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Raven Myths May Be Real

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Thu Jul 06 00:00:00 MDT 2006

Wolves and ravens at a carcass in Yellowstone National Park. Photo by Daniel R. Stahler.

Wolves and ravens at carcass


With so many opportunities to tune-out and plug-in to a computer, iPod, or cell phone these days, some centuries-old delights, mysteries and myths are nearly unknown. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks wildlife managers say that the case of the common raven is a good example.

Ravens are smart, sociable and entertaining. They appear as wise tricksters in the myths of ancient Native American and European cultures and display complex behaviors including life-long relationships with their mates, co-hunting relationships with wolves and humans, elaborate vocal communication and even play.

The Raven is a great shapeshifter in myths of the Tlingit, a tribe of the Pacific northwest coast, moving between the creature and human worlds, bestowing gifts while also playing tricks on humans.

It now appears myths portraying the raven as a wise trickster may have a factual basis. Credible reports tell of ravens in Olympic National Park in Washington learning to mimic the sound of the urinals that auto-flush in the campgrounds, as well as the call that park personnel use during training to simulate an avalanche—"one, two, three, wooosh." Some experts have recently documented as many as 17 common raven vocalizations.

Traditional native hunting stories of the Inuit people tell of ravens hunting with humans, and describe the birds tipping in flight to direct hunters to caribou. Researchers say cultural and biological evidence suggests ravens, wolves and pre-historic humans are likely to have hunted in each other's company throughout evolutionary history.

In 2002 Yellowstone National Park researchers found that ravens clearly prefer to associate with wolves, compared to coyotes and elk, whether food is present or not. In their study, Daniel Stahler and Douglas Smith found that wolves open carcasses that ravens could not and that the birds when feeding with wolves overcome the shyness they often demonstrate around large carcasses. In turn, ravens steal food from wolves by following them and scavenging at kill sites.

Stahler and Smith also observed ravens socializing with wolves away from kill sites, swooping down to pull wolves' tails, interacting with wolf pups at den sites and engaging in playful chasing.

Bernd Heinrich, author of Mind of the Raven, Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds, and advisor on the Yellowstone Park raven study, has also frequently observed ravens hunting with wolves.

This relationship between wolves and ravens is especially interesting considering that wolves were absent from Yellowstone National Park for nearly 70 years until they were reintroduced in the mid-1990s. Ravens almost immediately become re-acquainted with wolves.

Members of the Corvidae family, which includes common ravens, crows, magpies and jays, may reach 14 years of age in the wild and up to 40 in captivity. They begin to produce young around age three. The female lays four to six eggs that are green blue with splotches of black, gray and olive. The male feeds the female while she incubates the eggs. Adult ravens generally weigh between 1.5 to 3.5 pounds and have wingspans that may reach 48 inches. The bird's diet includes arthropods (even scorpions), amphibians, reptiles, birds (adults, chicks, and eggs), small mammals, carrion, grains, buds, and berries.

For more on the raven, visit FWP's online Animal Field Guide.