Scary-smart

Halloween raven

Ravens populate the mythology of many cultures throughout the northern hemisphere  (Photo: John North/iStockphoto, Used with permission).

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[I’ve been frighteningly busy throughout the month of October, so I’m reprinting this post from October 2011 in honor of Halloween, and ravens.]

Fright-night is lurking just around the corner. Frankensteins, mummies, zombies, ghosts, and golems will soon leave their lairs to roam freely through our cities and suburbs, searching for something to eat. Butterfingers, Baby Ruths, and brains—oh my!

poe's ravenReanimated but mindless creatures? HA! They don’t scare me. It’s the ones I’m not so sure I could outsmart that give me nightmares. You know… Hannibal Lecter. Patrick Bateman. Brilliant but mad scientists. Shape-shifters, tricksters, and ravens.

That’s right—it’s Poe’s gently rapping, tap-tap-tapping apparition, the common raven (Corvus corax), that keeps me up at night. Similar in appearance to the American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos), but larger and more slender with a wedge-shaped tail and a heavy, arched beak—a santoku blade to the crow’s steak knife.

Now, understand that I’m not implying they’re evil. It’s just that there’s definitely something spooky about a massive, inky bird with a genius IQ and an inclination towards… exploiting opportunities, shall we say.  Humans have long considered these birds both charismatic and ominous, fascinating and frightening. Spread across much of the northern hemisphere, ravens have stained the mythologies of native people Valkyries by Emil Doeplerthroughout their range. In Scandinavian cultures, this feathered carrion-eater was associated with war, blood, and corpses and their Valkyries—goddesses who decide which warriors will die in battle and who will be granted an afterlife in Valhalla—often were accompanied by ravens. The Celts made a connection between ravens, war, and death as well; true to their inherent interest in metaphysics, though, they also credited these birds with the ability to see the future, to move freely between worlds and, oddly enough, to play chess (rook is the common name for Corvus frugilegus, a European member of the raven-crow clan).

Mythology aside, ravens have been judged by humans to be among the smartest of all birds. That may be damning them with too-faint praise. Various studies in and out of the lab have tested researchers intelligence and creativity while they attempt to test the raven’s problem-solving skills. The jury’s still out on which party finds these efforts more enlightening. Ravens have been observed applying an understanding of cause-and-effect to the problem of filling an empty stomach—they learn to associate the sound of a rifle being fired during hunting season with the presence of a carcass (similarly loud sounds are ignored). Not content to simply wait for a scavenging opportunity, ravens will work in pairs or even larger teams, using a distraction strategy to separate adult birds and mammals from their vulnerable children, to gang up on prey too large for a single bird to overwhelm, or to defend resources and territory against neighboring gangs. Nature, it has been said, is red in tooth and claw, and ravens are definitely a part of that gruesome heritage.

There’s more to the story, of course—isn’t there always? Ravens are a threat to any number of wild youngsters, but they are devoted parents to their own offspring, who remain dependent for longer than many other bird babies. Both male and female are involved in parenting and are thought to mate for life.

Ravens aren’t as social as crows—they would prefer to go trick-or-treating alone or in pairs than in a mob—but they aren’t loners in the stereotypical serial-killer sense. During winter months they will form a flock, a.k.a. an unkindness (who comes up with these names?!), to find food during daylight hours and stay warm at night.

raven playing with the windOne very appealing characteristic is their sense of fun. Ravens are audacious, acrobatic flyers who take obvious pleasure in practicing dives, rolls, and loops, or even flying upside-down. I’ve personally watched ravens play with the wind blasting up the face of a cliff or a tall building, a sight that never fails to make me long for wings of my own. A favorite game, particularly among young ravens, involves climbing high in the sky holding some object, dropping it, and then racing gravity to catch it midair.

I also learned that here in North America, ravens have been assigned a very different mythological role than in Europe. Pacific Northwest legend has it they take a kind of noblesse oblige attitude toward the human race. Grandfather Raven is portrayed as a devilish philanthrope, a Robin Hood figure who stole the Sun, Moon, Stars, Fire, Water, and even Salmon from various deities and gave them to the people. How would you like to find those treats in your goody bag on Halloween?

Perhaps ravens, like so many scapegoats before them, have been unfairly vilified.  We should never forget that the job of predators and scavengers is thankless, but a crucial component of healthy ecosystems. French author Andre Gide may have said it best, “There are very few monsters who warrant the fear we have of them.” I think it’s time to change my thinking.  From this point forward, I’m going to dream of playful, benevolent ravens and be frightened nevermore.

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© 2011 Next-Door Nature— no reprints without written permission from the author. Thanks to Ian Burt (Poe’s raven) and Ingrid Taylar (raven playing on the wind) for making their photographs available via a Creative Commons license. Walkyrien by Emil Doepler is in the public domain.

Wobbling waxwings

Cedar waxwing (Photo: Eve Fraser-Corp, Creative Commons license)

By the end of winter, the fruit upon which cedar waxwings depend can pack a real punch (Photo: Eve Fraser-Corp, Creative Commons license)

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I recently came across a report that cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) have returned to Texas. Every time I hear someone mention this species I’m reminded of  my days as director of a wildlife center in Houston. For a few weeks every year the waxwings would show up by the cardboard box-full and the rehabilitation clinic would turn into… well, a different kind of rehab center.

With their handsome, distinctive plumage, even a newbie birder can easily recognize this species. Their yellow tail- and red wing-tips look as if they’ve been dipped in sealing wax—thus the name. With a range that covers much of North America, waxwings aren’t rare but they’re not as common as some of our iconic backyard birds, so it’s always a bit of a thrill when they’re in the neighborhood.

Cedar waxwing and chick (Photo: Alan Huett, Creative Commons license)They’re one of only a handful of avian species in the U.S. and Canada whose diet is composed largely (but not entirely) of fruit, a useful characteristic when one shares a breeding territory with brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater) and other nesting parasites—females who don’t bother to build a nest of their own. Instead, they leave their eggs in the nests of other birds and the cowbird chicks are cared for like biological children. In fact, the foster nestling normally out-competes the surrogate’s own offspring when food is being passed out but the high-sugar diet provided by waxwing parents, while perfect for their own kids, causes the cowbird to waste away.

Waxwing adaptability has allowed them to benefit from the introduction of non-native fruit-bearing plants used in urban and suburban landscaping. For example, they seem to love honeysuckle… and it shows. The red pigment in the exotic vine’s berries can turn the bird’s canary tail-tips bright orange, a plumage change birders and ornithologists first began to notice in the 1960s.

Waxwing flock on pyracantha (Photo: Bob Muller, Creative Commons license)Waxwings travel in flocks that may include 40+ individuals, all searching for pyracantha and privet, choke cherries, mulberries, and any other tree or shrub that bears sugary fruit. Once they’ve gobbled up every last berry, they move along without a backward glance.

Unless the fruit is spiked.

It’s not a matter of someone trying to contribute to avian delinquency. From late autumn until plants have produced new spring and summer crops, last season’s berries, drupes, drupelets, pomes, and other sweet seed containers hang on, growing inceasingly less… fresh, shall we say. Temperature fluctuations and the presence of wild yeasts often will cause fruit to ferment in situ. Migration and colder temperatures make for voracious birds and the waxwings are carbo-loading as fast as they can swallow. They don’t seem to notice some of the snacks pack a punch. When you weigh slightly more than an ounce, the alcohol content doesn’t have to be very high to knock you for a loop. Next thing you know, birds are careening around on the front lawn like New Year’s Eve.

Injured waxwing (Photo: Churl Han, Creative Commons license)It can look rather comical but it’s no laughing matter. Many inebriated birds are seriously injured or are killed when they fly into cars and windows.

Good Samaritans across the county scoop disoriented birds into cardboard boxes and head for the nearest wildlife rehabilitation center. There, the birds are given a head-to-toe, beak-to-tail examination. Most of the patients are simply allowed to safely sleep it off in a warm, dark room before being released to continue their travels… although they probably set out with a doozy of a headache.


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© 2012 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work; all you have to do is ask). Thanks to name for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: Eve Fraser-Corp (waxwing with wizened berry); Eve Fraser-Corp (waxwing with wizened berry); Alan Huett (waxwing adult and nestling);  Bob Muller (waxwings on pyracantha)’ and Churl Han (injured waxwing).