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Ravens and humans

The common raven forms a food partnership with humans.

Yellowstone National Park is a great place to see nature in action — whether it is watching a grizzly bear searching among sagebrush for hidden elk calves as their moms watch from a distance or watching a wolf pack feasting on a bison bull weakened after the annual rut.

One of my most entertaining sights is watching ravens interact with the park’s large predators. Ravens are carrion birds and have a long association with large predators. In Yellowstone, they follow wolf packs, grizzly bears, coyotes, mountain lions and golden eagles.

The problem for ravens is their beaks are not strong enough to open the skin of a dead animal. They must wait on predators to bring down and open a kill before ravens can access that food supply. Ravens wait patiently for the predator to gorge themselves and leave their kill for the ravens to have a chance to feed. This association between predators and ravens is so prevalent, researchers and wolf watchers know a group of ravens probably marks a kill sight.

Another large predator in Yellowstone provides food for ravens, and I also enjoy watching their interaction. Researchers have found more ravens spend their time following this predator than all the other park predators combined. More ravens follow this predator because this one scatters more food around its kills.

That predator is man. True, people do not go around killing and eating elk and bison in the park, but we do produce lots of our “kills.” I would bet ravens see no difference between a dead elk abandoned by a pack of wolves and the food left strewn around picnic areas, campsites and that wonder of kill remains, the dumpster. Instead of dead animal remains, we leave behind sandwich crusts, French fries and apple cores.

Watching a raven fly around a campground, searching the picnic tables, is no different than watching a raven perched on a sagebrush near a feeding grizzly bear; both are simply biding their time for the predator to leave some food remains from their kill.

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Returning home to Elko, I see much more of this partnership between human predators and ravens. Here, we not only provide kill remains like French fries scattered around fast food places, pizza remains in the park and open dumpsters, we provide food in the form of roadkill, dead livestock and that Holy Grail of kill remains, the open dump.

To best see this last food source, simply visit Elko’s Municipal Landfill on a winter day. Hundreds of ravens wheel about the sky while hundreds more walk across the garbage. Our open dumps help these ravens survive lean winters when other food is in limited supply. Come spring, these same ravens spread out in search of other food like sage-grouse eggs.

This all leads to a curious sight around Elko. People walking around, gnashing their teeth, moaning and yelling “there are too many ravens” and “why doesn’t the federal government allow us to kill more ravens?”

Perhaps we should work to have ravens defined as game birds. We already have a great system in place maintaining their numbers for future hunters. Raven breast with gravy and rice, anyone?

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