2012 March – Brainy Birds at the Grand Canyon


Resident ravens add a spark of personality to the Grand Canyon’s aloof and majestic landscape. You might catch a couple rubbing beaks romantically in a shadowed grotto or see them soaring lazily on thermals above the rim.  Often ravens fly past with purpose, beating their wings in an oaring motion and giving the impression of an important mission under way.  And, ravens play in the clear canyon skies, spiraling and swooping kamikaze-style.

The raven tops all corvids in both size and smarts, with a wingspan of over four feet and a startling capacity to analyze situations. The entire corvid family including crows, magpies and jays are known for intelligence and daring.  Ravens are second only to humans in their range of vocalizations and are talented imitators. Loggers tell of ravens imitating the growl of a chain saw.  Ravens have been caught on film fishing, pulling up the line with their beak and trapping it with a foot, then grasping the line further down and pulling in the fish.  Ravens bend twigs to make hooks to pull food from crevices.  If a person turns to look at something with interest, a raven follows the glance.

Their aggressive pursuit of food has caused ravens to be persecuted in some areas.  Despite poisonings, trappings and shootings, the raven population thrives from the Arctic through Central America and across Europe.  Ravens are found all over the Grand Canyon, prospering on the snowy North Rim as well as in the sizzling inner canyon.  Ravens feast on a variety of food sources in habitats from tundra to forests to deserts.  They will cache food and even their “tools,” remembering the location of scores of hidey holes. Ravens open coolers and unzip backpacks in campgrounds.  They scavenge dead animals and eat the eggs of birds and reptiles as well as the adults; they consume insects, rodents, seeds and berries.  On a beach in Puget Sound, I watched ravens flap into the air with mussel shells and drop them on the rocks, cleverly cracking open their meals.

A mated raven pair establishes a territory and stays in it year round.  They are part of a loose hierarchal community of ravens in that vicinity.  Couples build bulky nests on cliffs or in treetops and will reuse their nest each year, adding improvements as needed. They remember if something goes wrong with a nesting site, never returning again.  The female incubates three to six eggs, while the male brings her food and chases off intruders.  Both mom and dad work hard feeding the breathtakingly homely, ever hungry nestlings. The youngsters stay near their parents for a couple of months after fledgling, and then join up with a band of juveniles until they choose mates at around 3-4 years of age.

Unfortunately, when a species is as successful as the raven, we begin to feel scorn, and indeed some call him the trash bird.  But this handsome corvid has a place at the Grand Canyon and all of his habitats, cleaning up offal and keeping rodents in check.  Maybe some people are just intimidated by all that’s going on in this bird’s brain.

1 Comment

One Response to 2012 March – Brainy Birds at the Grand Canyon

  1. Lori says:

    I love Raven’s–never new that they had such a big range of vocalizations! Thank you for writing on some of my favorite birds =)

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