Thinking bird lives up to trickster lore
Seattle Times science reporter
FORKS, Clallam County — John Marzluff and I are sitting low in the front seat, whispering like cops on a stakeout.
We are trying to outwit a raven, which is no small feat. For while this striking, iconic creature of Northwest lore is big and slow, it is also one of the smartest animals on Earth. Some days, like today, it seems smarter than humans.
Marzluff, a University of Washington wildlife ecologist, is trying to lure a raven to a pile of white bread near the Olympic Correctional Center. He will then press a button on a remote control that will fire a .30-06 cartridge, which will launch a net over his quarry.
Marzluff has done this maybe 100 times on the Olympic Peninsula, trapping, banding and affixing radio locators to study the birds' distribution and behavior, their relationship with humans, their effects on species like marbled murrelets, their apparent family structures, breeding and territories. He wonders if the birds remember him.
"It's pretty amazing," he says. "I haven't trapped here in two years, and they still don't like a pile of bread."
Over the next few hours, his pile of bread is visited by two blacktailed deer and so many crows he has to replenish it. Ravens don't come close. He adds Cheetos. At last a fat, glorious raven, big as a hawk and bearing a long, curved beak, lands 20 feet from the trap. It gingerly walks in, closer, then closer still.
"It gets your heart beating when it gets like this," Marzluff says.
The raven does a jumping jack — a nervous hop and spread of the wings. He's in the zone, head down and unaware. Marzluff hits the switch.
Marzluff forgot to put fresh batteries in the remote. Score one for raven.
Songbird and more
The raven is the biggest songbird, measuring up to 2 feet long, as heavy as 4 pounds, but it hardly sings. Instead, it squawks, rattles, knocks, quorks, growls, murmurs like a bubbling brook, learns remarks like "nevermore," and imitates the crow, a cousin. From a distance, even experts confuse the raven with the crow, which is smaller, has a faster wing beat and lacks the raven's distinctive diamond-shaped tail and Roman nose.
Ravens can be found in cities like Anchorage and Riverside, Calif., but aside from a captive bird at the Woodland Park Zoo, they are a Seattle rarity. Yet they are one of our region's oldest icons, a wily, powerful figure from as far back as people remember.
To Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest, raven is a magical shape-shifter, cosmic trickster, maker of mischief and giver of fire, light and food. His big head and hooked beak adorn canoes, totem poles, boxes, jewelry, weavings, baskets and petroglyphs.
"A raven has a real strong presence, a real strong power," said George David, a Nuu-Chah-Nulth artist who was inspired by the bird to carve a splendid raven transformation mask. "When you see him he wants to be seen."
In Skokomish tribal legend, snow-white raven stole the sun, moon, stars, water and fire back from gray eagle at the request of the people. He hung the sun, moon and stars back up in the sky. He dropped the water, forming streams and lakes. He made fire available to the people, growing black from its smoke as he flew.
In Norse legend, two ravens fly out into the world and report back to Odin what they have seen and heard. Their names evoke the power of their brains: Hugin, for thought, and Munin, for mind.
This is fitting. While most animals are driven largely by the hard-wired dynamics of instinct, ravens and other birds in the corvid family think.
J.R. Inghram, who feeds and watches up to 2,000 ravens near his Grant County home, once had a pet raven that would turn on the carpet cleaner after messing the floor.
"After watching us, this guy would turn lights on in rooms and turn them off when he left," said Inghram.
What a bird brain
The raven at the Woodland Park Zoo solves puzzles to get food. When new handlers visit her aviary, she will untie their shoelaces and try to swipe food from the pouches they keep on their waists.
"She'll still do it with all of us sometimes, but she knows with somebody new that she can really do it to them well," said Becky Barker, raptor keeper. "They are the trickster."
Sharks concentrate on smell, eagles concentrate on seeing, ravens just plain concentrate. They have one of the largest brains of any bird for its size.
A big brain is handy in several ways. Ravens can case out their food sources for potential predators, letting other birds investigate a roadkill, like the king's taster, before tasting themselves.
"Most of what they figure out is how to get food without getting killed in the process," said Marzluff. "That's their fundamental challenge."
A large brain also lets the raven deal with the office politics of its social hierarchy, remembering which birds it needs to avoid and which it can dominate, who it must fight, who it can work with.
"A lot of those kinds of social constructs that help animals function more efficiently in a group require memory and individual recognition," said Marzluff. "And to do that you start selecting for a big brain, instead of superkeen eyesight to see things three miles away. And also the kind of food they're going after, being generalists and animals that rely on booms and busts of food, you have to remember where things are and you have to be able to adapt to new kinds of foods in new situations. That all favors memory and learning and insight."
To this Marzluff adds another thought. The raven has been solving complex problems and living in complex societies for several million years, longer than the earliest human species.
"Here we were, relatively solitary ape," Marzluff said. "Ravens will give apes a battle in terms of memory abilities now. It's interesting to think they were smarter than us and now maybe it's the other way around."
Primates try, try again
Marzluff was out-ravened on his first day of trapping. The following day he tries again, camouflaging his net gun on a stretch of road toward La Push.
"This looks good to a primate," says Bill Webb, a Ph.D. student in wildlife science.
"You certainly don't see things like the raven," said Marzluff.
Ravens often spend the morning cruising roads for fresh roadkill. Webb and Erik Neatherlin, one of Marzluff's former graduate students, help draw birds in by trailing Cheetos up to the trap.
Marzluff watches through binoculars from more than 100 yards away, this time with a radio-controlled remote and fresh batteries.
He hands me the remote and tells me to push the button on his cue.
Before I can marshal some argument about journalists getting involved in a story, two ravens come in, take turns investigating the pile of bread by the trap and fly off. Marzluff, eager to study the dynamics of a mating pair, wants to trap both.
One returns and approaches the trap. The second bird, ostensibly the female, lands nearby, a Cheeto in her beak. The male picks up a piece of bread. I'm worried he will fly off and the female, already happy with a Cheeto and out of the trap's range, will join him.
My pulse is roaring.
"Let it go!" Marzluff says.
In the leisure of retrospect, this can be interpreted in two ways: Let the bird fly away or let the net be released.
Marzluff meant to let the bird go. My brain went the other way; my shaking, jittery hand hit the button.
We get one bird, a spectacular creature with a 3-inch beak like ebony-glazed statuary and a plumage of black fractals.
This bird's capture is enough to score one for the primates.
"I've been watching this pair for years," says Neatherlin, who chased ravens across the peninsula for his graduate work, "and have never been able to trap it."
But catching one bird is maddeningly short of the two we should have had. The second raven may have learned to avoid a pile of bread.
And I have learned that, going up against a raven, it is possible to feel like an idiot.
Eric Sorensen: 206-464-8253 or email@example.com.