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Birding Column: Going Nuts With Wilderness Ravens

Mathew Tekulsky
The Birdman of Bel Air
March 16, 2004
 
Ravens like high places. I have seen ravens in two high places that
are also two of the prettiest places in the world—Rainbow Point
in Utah's Bryce Canyon National Park, and Glacier Point in
California's Yosemite.

When I arrived at Rainbow Point, it was mid-April, and the temperature was about 28 degrees Fahrenheit (-2 degrees Celsius). It had snowed the day before, and the pink cliffs of the Paunsaugunt Plateau had a patina of white on them. The first thing I noticed was a common raven sitting in a tree at 9,115 feet (2,778 meters) above sea level, with a clear view to the east of thousands of square miles of open terrain beyond the adjacent Dixie National Forest.


I wandered over to this raven, intent on serving him a few unshelled peanuts in order to get a good photo of him. (I knew this was against the rules, but in the interest of science, I proceeded anyway.) The raven didn't budge from the tree, so I threw a peanut out onto a patch of snow to my left.

To my amazement, the raven didn't fly directly to the peanut, but he disappeared behind a tree to my left. Then, I saw him slink out on the ground from behind this tree, and then he made a beeline for the peanut.

I just stood there watching him from about 15 feet (4.5 meters) away. Now, a raven can pulverize an unshelled peanut in two or three large pecks. These pecks are so powerful that the kernels become dislodged and lie exposed on the ground (or snow, in this case). The raven then eats each kernel whole, tossing his head back as he swallows them. The whole process takes about 10 or 15 seconds.

Compare this to the lowly scrub jay. He's a prissy fellow, and he takes about 10 or 15 seconds just to peck a hole that is large enough to pull one of the kernels through. Then, he places the kernel between his toes on a branch or another hard object, and he pecks (or rather, bites) off small chunks of the kernel, tilts his head back, and swallows. It might take a scrub jay a good two or three minutes to polish off an unshelled peanut.

This is why the raven is the king of the corvids (the crow and jay family), and why he is the lord of all birds (outside of birds of prey, such as the eagle, hawk, and falcon).

Months later, on August 1, I arrived at Glacier Point at about 8 a.m. As I took in the monumental view of Half Dome from this location, I noticed a common raven sitting on a large rock and looking in my direction. I flushed him over to a nearby stone wall and marveled at the contrast between this tiny bird and the enormous mass of rock across Yosemite Valley in the background.

Now, Glacier Point is at 7,214 feet (2,198 meters) above sea level, so one thing about ravens has become abundantly clear to me. They enjoy being in the catbird seat, perched at a high elevation, with a commanding view of a vast expanse of open air, high above the landmass below.

What a way to live.

About the Common Raven

Although the common raven is at home in mountain forests, it can thrive in a wide variety of habitats, including seashores, deserts, and prairies. It feeds on everything from carrion and small mammals to beetles, caterpillars, and even other birds' eggs in the wild.

If you have ravens in your neighborhood, you can spread cracked corn on the ground, and the ravens may enter your yard to eat the corn. They also like leftovers such as baked goods and scraps of meat, as well as dog food and even pasta.

The common raven is larger than the American crow. It has a wedge-shaped tail, instead of a fan-shaped tail, and it soars like a hawk, as opposed to the crow, which flies in a straight line.

Mathew Tekulsky writes a regular National Geographic News column about birding in his backyard and neighborhood in Bel Air, California.

Previous columns by the Birdman of Bel Air
New Bird-Watching Column: "The Birdman of Bel Air"
The California Towhee, Boldly Bland
At Home With Hooded Orioles
Scrub Jays Go Nuts for Peanuts
Northern Mockingbird is a Wary Neighbor
Christmas With the Pelicans
California-Quail Close Encounter
Yosemite Steller's Jay Encounter
Banding Birds at Devils Postpile
California Condor Close Encounter
California Condor Rebound

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