Wednesday, May 20, 2009

All About those Brainy Birds, A bit of Raven Talk

gilly Gal at Raptor Center

I guess it's about time I actually walked my talk, Raven Talk that is. There is actually a story about how I got my name, and in case you are wondering it was from a very special indeed Brainy Bird.

My fascination and or obsession with those Brainy Birds began around 15 years ago. I had just signed up to volunteer at a local Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in San Rafael, California. For years I wanted to work with Wild Animals, and I was thrilled when I found out that there was a Wildlife Center not too far from the city that had a great Volunteer Program. In order to volunteer you had to take the basic Wildlife Rehabilitation course over a weekend and once you passed it you were assigned to a specific area of the Center. I chose the clinic since I could be exposed to a variety of animals and learn a variety of new skills. On my first day of work my supervisor was not there, so I asked the Intern on duty what I should do? She said, well, you can clean Edgar and Lenore's enclosure as well as feed them. Edgar and Lenore were the resident Ravens who were actually flighted birds, yet they had been raised by a human so they were imprinted on humans. Ravens are at the top of the Bird intelligence chart, so when people try to raise them, they become quite dependent on this and therefore cannot be released successfully back into the wild. She also warned me that Edgar had an eye for pecking peoples heads, so she suggested I should wear a hat. Well, not taking any chances I took her advice and found a hat and promptly put it on. I gathered my cleaning bucket and rags, as well as preparing their daily diet of chicks, and some yummy fruit to feast on. The job consisted of collecting their table scraps and various carcasses that could be lying about, and hosing down the enclosure. So, I happily set out to do my new job. I must admit I was a bit nervous as Edgar and Lenore were quite large and impressive and I wasn't used to being in such close contact with these gorgeous shiny Black Flighted friends. When I first went in, Lenore flew up to a high perch and pretty much ignored my presence, Edgar on the other hand decided that it would be fun to follow me around, and chased my feet and try to peck at my feet... so much for the hat, what I needed were foot guards. I realized he was merely checking me out, and after a little talking to he settled down. I guess after I was done, and placed their new luncheon plate down, that they figured I was okay. This day marked my new obsession with the largest Songbirds we have known as Ravens. Ravens are a member of the family of Corvids which are part of the Passerine group of birds, otherwise known as perching birds. This family also includes their close relatives, Crows, jays and Magpies, Clark's Nutcrackers, Rooks and the lesser known Treepies who are mostly in Asia and Africa. Ravens being the largest of this family and I must say quite the colorful characters. Ravens have over 40 different types of calls which are primarily used to communicate with their mates and other Ravens. Ravens mate for life and they are usually seen in pairs or by themselves. They are very private Nester's, and usually nest in more remote mountain areas, as opposed to Crows who live in large family roosts, and are more urban. That is not to say a Raven will not take advantage of an opportunity and pay visits to your local McDonald's for a tasty bag of leftover french fries. After that first day at the center, I wanted to work more with Lenore and Edgar as I found them quite entertaining and fascinating in a very Bird like way. After that fateful day I was forever in amore with these incredible birds.

Since that fateful day I have stayed true to my heart and to this day I am still in love with these birds. I have had them follow me on hikes, talk to me from high perches and I must say I have greatly improved my raven talk and can talk back to them now. Four years ago, I moved to Alaska to work in Denali National park. I had heard that everything in Alaska was bigger, and when I arrived this theory proved itself true. Once, I was on my lunch break, and I saw a huge bird soaring in the sky. At first I thought it was a huge Raptor, perhaps a Golden Eagle or a large hawk, the bird continued to soar and then all of the sudden began a slow descent down close to the area where our garbage cans were, not to my surprise at all, it was a huge Raven, probably around 27 inches long and I was amazed. So yes, this theory proved most definitely true. Later that summer I was about to embark on a hike and a Raven was perched on a sign. As I began my hike four of these Ravens followed me the entire way there and back as well.. you see Raven is steeped in folkloric myth throughout times, and many cultures believe Raven is a messenger, and I wondered what type of message these Ravens were sending me. I have studied various Indigenous cultures over the years and love the relationship between animal and human and the lessons they teach us. In the Cultures of the Pacific Northwest peoples, Raven is a Trickster and also a Creator. For many Raven has created the animals, he has stolen the Sun and the Moon, and is a symbol of transformation. Some of the Northern cultures, such as the Inuit, believe that Raven began actually as a white bird, and through his ability to shape shift and change he turned into a black bird. In this translation I see the part of us that is both the darkness and the lightness. The darkness which is often sad and or negative, and the light being that of joy and happiness. Raven has the ability to help transform the consciousness from the Darkness to the light. I later found out what Ravens message was to me. I realized after four months in Denali that I wanted to stay in Alaska, so I applied for a job at Alaska Raptor Center in Sitka located in the Southeastern part of the state. My volunteer work in Wildlife Rehabilitation, plus experience in a Veterinary Hospital and several other related volunteer jobs surely helped me get this job. When I arrive at the Center, I found out that they had a resident Raven who had no left wing, she had been shot and lost most of her wing from the Humerus down. Gilly Gal as we affectionately called her had once had a partner, however he had died, so now mostly through boredom she was starting to display boredom behaviors, so I was elected or I should say self appointed as her primary keeper. This entailed spending extra time with her every day, devising various food games and other forms of enrichment work so she would not be so bored. Well, this experience totally benefited both of us, as I learned so much from her, and in turn helped her have a better life at the center. Ravens and Crows really do adore shiny objects, so at the local thrift store I found various toys of the shiny variety that I could use to hide food in and place throughout her enclosure. Hiding food was always fun, and it gave her the opportunity to work for her food and not expect only handouts. I would hide things under branches, in corners, in holes in the trees and she always seemed to have a good time of it. During the fall Blackberry season, I would pick the Branches and hang them all over her enclosure and in no time they were gone. One of her favorite snacks were meal worms.. sounds so yummy hey? So, I came up with this idea of taking empty toilet paper rolls, and wrapping the meal worms in paper towels, and then stuffing them in the roll. I would hang them on various branches and she really had a blast. First, she would pull out the paper towel, rip it apart and literally suck down the worms, after that she proceeded to tear up the towels and throw them everywhere which was always fun to watch. On one occasion I decided to ad an extra treat and wrapped a mouse separately, we only gave the Corvids mice once a week, since we needed the mice for the smaller raptors that were either residents or Rehabilitating. In any case, the mouse was wrapped up separately at the opposite end of the Toilet paper roll, she realized that there was yet another tasty treat left for her dining pleasure, so she pulled it out, unwrapped it very carefully, and I could see how excited she was.. then she totally caught me off guard, she jumped off her perch and walked over to her water pan with the mouse in her foot, then she carefully washed the mouse off before devouring it.. I was amazed that I was witnessing her clean her food. Ravens and Crows are known to use tools, so this to me was priceless. So you see, they really are Brainy Birds.

Last fall I was awarded a scholarship for a Course at North Cascades Institute on Diablo Lake in North Cascades National Park. The class was taught by Professor John Marzluff who wrote the book In The Company of Ravens and Crows, The class was Corvid Ecology and other Corvid Brainy Birds. It was a wonderful weekend and we spent it on various field trips throughout the park looking at Gray Jays, Yellow Billed Magpies, Stellar Blue Jays, Clark's Nutcrackers and of course my fave, the Raven. The Lake on which the Institute is located has a mating pair of Ravens, so we spent a great deal of time setting up food booby traps in hopes of capturing them. Well as I mentioned these are very intelligent birds, and the Ravens were suspicious of our food traps, so no such luck. In a way I was glad, as I did not want to catch them, yet Biologists do this as part of their studies. Apparently they have been monitoring the pair for several years, so this was part of the study. I learned so much from John, and I was so grateful for having won the scholarship. He showed us an intelligent chart that ranked various species, and ravens were way on top, just a tad notch below a parrot. They have huge brains, and as I mentioned both Ravens and Crows have the ability to use tools. Another study was done several years ago with New Calendonian
Crows on this ability and I will attach the link to the website with the Video on Betty The Crow which is a must see.

Throughout history Ravens have been steeped in Mythological legend. During the Middle Ages in Europe, Ravens and Crows were considered a bad omen, yet not such the case with the Native peoples of this country. For the Native peoples of the Plains Tribes, Raven is considered a messenger and since the Bird is Black, Raven represents going into the Darkness of the Void. This is a place in your mind, that when you allow yourself to go to that dark place and have the answers come to you, thus transforming your consciousness. In the Northwest Raven is a Religious Symbol and represents both the Creator and Trickster. Raven has stolen the Sun, the moon, and also has created all the Animals. Raven is depicted in all types of art and particularly the Totem Poles of Southeastern Alaska and Canada. The Tlingits of the Southeast also have a symbol called the Lovebirds, which shows both a Raven and an Eagle. The Tlingits have clans, and cannot marry within their own clan, yet a Raven can marry an Eagle. Raven is also revered in the Celtic Culture and there is an Ancient Goddess associated with Raven known as the Morrigan. She was a triple Goddess and a Warrior as well. Raven represented transformation with the Ancient Celtics as well. So Raven is steeped in Folklore, even the British have folklore, and tradition says that when Raven leaves the tower of London, the Tower will come down. She even helped Noah carry the flood waters during Biblical times. No other Avian creature in history has so many legends, and you can understand why when you spend time with these amazing winged Spirits. watch this video on Betty the Crow

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