Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

A Kindness of Ravens

Common Raven

Last week I got a fascinating message from a listener named Mike Bartz who lives up on the Gunflint trail. He writes:

Yesterday I was walking and observed 3 northern ravens on the ground. They are around all of the time flying about and scavenging. I noticed that one of them was being pushed sideways by another. Then I noticed the one being pushed, while it appeared to be a mature bird its legs were noticeably shorter compared t the other ravens. It could move on the ground but seemed to have great difficulty compared to the others.

The closer I looked it became apparent to me that the bird had some type of birth defect or injury causing both legs to be grossly misshapen and it appeared that the left foot was basically held in a knot. I could not get a good view of the right but the bird seemed to use that one to "shuffle" and put most of its weight on.

Then the one of the most amazing things I have ever witnessed in nature occurred. On three separate occasions, the bird that had been pushing or what appeared to be assisting the "crippled" raven moved off a short distance, picked up something with its beak, moved back to the handicapped bird, and placed it on the ground. Then the crippled bird reached down with its beak, and picked up and ate whatever the first bird had brought to it. I observed this three times in a relatively short period of time.
The second bird, based on what I observed, appeared to be feeding the other raven. Helping it. I have seen this behavior in canines regurgitating food brought back to the pups but never heard of it among ravens. That handicapped bird appeared to be mature and otherwise healthy. Wondering if you are aware of any thing in the literature of ravens helping one another.

Mike continues, “I am a retired game warden from Wisconsin. If someone had told me this years ago when I was working I likely would have been skeptical but I know what I saw. It was truly incredible!”

Ravens, along with jays, magpies, and crows, belong to a family known for tight family relationships, and strong ties with neighboring birds. One day when I was rehabbing a Blue Jay named BJ, who I kept in a cage next to my education Blue Jay Sneakers, Sneakers managed to get out of her own cage. When I came into the room, she was passing mealworms through the bars to BJ. I bet she’d taken at least a few for herself first, but still…

Sneakers the Blue Jay
Sneakers got her name as a fledgling because she liked to snuggle against our shoes. I don't have photos of B.J.
BJ came to me in the first place one December after a major blizzard and frigid weather. Someone found him on the ground beneath their feeder, and easily picked him up to bring to me. It turned out that BJ had a congenital deformity and simply could not open his wings at all. Because of that, or as the root cause of it, his pectoral muscles were almost non-existent—beneath the chest, I could feel the almost bare keel bone. He was near starvation when I got him. As he recovered, he was great at hopping and jumping, and outdoors could easily get from tree to tree if there were low branches or a nearby shrub. I presume his parents stuck with him from the time he hatched in early summer until winter became too pressing for them and they finally had to move on without him. I like thinking that they intentionally left him near a feeding station so he’d at least not starve.

Kevin McGowan of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has been keeping track of individual crows in the Ithaca, New York area since the 70s. When West Nile Virus hit, it decimated the crow population. Kevin discovered one male and chicks dead, and both parents in an adjoining territory. The surviving female went to her neighbors and raised their young. The following year, at least one of those chicks helped her raise her next family.

We love to pretend our species has a monopoly on intelligence, compassion, love, and empathy. But if we were indeed as smart as we think, we might pay a bit more attention to the intelligent and even compassionate living beings all around us. Thanks, Mike, for this lovely reminder.

Common Raven