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On the Trails: Midwinter rambles

Posted: February 10, 2012 - 1:02am
A raven offers a stick to a dog, seemingly in an attempt to entice the dog to play.  Photo courtesy of Bob Armstrong
Photo courtesy of Bob Armstrong
A raven offers a stick to a dog, seemingly in an attempt to entice the dog to play.

Late January brought us some wonderful snow, deep and fluffy. Of course, after a few days, the temperature rose and the rain came, turning the low-elevation snows to heavy, hard-to-shovel stuff and sending down great lumps of snow from the trees. Very disappointing!

However, before the rains, there was time to squeeze in a couple of little excursions. The Parks and Recreation weekly hiking group went up to Gastineau Meadows on a lovely day; all of us were on skis or snowshoes. Shore pines in the muskegs were turned into "trolls" by the great loads of snow they bore (but these trolls didn’t have any bridges under which to lurk). Most wildlife tracks had been smothered by new snowfall, although a few hare and porcupine trails were just barely discernible.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable excursion, nonetheless. We greatly appreciated a group of three young and very courteous snowmobilers who cheerily made room for us pedestrians to pass and even cut their engines so we didn’t gag on the fumes. Well done, guys!

Soon after that, I went snowshoeing in the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area, on a mapping expedition with a friend who has a giraffe-length stride. Much of the time we were off-trail, bushwhacking through thickets and tangles. I wallowed along in the “giraffe’s” wake, lifting piles of loose snow with every step. So I began to understand the perspective of a porcupine, nose down, pushing snow aside as it trundles along on its short legs. My understanding improved when I tumbled nose-deep into a partly obscured tree well. Fortunately, the “giraffe” very kindly hauled me out and even presented me with a refreshing cup of tea. And so we went on our way.

Another friend was skiing on Mendenhall Lake one cold day, accompanied by a dog. A raven approached and hopped slowly just ahead of the dog, as if tempting the dog to chase it. The dog did so, briefly, before being called back. The raven tried again but then, getting no response, flitted back and tweaked the dog’s tail. The raven tried one more gambit, in an attempt to get the dog to play. It found a stick, landed a little way in front of the dog, lay down and rolled over, stick in claws, as if offering the stick to the dog. Alas, this dog doesn’t play "stick," so the raven failed to entice it into a game and eventually departed.

Ravens have been observed to play with wolves, too — tweaking tails and playing tag. In at least one case, the game of tag was played by the raven diving at the wolf’s head and quickly darting up and away when the wolf leaped at it. A daring sort of game, indeed. Bernd Heinrich, who studied ravens intensively, suggests that games of daring are a way to show off to other ravens and build status in raven society.

Were other ravens watching this Mendenhall raven from a distance? Perhaps. Or maybe the bird was really just playing. Anyone who has watched ravens rolling and tobogganing down a snow slope and running back up to do it again, or doing aerial acrobatics, cannot seriously doubt that they know how to play.

Ravens and wolves have a long-standing relationship that may be more complex than previously supposed (of which more, anon, I hope).

• Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology.

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