Read an Excerpt
Becoming a Raven Father
The first prerequisite to studying any animal is to get and to stay close. You must be able to observe the fine details of its behavior for long periods of time without the animal seeing or feeling your presence. That's a tall order with wild ravens-in northeastern America. In my part of the country, where food is sparsely distributed, ravens may range over a hundred square miles a day, and they fly away at the mere sight of a human. Ravens are shyer and more alert, and have keener vision than any other wild animal I know, making it even more difficult to watch their natural undisturbed behavior.
Given these difficulties, I felt I needed to try to obtain young and to be a surrogate parent to them. It was perhaps the only way to learn about many aspects of their intimate social behavior. Obtaining and living with young ravens has its inconveniences, not the least of which is making the hazardous ascents to get them from the nest. The trees that ravens like to nest in are not the ones I like to climb.
The last few patches of winter snow were left in the shady places under fir trees. The ice had just melted off Hills Pond, and the first warblers were back. But in Maine at the end of April 1993, still a month before the maples would leaf out, that year's baby ravens would already have a coat of black feathers. I was on my way to two different nests. I would take two young of the clutch of four to six I expected to find in each nest. I would then have to attend to every need of the young birds.
It was snowing, and the great pine tree with the first ravens' nest was swaying in the north wind coming across the lake. I wanted to run, but Iheld myself to a walk, trying to conserve as much energy as possible for the climb ahead. More than once before, I had been frightened when I found myself hanging on to a thick limbless pine trunk as strength ebbed from my arms. The void above the tops of the fir trees seemed to expand as my grip grew less secure.
White feces were spattered on the ground below the nest, a sign that the young were already beyond the pinfeather stage. At this nest, which I had visited often in previous years, only the adult male scolded me; the female always left when I came near. At other nests, both members of the pair may scold, both leave, or one or both remain at some distance.
After carefully putting on climbing spurs and adjusting my backpack, I put my arms around the tree and started. Go slowly, I kept telling myself, one step at a time. I tried to keep looking up, not down. I got very tired just as the solid limbs were getting closer. Fortunately, having trained over the winter to do chin-ups, I was able to sustain the effort. As I hauled myself up onto the first solid limbs, I felt elated. I had once again escaped the fate of some other ornithologists in similar situations. George Miksch Sutton fell from a cliff while climbing up to a raven nest, but was saved by falling on a ledge before hitting the bottom of the cliff. Fellow raven researcher Thomas Grunkorn once fell eighty feet out of the top of a beech, breaking his back in two places. Miraculously, he lived and did climb again (see Chapter 7). Gustav Kramer, an ornithologist studying wild pigeons, died when rocks came loose as he was climbing up to a cliff nest. I am quite frightened of cliffs, by comparison feeling almost safe with tree limbs to hang onto.
The tree was swaying mightily in the gusts, but it had not been blown over in worse gales, and it would not fall or break now. Besides, there was nothing I could do about it. So no worries.
Four fully feathered young hunkered down in a very soggy nest. It had rained steadily for the last two days, and the heavy, waterlogged nest was badly tilting because one of the supporting branches was too thin. The four young were very chunky, clumsy, and cute. When I lifted two out to put them into my knapsack, I noticed. their huge bare bulging bellies. They didn't struggle or complain, and the climb back down was easy.
With four young finally resting in the bottom of the knapsack, I hiked home to put my new charges into their new nesta basket packed with dead grass and leaves almost all the way to the top, so that they could defecate out over the edge. I talked to them in low soft tones, and they immediately broke their silence and answered in raspy raven baby talk. They were almost feathered out, and looked at me with bright blue eyes (which would turn gray near fledging and brown bywinter). They raised pinfeathery heads and opened their big pink mouths (mouth linings and tongue turn black only after one to three or more years, depending on the birds' social status). They were begging to be fed! Such trust, especially after just being taken from their nest, is unique for a bird already at least a month old. It is especially surprising given that ravens are innately shy of anything new. As adults, ravens in Maine are among the most shy of all birds. These young had long been exposed only to their parents and siblings, yet they responded to me unabashed. Did they somehow hear something in my voice that put them at ease?
Their sounds tugged at my heart, and I sprang to action. We quickly established a rapport and I chopped up whatever meat I could find, usually roadkills, and fed the ravens bite-sized chunks at about hourly intervals, just as raven parents do in the wild. Baby ravens and crows need a pharmacopeia of proteins, minerals, and vitamins. I fed mine minced mice, grubs, eggs, fish, and chopped frogs. I've seen people try to raise baby crows as they would raise their own babies, on milk and bread. If the young birds didn't die, they suffered from rickets or some other nutritional debilitation that left them crippled.