sounds of several bugling.  Sadly, however, the video is marred by way too much talking and some silly background music.  For elk and their love of Aspen, see The Ecology of Death. And don’t miss this from Wild Resiliency, which, in addition to explaining what it is that Aspen know,  has a great photo of an Aspen which an elk loved.

The Wisdom of Owls

March 30, 2009
Juvenile Spotted Owl by David Utterback

Juvenile Spotted Owl by David Utterback

The most often read post on this blog is now “Halloween and Barn Owls.” Sometime ago it passed even “Crows and Ravens Part IV” which is the post where we tell you precisely and clearly how to tell the difference between a Crow and a Raven and even help you identify which kind of crow and raven.  Now we are hard at work on a post telling you how to identify various owls.

In the meantime we thought we would remind you of one of James Thurber’s fables.  Specifically the one about the owl who was God.

Once, according to Thurber, on a dark night, an owl, perched in an oak tree, heard two moles scurrying about on the ground.  The owl said, “Who?” startling the tiny mammals one of whom sqeaked, “Who?”  To which the owl replied, “You two!”  The moles ran off and reported to all the animals in the forest that the owl could see in the dark, answer all questions, and therefore must be the wisest of all animals.

The Secretary bird wasn’t having any and charged off to test the owl.  Arriving at the oak tree the bird demanded that the owl, in pitch darkness, answer the question, “How many fingers am I holding up?”  (Secretary birds, of course, don’t have fingers but Thurber is telling us a fable here, not reporting scientific fact.)  The owl answered — correctly — “Two.”  The secretary bird then asked the owl for another word which means “that is to say” or “namely.”  From the tree came the answer, “to wit.”  So the secretary bird asked its last question, “Why does a lover call on his love?”  “To woo,” answered the owl.

sagittarius serpentarius

sagittarius serpentarius

Secretary birds live in sub-Saharan Africa, spending most of their time on the ground.  They are not small birds; some grow to a height of 4 feet.  Thurber was a writer, not an ornithologist.  We may suspect he chose a Secretary bird for his fable because of its name and for no other reason.

So this secretary bird returned to all the animals, reporting that the owl could see in the dark and knew everything.  There was a doubter in the group as there always is in any group.  The fox wanted to know if the owl could see in daytime too but all the other animals laughed at the fox.  They sent a messenger off to tell the owl they wanted him for their leader.

secretary-birdThe owl appeared among them at noon the next day with huge globular eyes and all the animals thought he was God and started following him everywhere he went.  When he bumped into trees, so did they; when he started walking down the center of a highway, they followed.  Pretty soon a hawk saw a truck bearing down on them and reported to the Secretary bird who said to the owl, “There’s danger ahead!”  The owl calmly asked, “To wit?”  But about that time the truck ran them over.  Except for the fox who had refused to go along. Since this is a kind of a fairy tale, he probably lived happily ever after.

As you can tell, Thurber was using the fable story-telling form – invented, so far as we know, by Aesop – so, in addition to the conflict introduced by the fox, the story has to have a moral.  Here is how Thurber described the moral of this story: You can fool too many of the people too much of the time.

But for us, as birders, the moral might be stated differently: There is a reason you don’t often see owls during the day.


Keven Law took the photo of the yawning secretary bird; Chris Eason took the photo of the entire bird.  You can read more about David Utterback here.

We read Thurber’s owl fable in our copy of Thurber: Writings and Drawings, published by the Library of America. Thurber’s fables were originally published as Fables for Our Time and Further Fables for Our Time. For more about Thurber himself, try this.

Crows, Ravens, Wolves and Humans

October 22, 2008
Raven in Arches National Park

Raven in Arches National Park

One of the most difficult of all things to endure for a crow, a raven, a wolf, or a human is to feel alone and separated from one’s own kind.  A sense of belonging is one of the most universal of all feelings.

Lawrence Kilham


April 9, 2008


The evidence continues to mount that calling someone a bird brain is not an insult. The BBC has this story about two Rooks — European and Asian members of the corvid family, as are jays, crows and ravens — and their problem solving capacity. In the experiment two Rooks quickly learned that they needed to simultaneously pull on two separate strings to move food into their cage. If they pulled only at one string or did not pull on both at the same time the string pulled loose and the food remained outside the cage. The birds learned this just as rapidly as did chimpanzees, those distant relatives of ours usually thought to be the brightest members of non-human species.

I am sorry to say that you have to click on this link to go to the BBC site to watch the video. It is possible that someone more web-savvy could have moved the video to this page but I haven’t had my second cup of coffee yet.

But you can listen to rooks. Rooks calling

But for other videos of Rooks, you’ll have to decamp from this blog and visit this site which someone smarter than I could probably have pasted on this page.

For all the other evidence we’ve accumulated at the Fat Finch you can click on our “Bird Brain” or the “Crows and Ravens” category over on the right of this page.

Other Birds

March 24, 2008

This article about recent discoveries of new planets outside our solar system raises the question: How many species of birds exist out there? Our life lists may seem paltry one day when it is necessary to travel to other planets to bird. What will their Hummingbirds look like?  What will their crows and ravens be able to do?

Aplomado Falcons, Part I – Meeting a Raven

November 15, 2007

Aplomado Falcons are rare birds. So rare, in fact, that no one really knows how many exist. Their historic range extended from casual visits to Tierra del Fuego north to northern Mexico and southern Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Fossils of their Pleistocene predecessors have been found in what is now called Ecuador and Peru. No one even knows how many lived the United States. We do know that by the early 1960s none were residents in the United States. A vicious combination of DDT and elimination of the native grasslands had eradicated them. Some survived in northern Mexico but very few. aplomado-bosque-nov-2007-1.jpg

A breeding program begun in 1977 has released about 500 Aplomados in Northern Mexico and southern Texas and southern New Mexico. The remaining natural grasslands of the Chihuahuan Desert are natural habitat for them. One of the many good things Ted Turner has done with his life is make available one of his New Mexico ranches for a release program. This ranch is just south of the Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge in central New Mexico and at least one of the falcons has made its way there. We saw it day before yesterday and here are photos. It is a juvenile and it was making the acquaintance of a raven. Given the intelligence of Ravens, we wondered if the Raven knew how rare Aplomados are and just wanted to look at one “up close and personal.” We’re sorry the birds are so small in the photo but they were a long way away and the adapter which fits the camera to our spotting scope was even further so this is the best we got. We’ll return again soon and try again, hopefully before this bird grows out of its juvenile coloring.


Grand Canyon Ravens

November 3, 2007

Consistent readers of this blog will know that we love ravens. Smart, adaptable, clever, cute; they are survivors. Recently, in the bottom of the Grand Canyon one of us had the opportunity to watch two of them catch an early morning thermal and rise far beyond the cliffs in this photo. You can see one of them in the center of the photo. (The other one of us declined to go along on the trip, noting the absence of showers at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.) grand-canyon-raven-1-of-1.jpg

When I saw this Raven, all I thought was, “What a wonderful place to make a living.” If the Hindus and Buddhists are correct about reincarnation and we come back many many times, it would be good to spend at least one of those lifetimes as a Raven, living in the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River.

Crows and Ravens, Part IV

July 23, 2007

We now know that Crows and Ravens are smart. Now, let us assume that you are confronted with a large black bird. It looks smart. It can identify you, can you identify it? How do you figure out whether it is a Crow or a Raven? Just follow the steps we list here and you’ll identify it successfully. (This post is based on the discussion in an excellent book, Identify Yourself: The 50 Most Common Birding Identification Challenges, by Bill Thompson, III and the editors of Bird Watchers Digest. We’ll be adding it to the book section soon but don’t wait for us. Buy yourself a copy. Where, you ask? Well, we do sell it but it is also at your local independent book seller’s.)

Step One: Where are you?

Range maps are the first clue. American Crows are found from the tree line in Northern Canada all the way south to Mexico. They are; however, absent from the high Sierra Nevada, West Texas and the lowlands of the Southwest.


Fish crows are found only in the American Southeast. Northwestern crows are confined to the Pacific Coast from Northern Washington to Southern Alaska.

Common Ravens are found just about everywhere American Crows are found except for the north central U.S. and the Great Plains. (So, if you are in the Great Plains, that large black bird is almost certainly an American Crow.)


Chihuahuan ravens are found only in the desert southwest and, occasionally in southeast Colorado to southwest Nebraska.

Chihuahuan Raven Range Map

Step Two: Decide if it is a crow or a raven.

A. If the bird is flying:

1. Ravens soar; crows, hardly ever.
2. Ravens have distinct wedge shaped tails. Crows’ tails are squared off at the rear.
3. Ravens flap more slowly and less often. They glide and soar. Crows flap constantly and steadily.

B. If the bird is sitting:

1. Ravens are – usually – larger, as much as twice.
2. Ravens have thicker bills.
3. Ravens have shaggy throat feathers, crows don’t.

C. If the bird is talking:

1. Crows have clear voices and give loud, clear “caw” notes, often in a series. Listen here.

2. Ravens have deep, hoarse voices and “kraaack” or “croak” or “gronk”. Think Edgar Allan Poe or Grip in Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge. Listen here.

Step Three: If it is a raven, decide which kind.


This is a problem only in the desert southwest since it is the only place Chihuahuan and Common Ravens overlap.

Have the bird sit absolutely still so you can walk up to it and examine the base of its neck feathers. If the base of the feathers is white, it is a Chihuahuan Raven. If it is dirty gray, it is a common raven. Speak Spanish to the former, English to the latter.

There is no other way to tell for sure which is which. You can guess though. Chihuahuan’s prefer open grassland and scrub desert lowlands and commons prefer higher elevations and wooded habitats. Chihuahuans hang out together more than Commons, at least in the winter.

Step Four: If it is a Crow, decide which kind.


This will be a problem only if you are in the Southeast United States or the Pacific Coast. If you are in one of those two places you now must decide what kind of crow it is.

Forget it. It’s impossible. Just stay away from those places and you will never have to deal with it. But, if you do find yourself on a beach in British Colombia, assume it is a Northwestern Crow and add it to your life list. But. if you are more than 500 yards inland, assume it is an American Crow.

Step Five: If you really can’t decide.

If you still don’t know and there are people waiting for you to tell them, announce loudly and confidently that it is whichever one you want it to be. No one will ever be able to prove you wrong. Only that big black bird will know.


Update: We’ve added a category for “Crows and Ravens.” You can find other posts in the series by clicking on that category on the right side of the home page or you can follow these links which will open in a new window.

Crows and Ravens:

Part I – Here.

Part II – Here.

Part III – Here.

Part V – Here.

Part VI – Here.

Crows and Ravens – New Caledonian Crows -Breaking News – Here.

New Caledonian Crows Again – Here.

The Nature of Intelligence – Here.

%d bloggers like this: