Beach ravens make for first-class entertainment near Crow Point

Posted: Friday, January 15, 2010

So far, it's been a strange winter, with cold snaps alternating between rain and sleet, but very little snow, except at the higher elevations. This makes it hard for Parks and Recreation hikers (who are not extremists) to choose a reasonable Wednesday or Saturday expedition. One hike had us hobbling over ice-crusted, deep boot tracks, where previous walkers had left their mark. Another found us slithering over ice in four inches of water for altogether too long. High winds forced hikers to change their route and even to go home early one day.

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Photo By Bob Armstrong
Photo By Bob Armstrong

However, crummy weather notwithstanding, this group always goes somewhere. A recent stroll took us out to the beach at Crow Point, near the Boy Scout Camp. The trail through the woods was very icy and slippery, with impressive little icefalls pouring out of the rock on the uphill side of the trail. Out in the tidal meadow, a recent high tide had left many of the sloughs filled with ice, but this was just soft enough to make decent walking.

Mice (or voles) had been very active in the snowy meadow, apparently holding little mouse conventions in some spots, and leaving their delicate foot-tracery among the tufts of grass.

The previous day, one of the hikers had spotted half a dozen humpback whales in the channel. A flock of dunlins and surfbirds had also foraged that day at the edge of the tide. Prey for these shorebirds is commonly a big marine worm, which is probed up out of the mud. But the shorebirds often lose these prizes to piratic mew gulls, who snatch them up for a juicy meal.

On hike day, however, there were no whales or shorebirds to be seen. The gulls had to forage for themselves. And a couple of eagles sat hunched like old derelicts at the water's edge.

We had fun with the beach ravens (which had not shown up the previous day for treats of Cheetos). This day they got bread crusts and pilot biscuits. These they scarfed up and stored by the beakful under the grass tufts above the beach. One raven found it possible to stack two or three entire pilot biscuits in its beak at one time. Only after the biscuits were gone did a raven pick up a chunk of apple, studiously ignoring a carrot and a bit of broccoli.

On another occasion, ravens passed an intelligence test that a group of crows had failed. Treats were placed in the bottom of a plastic bread bag. The crows poked and pried, peeked and tweaked, but gained nothing. A raven, on the other hand, went straight to the bottom of the bag, picked it up, poured the treats out of the open end of the bag onto the sand, and gobbled them up. No trouble at all!

Bernd Heinrich, the well-known biologist and nature writer, also found ravens could solve puzzles that stymied crows (see his Mind of the Raven). I have to wonder how ravens make the best use of their smarts in the wild, and why crows can't match them.

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

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