Jays, ravens dare to be different
You awake briefly at first light of morning to the enchanting melody of the American robin. Shortly thereafter, the soothing song of a hermit thrush nearly lulls you back to sleep. Then, without warning comes the squawking, the screeching and the scolding cries of jays, ravens and magpies. These bold, bossy birds do not fit the typical songbird mold – they dare to be different.Much of their daring character has to do with their smarts. Jays, ravens, crows and magpies belong to a grouping of birds called corvids. The corvids have the highest brain capacity of all birds. Some researchers have demonstrated corvids amazing ability to learn, to count and to problem solve. Consider the daring character of the gray jays. They are sometimes called “camp robbers”, as they have been known to steal bacon from the frying pan of an unwary camper. Once, I hiked up to Whitney Lake with my friend Jim. We sat atop a big rock outcrop overlooking the lake, and prepared for a fine lunch of bread and cheese. I handed Jim his baguette, which he sat on the rock next to him. He was groping about in his pack to locate the myriad of other goodies and suddenly, out of the corner of his eye, he saw his baguette taking flight. Instinctively, he swatted at the flying bread, knocking it loose from the clenches of the infamous camp robber. Unfortunately for Jim, the bread rolled down the rock and into the lake. Jim raised his fist and cursed the gray jay.
Then there’s the super-bossy Stellar’s jay. Have you ever put five pounds of fresh birdseed in your feeder, only to have a raucous gang of Stellar’s jays come and empty it that same morning? It’s like displaying various items out on the street curb with a “free” sign. Passers-by can take what they want and leave the rest. The Stellar’s jay feels no guilt, after all it’s free food for the taking.’Keep away’Ravens and crows are the smartest of all birds and are closely related to each other, and differ mainly by size. In their minds, BFI is how they spell “free.” It’s simply part of being adaptable. Adaptability means taking advantage of what’s there. For instance, I’ve seen a raven fly a hundred yards across a field to grab a mouse as a tasty little snack. I’ve seen a raven snag a sunning snake as lunch for two. And, if it’s berry season, what the heck, why not indulge in fresh fruit for dessert?Ravens have over 200 vocalizations that they use to communicate with each other. In fact, ravens are so advanced in their thinking that they actually search for food cooperatively. Ravens and crows believe that cooperation leads to abundance. So if a single raven finds a carcass, for instance, it sends out word to other ravens that food has been located, and more birds join in the feast from miles around.
This behavior is in stark contrast to most other animals that find food and then drive all other competing animals away. Most animals and birds breed when they are about a year old. But it takes three or four years for ravens to reach breeding maturity. This leaves a few years of adolescence where the young ravens are on their own. Some decide to assist mom and dad as helpers raising new sets of young each spring. This is very practical training, because older birds are wiser in how to find food, where to build nests and how to avoid predators. Others, however, bail on the parental scene and choose pure freedom by hooking up with a local gang of young birds. Because finding food is relatively easy for these brilliant birds, they are left with a lot of free time on their hands and are capable of playing. Spontaneous competitions can break out with intense games of “chase,” “keep away,” and “creative acrobatics.” Fooling with a foxIf you observe ravens closely, you may see several flying in perfect formation, circling, swerving, changing the lead while banking hard turns in an aerial ballet.Upon closer inspection, you may notice one or more in the group spontaneously flip over and fly upside down for several seconds or suddenly break from the pack and start tumbling earthward wing over wing, wind-milling their way across the sky.
Is this productive behavior? Well yes, because peers are watching, and the most athletic, creative and energetic birds may also prove to be the most capable in real-life situations such as survival, nest building and rearing young. It is also interesting to note that ravens mate for life and spend the entire year together often showing affection toward each other. I have witnessed magpies at play, as well. Once I spied a red fox on a hillside outside of Minturn quietly going about his business hunting mice. As it worked its way through the shrubs he suddenly found himself encountered by a gang of wily magpies. Birds do not like predators on their home turf and will use a variety of creative tactics to drive them off, usually by annoying the predator. It all started out with about a half dozen magpies surrounding the fox in a circle. Keep in mind that a fox is capable of snapping up a magpie in an instant, so this is risky entertainment. The game was to surround the fox and when he lunged at one of them, they dodged the attack, flew off cackling and then re-organized and repeated the game. After a few rounds, an especially bold magpie decided to up the ante, and the new game became to fly down, peck the fox on the rump and fly off as the fox spun around and snapped in defense. This game went on for several minutes until the fox finally sat down in defeat and sulked.Edgar Allen Poe greatly tarnished the image of the raven in Western culture, labeling them as ghastly creatures. American Indians revered ravens, crows and magpies, recognizing them as highly intelligent creatures.As is so often the case with bird watching, casual sightings have little meaning, but closer observations often reveal fascinating insights into the world of amazing creatures that surround us in our everyday life.Tom and Tanya Wiesen are owners of Trailwise Guides, a year-round Vail Valley guide service specializing in daily private outings for wilderness hiking, mountain biking, bird watching, and natural history tours. Contact Trailwise Guides at (970) 827-5363.
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It’s fitting that Eagle County is proceeding through its reopening phases of COVID-19 in an analogy to ski run difficulties — green to blue to black. Monday marks the transition from the green beginner phase to the blue intermediate phase.