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Flying Lessons

Watching ravens learn to take wing.

Erin Evans

 

 

Our ranch came with two ravens. We have been here nearly seven years, and they are year-round residents. They have become very comfortable with us and allow us to observe the finer points of raven parenting every spring. Privately, I call them Edgar and Lenore (I was an English major). They are very dedicated to each other, never very far apart, and seem to be equally involved in the care and training of the youngsters.

ravens
Edgar and Lenore in winter. (Photo by Erin Evans)

Last year, the two babies got blown out of the nest before they were really flightworthy. They could kind of blunder up onto a low branch, but it was a slow process. Unfortunately, our dogs killed one before I could get to it, but I managed to rescue the other and brought him in the house, where my husband dubbed him Clyde (he was a physics major). We had a big bird cage, but ravens are pretty good-sized birds and after only about a week Clyde was experimenting with flapping and jumping around, so we had to come up with a different arrangement. Besides which, he was noisy and messy.

So we fixed him up a perch and a shelf for food and water in the greenhouse. Clyde was in there only for a couple of days when Edgar and Lenore realized where he was. They would sit on the fence outside the greenhouse and jump up and down, talking to him the whole time. He would see them flying over and start squawking, and when they landed on the fence, he would jump up and down and flap in response. He could fly across the greenhouse, but he also shredded some lettuce and pecked holes in the peppers where they had begun to turn red and yellow. So we released him back to parental custody and enjoyed watching him learn the raven ways through the summer until he moved on.

 

This past summer, Edgar and Lenore fledged three youngsters, a first. Each spring, I watch them to see when they start building their nest so I can get a general idea of where it is located. They always come down to the house to drink and they forage around the corrals and the yard, but there is a quiet period before the kids hatch. After they hatch and before they are ready to leave the nest, there is a lot of flying back and forth feeding those hungry mouths. Then comes the morning when I hear that unmistakable high-pitched shriek of a young raven making an uncertain flight. The fun has begun.

We have quite a few large trees at the headquarters, plus a perimeter fence, part of which is made of heavy oak planks, and corral fences, with lots of places for inexperienced flyers to land. We have several permanent drinkers, and at the bottom of the corrals is a windmill tower, with the windmill removed. In addition, I have quite a few feeders of various configurations scattered around because I enjoy the huge variety of birds that live here or pass through. In short, it is Birdie Heaven. It is also prime training ground for baby ravens.

They start out by coming to the big drinker, both for water and because there are always cattle going in and out, so there are lots of bugs and lizards to catch. They sit on the panels or on the plank fence while Edgar and Lenore feed them, squawking and shaking their wings, beaks open, each demanding to be fed first. They are incredibly vocal, but don't yet have the vocabulary of the adults; it is mostly a lot of squawking and shrieking.

One afternoon, I was working in the garden and realized that the yard was strangely quiet. I walked around to that side and saw all three youngsters huddled on the fence under the big cottonwood tree, silent and immobile, with Mom and Dad nowhere in sight.

This became a pattern I observed on the afternoons I happened to be around the house. The kids would sit quietly, then after a while they would start chattering in low tones. I could just imagine the conversation: "How much longer do you think they'll be gone?" "Do you suppose they'll bring food?" Then suddenly Edgar and Lenore would come swooping in from somewhere, and the cacophony would start all over again.

There seemed to be a definite training regimen as the youngsters got stronger. Each new phase would be accompanied by much flapping and squawking, "You want me to land WHERE?" Trees or fences would be approached, wings flapped crazily, and sometimes the kid would veer off and circle around again. One afternoon they had zeroed in on a tall oak by the side of the canyon. Two of them had already arrived at their perches in a top branch, using their wings to maintain a precarious balance. The third one came in, veering from side to side and flapping wildly, and managed to knock both of the others off the branch. Fortunately, it was a thickly foliated tree, and after much shrieking and flailing, everyone regained a foothold.

 

This went on all summer, and provided daily entertainment. Landing on top of the windmill tower was apparently some kind of final exam. The kids got pretty comfortable around us, and would sometimes stake out a bird feeder and clean up the seed that had been kicked on the ground. Or they would sit on the roof of the bunkhouse porch, waiting to pick up any dog food that hadn't been finished. They didn't really need to be fed any more, but if Edgar or Lenore landed near them on the fence, they would still open their beaks, shake their wings, and squawk like babies.

As the summer drew to a close, Edgar and Lenore would take the kids out away from the headquarters for longer and longer periods. Sometimes the youngsters wouldn't come back until the next afternoon. Finally, near the end of August, tranquility returned, and Edgar and Lenore were once more on their own, sitting together in companionable silence. They went back to their pattern of observing my morning rounds, always aware of opportunities to pick up any seed or grain I might spill or toss in their direction.

On a quiet, cloudy morning in mid-October, we were all down feeding the old horses when three black missiles came swooping out of the west, squawking and chattering, delighted to be home. Edgar and Lenore didn't seem to return the feeling: "What the heck are THEY doing here?" They retreated to a bare tree on the ridge above the nest site. The youngsters have been around a couple of times since then, but they get a pretty chilly reception from Mom and Dad, and seem to have settled into another watering facility a little farther down the canyon.

Edgar and Lenore are never too far away, either from the headquarters or from each other, and I have come to enjoy their presence tremendously. I am already looking forward to this year's fledglings.

 

 

Erin Evans, an English and philosophy major at Williams College, lives on the
historic C Bar Ranch between Silver City and Lordsburg.

 

 

The Tumbleweeds Top 10

Who and what's been making news from New Mexico this past month, as measured by mentions in Google News (news.google.com). Trends noted are vs. last month's total hits; * indicates new to the list. Number in parenthesis indicates last month's Top 10 rank. Should we be worried that suddenly New Mexicans are the only ones talking about the Spaceport? Meanwhile, is it time to send Bill Richardson to North Korea again to keep them from nuking us?

  1. (4) Gov. Susana Martinez—2,950 hits (▲)
  2. (-) New Sen. Martin Heinrich—269 hits (▲)
  3. (8) Sen. Tom Udall—252 hits (▼)
  4. (1) New Mexico drought—190 hits (▼)
  5. (-) New Mexico wolves—185 hits (▲)
  6. (3) Virgin Galactic—182 hits (▼)
  7. (-) Ex-Gov. Bill Richardson—175 hits (▼)
  8. (-) Ex-Sen. Jeff Bingaman—128 hits (▼)
  9. (-) Rep. Steve Pearce—106 hits (▼)
  10. (-) New Mexico wildfires—74 hits (▼)

 

In the recent movie remake Red Dawn, North Korea invades the USA. Maybe somebody should have called in Bill Richardson before it came to that?

 

 

 




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