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A Conspiracy of Ravens
More than just hungry feeders at a wolf kill
As I walk down the middle of the snow-covered road, a raven passes just above me. I hear the creaking made by its powerful wings with their four-foot span. I step to the side of the road, stop, and watch the raven go. I’m in no rush today. I’m heading for the slow quiet of a spot in the cottonwoods on the edge of the Lamar Valley to lounge, look, and listen.
I was introduced to ravens during my first winter living and volunteering at the Lamar Buffalo Ranch. I saw hundreds and most of the time ignored them, except as tools for finding wolves. Yellowstone’s wolves are one of the world’s “charismatic megafauna,” the movie stars of the animal kingdom, loved or hated but always in the spotlight. Ravens, on the other hand, are the opposite of charismatic megafauna. I guess we could call them “mundane minifauna,” simply a part of the landscape, like their crow cousins in a city park, or seagulls at the beach.
But after months of watching ravens thrive in a harsh and frigid environment by befriending wolves and coyotes and then stealing food from them, I wondered if ravens weren’t more than what biologists call a kleptoparasite. So I dug into bird books and found ravens to be far more than winged thieves.
Giving the departing raven one last glance, I leave the road and enter the stand of cottonwoods I’ve claimed as my little territory. I pull out binoculars and scan the valley floor for wildlife. I turn a very slow circle, stopping every time I see an animal-like shape. But they’re all imposters: log dogs, boulder bison, rock ravens.
Just before completing the circle, I spot a real raven sitting in the branches of a downed tree out near the snow-covered Lamar River. This could be good: Where there are ravens there may be a carcass or canid. Then I chuckle; there I go using the raven as little more than a meat-activated wolf detector.
As I glass the raven, a magpie flies by. The raven watches the black and white magpie as it descends in dips and lands nearby. The raven turns its head and its beak opens and a croak emerges. Is it talking to the magpie? That’s possible. While Poe’s famous raven may have been limited to “Nevermore,” wild ravens are far more talkative. They have shouts of alarm, cries for claiming territory, calls that comfort, tones made when flying, and a call that they make only when wolves are nearby.
Those communication skills probably help ravens work together, something else they do well. Flock members share sentry duty and childcare. They show—or maybe tell—other ravens where food can be found. They mob intruders and use stones to bomb predators near their nests. Talking to one another and working together must be signs of intelligence. And, in fact, the raven has one of the biggest brains in the bird world relative to its body size.
But right now, that solo raven on the downed log is not demonstrating much of an IQ. It’s just sitting and gazing—quite like I am, come to think of it. Maybe that log is its favorite place and it’s watching me and wondering what I’m going to do next. I move the binoculars from the raven and begin another visual lap of the valley. Still no other critters.
When I return my gaze to the fallen log, there are two ravens, sitting side-by-side and facing in my direction. I laugh aloud and wonder: If I keep circling will the pair increase to a flock—or a so-called “conspiracy” or “unkindness” of ravens? Those labels smack of disrespect. Especially when compared to the names for flocks of other common birds: a parliament of owls, a bouquet of pheasants, a charm of finches.
The two ravens on the log start to preen one another, and I exclaim to no one, “Oh, maybe they’re a mating pair.” If so, they’re right on schedule. In winter ravens will choose their mates, defend a nesting territory, preen, and even play.
A Yellowstone instructor once described to me how a raven played with just-emerged pups at a wolf den. He watched the bird sneak up behind a pup, grab the pup’s tail with its beak, pull, and then let the startled youngster go. The pup in turn chased the raven that hopped away. The two repeated this harmless game of pull and chase. I wonder if early bonding like this makes the raven one of the pack in the developing mind of a young wolf. Is that why grown wolves chase ravens from a carcass but rarely kill them?
The two ravens in my binoculars continue to preen one another. The bird on the left is much larger, so maybe that’s the male. When he turns his head, his beak is in profile, and I’m struck by its size. A raven has one of the largest beaks of all perching birds.
But in beaks, size isn’t everything. Shape’s the thing. A raptor, such as an eagle, has a hooked and curved beak that operates as a killing and opening tool. The raven’s beak, though large, has only a slight curve and is not that effective at ripping and tearing. That’s why ravens depend on wolves and coyotes to open the food bank.
The male I’m watching bounces up and down, fluffs the rough feathers around his neck, and twitches his wings, preparing to fly. Perhaps I’ll be lucky and see these two soar into the synchronized flight of breeding pairs. Or maybe they’ll play with one another while flying, one dropping a twig, the other swooping in to catch it before it hits the ground.
The male croaks once and takes off down the valley. The female watches, calls, and pursues. They fly straight and fast with no acrobatics, no twig swapping. As I sign and swivel at the waist to keep them in sight, I silently wish them a long and productive life together.
Ravens can live fifteen to twenty years in the wild and may mate for life. This pair could have four to six little ravens leaving the nest by June or July. And that’s good because the world needs more birds like these: curious and intelligent, social and adaptable, resourceful and problem solvers. Come to think of it, the world could use more people like that, too.
Thanks for joining me in this Love the Wild based on a chapter from In the Temple of Wolves.
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My bestselling In the Temple of Wolves; its sequel, Deep into Yellowstone; and its prequel, The Wilds of Aging are available signed. My books are also available on Amazon unsigned or as eBook or audiobook.
Image Credits: Photos by Rick Lamplugh