I have written in the past about the fact that most people seem to barely notice the presence of our wild neighbors; by that I mean the animals with whom we share the local landscape (moose and bears being notable exceptions).
Even those of us who are fascinated by wild creatures and seek them out, paying close attention to the animals when our paths cross, usually witness only a tiny fraction of their lives. There are, of course, exceptions to these rules, for instance those who have made the study of particular animals their life’s work or for whom it’s become a consuming passion.
For those of us who do take notice of wildlife—whether research biologist or amateur naturalist—windows open now and then, offering unexpected peeks into their largely hidden lives. If we’re fortunate, such glimpses expand our knowledge and appreciation of the animals, sometimes in ways we never would have imagined. And they add evidence that our world is indeed a wondrous place.
Such a window opened to me a number of years ago, on a winter hike and hill climb of Little O’Malley Peak. Watching the antics of some ravens recently, it struck me that I should share that earlier experience with my City Wilds readers. So here’s the story.
A friend and I had ascended to Little O’Malley’s west-facing shoulder and reached a bench that’s immediately below a series of steep rocky outcroppings that lead to the summit. Because it was late in the day, we decided to make that our turnaround point. But before turning around, we pulled binoculars from packs and watched a large group of ravens that occupied the peak’s northern flank, a few hundred feet below us.
Dozens of ravens had landed in that place, a gathering spot on their late-afternoon commute to nighttime roosts in the Chugach Front Range—roosts that largely remain unknown. More about that later.
Until that point, neither my friend nor I had known Little O’Malley to be such a “staging” area. Neither did we know whether this was a regular gathering spot or simply one that seemed on this particular day to be a good place to relax and chat, in the way ravens do—lots of caws and other vocalizations. (Based on random observations in the years since then, I’d say it’s a popular spot, but not used daily.)
Even this discovery was something of a revelation. But what followed next was what amazed us. First, a few of the ravens began to take snow baths. They dunked their heads and dipped their wings in the fresh, powdery snow, and flung the snow around as if washing their feathers. A couple even rolled around in the snow in what looked to be a pleasurable way.
I had never seen a raven—or any bird—take a snow bath before or even imagined that possibility, so it struck me as a rather marvelous thing.
But the best was yet to come. First one, then two, then a couple more of the ravens began to roll downhill, feet extended into the air when their bellies faced upward. Most only rolled a time or two, a single revolution. But one raven seemed to revel in the downhill-rolling fun and repeated the behavior several times, completing numerous revolutions.
I say “fun,” because what else could it be but play behavior? It even seemed possible that the one raven might be showing off.
The rolling behavior lasted only a few minutes, but we watched the birds for a half-hour or more, ravens coming and going. At least 100 to 200 of them flew along Little O’Malley’s flanks during that time, with a good number of them landing on the slopes below us. We wondered if the soft, fresh powder—at least two to three inches had fallen that day—had motivated the bathing, which in turn led to the play.
Later, back at our computers, we did online searches and discovered many postings, including YouTube videos, of ravens and other corvids (the family to which they belong) both snow bathing and rolling. Clearly, these are well-documented behaviors.
Before writing this column I returned online, not only to watch videos but to get some “expert” opinions; that is, science-based interpretations. Among the postings I found was one excerpted from a PBS “Nature” documentary, in which the narrator comments (while a raven is shown rolling through snow), “Another sign of ravens’ intelligence: their ability to have a good time. Ravens love fresh snow; when one finds a slope it just rolls over and over. Perhaps it’s a snowy bird bath. But it appears to be enjoying itself, acting more like a puppy than a bird.” (That latter opinion perhaps shows some implicit bias that favors dogs.)
A researcher and lecturer named Kaeli Swift has documented and discussed similar behavior in crows. In a blogpost titled “Crow curiosities: do crows play and why?” she discusses play behavior then offers this: “So why do crows play? Learning about their peers, gaining new experiences in a low risk way, honing their stress response, and growing their big brains all seem like a good excuse to have a bit of fun to me.”
As for why ravens and other birds might bathe in snow: scientist, teacher, author, and editor Laura Erickson suggests this explanation on her “For the Birds” website: “Keeping feathers sanitary is essential. . . . But what’s a bird to do when there’s no water in liquid form to be found anywhere?
“The crows in my neighborhood take snow baths. . . . Not only can the snow scrape off dirt and oil, it also had the advantage of being so cold that it probably immobilizes and scrapes off mites or freezes them long enough for the birds to pull them off.”
So, lots of good information—and new ways of considering those smart and rascally ravens (and other corvids).
Finally, a few words about our local winter raven population and the birds’ daily commute between Anchorage and the Chugach Mountains, which generally lasts from October through March.
Years ago (long before he retired), Anchorage-area wildlife manager Rick Sinnott studied local ravens. While he learned a lot, Rick was never able to find any major nighttime roosting sites in the Chugach Front Range, though he suspects some of the ravens stay in “dense cover, like mountain hemlocks” and others may roost on cliffs. Still others, he notes, appear to stay in town, at least now and then. One time he found “a roost with scores of ravens in cottonwood trees in Bicentennial Park” but wasn’t sure it was their final roosting spot or a pre-roosting one.
No one, to Rick’s knowledge, has ever followed up his study. But it turns out that some new raven research is on the horizon. I’ll only present some general information here, but promise more when it’s available (which won’t be for a while.)
As part of a larger raven study being done across the western states., U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientist Jordan Muir will be studying ravens that forage at the Anchorage landfill, with the help of color bands and satellite transmitters.
“The satellite transmitters will give us information on how important the landfills are to the survivorship of ravens, whether nocturnal roosts are permanent or ephemeral, and whether birds use the same roosts consistently or move between them. All of this information will help us monitor raven population trends; better understand the importance of landfills to the survivorship of ravens; and help identify efficacy of different types of population control if ever deemed necessary (capping landfills, how many landfills, population control at roost sites, etc.).”
To be honest—and this will come as no surprise—I’m concerned about the possibility of “raven control.” But I’m encouraged by Jordan’s response, when asked whether this study could lead to a raven control/kill program in the Anchorage area.
“Based on public comment and tribal consultations, I do not believe human/raven conflicts in Alaska have risen to the level that would require lethal raven control. The more likely management strategy to be implemented (if any) would be non-lethal and related to waste management practices . . . We’re still a long way away from determining what, if anything, may be warranted.”
A pilot study was supposed to begin last year, but COVID-19 changed those plans (like so many others). There’s a possibility it could begin as early as this spring. No doubt those trickster ravens will have some new surprises to share.
Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at email@example.com.