Raven flight and wing action adapt to changing conditions

Raven flight and wing action adapt to changing conditions. These birds inhabit much of North America, and they fly through winds that range from coastal, to mountain, to desert environments. 

There is a furious wind blowing outside today. Douglas fir trees swing and wave as they try to achieve balance in the gales. The doors of the visitor center are yanked open as it’s buffeted by outbursts. Another weather system approaches; forcing the last storm out of Colorado. The argument between the systems results in high spring winds.

I gaze out the windows. The gusts leave no trace of their passing in the air. And it’s impossible to pinpoint their origins. Computer modeling by the weather service can do some tracking, but it’s a hopeless mystery to know the whims of the wind.

And as I stare, two forms appear out over the canyon heading my way. Driving themselves in the swirling forces of the air are two ravens, determined to reach a destination known only to them. I have never seen ravens shirk from a mission. This pair flies into a tempest to accomplish an appointed purpose.

It’s easy to question the wisdom of ravens, but that is folly. Like all birds in the corvid family (jays and crows, for instance), ravens are exceptionally intelligent. In fact, ornithologists only disagree over just how high the level of their ability is. One researcher calls them “true outliers.”

Malcolm Gladwell, in his 2008 book Outliers, defines the term as, “those who have been given opportunities — and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.”

I first encountered many ravens while working at Lake Powell. Like boaters, they seemed to congregate at the marinas. They strutted around parking lots, boat ramps, and the snack shack, often looking for something to eat.

I watched them nimbly sneak through open car windows, swiftly devour a bag of Cheetos, poke around for candy bars and other enticing aromas, grab a tube of lipstick (just for fun — colorful and shiny), and escape before the owner was the wiser. Drivers of convertibles were at their mercy.

But they also knew how to survive the winter when the crowds departed. Their skills of detecting opportunities sharpened. Relying on more than roadkill or open dumpsters, they were able to disperse to seek traditional foods: nuts, berries, insects which emerged early, an occasional lizard. Not ones to leave survival to chance, they created their own breaks.

Their adaptability led to their intelligence, or perhaps vice versa, but I became more impressed watching a clan of ravens at Death Valley. A clan (mom and dad, kids, yearlings, sisters, brothers, grandparents, etc.) lived near our work compound.

They commonly greeted us in the morning. One in particular would perch on a fence and squawk. His slightly arched beak clacking, he would chirp and issue a gurgling croak, in a gravelly sort of way. Throat feathers swept out; nasal bristles dancing as he proclaimed. Ornithologists have categorized some 33 different uttered sounds from the bird’s gullet.

Ravens have strong communication techniques which undergird survival strategies and punctuate their sophistication.

The clan members were very happy to interact with us through the seasons, but one day they became subdued. They flew around, and followed some typical behavior patterns. After a few days they departed. A colleague found one of their family members on the roof, dead, a few days later.

It was a topic of conversation among the staff, and we seemed to mourn their loss as the flock grieved. The message seemed to be that the death changed the place for them.

The clan must have moved on for new opportunities, or so we thought. Some of the family returned after almost a year. Their behavior had changed, they seemed less playful or interactive; but we noted that they had a complex relationship with each other and Death Valley.

On the Oak Flat Trail at Black Canyon, one stunning October afternoon, I heard an echoing call of a raven. I thought of that Death Valley family and their gregarious interactions. Two squawks later, I saw a pair swooping and floating, when suddenly one of them flipped and drifted upside down for 10 to 15 seconds. The warm sun created updrafts and they seized the moment. Taking turns with the inverted flight pattern, they used their intimate familiarity with the wind to have fun.

They are outliers. While our wind turbines have harnessed it for energy, these birds have employed the breezes for life. They have seized the opportunity of wind, and folded its mystery into their culture. In the human world, where the quest to know all is never-ending, perhaps there is a lesson for us blowing in the wind.

Paul Zaenger has been a supervisory park ranger at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park since 1993.Other park assignments include Mount Rushmore National Memorial and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

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