Crusty old Joe's

Kodiak Alaska Military History

The official web site of the Kodiak Military History Museum

by Dave Evans

The Gang of Four
August 20, 2001

We've got a crew of four insolent ravens operating at Fort Abercrombie State Historical Park. They've got distinct enough voices that I've started recognizing who's speaking at any time. And "speaking" might be an appropriate term. Ravens are among the most complex and communicative vocalizers of our bird fauna. They come closer to having conversations with each other, and with other species, for that matter, than most of the songbirds in the park. Most of our other bird species are using their songs for fairly limited functions: to locate each other, advertise territory, and generally help the mating process along. With ravens, vocalizations are used for social communication and can differ depending on contexts in which the birds find themselves. Ravens are classified as the largest species of songbird (that last term used advisedly), and a recent Alaskan study showed that they have over 30 different vocalizations. Their social interactions get complicated, and they are able to learn from each other. They have the chance to accumulate considerable experience, too, mating for life, and having a lifespan in the wild of over 20 years.

Our park's psychotic raven of several years ago--the one that terrorized defenseless pickup trucks by ripping their windshield wiper blades off--seems not to be with us anymore. He had several younger proteges at that time, and I'm wondering if any of our current Gang of Four were members of his posse. Psycho even attained a modest degree of immortality by having his Chevymania described in a recent issue of Alaska magazine.

Groups of ravens like the Gang of Four usually have feeding territories which they will patrol, excluding other ravens. This exclusion may extend to other species--I've come upon the Gang of Four scavenging the picnic aftermaths down in Fort Abercrombie's Group Recreation Area. They'll continue checking over leftover goodies as I approach. They give me the bad-eye and take an unmistakable "Want a piece of us?" stance until I'm almost on them. Then they'll fly off indolently a few feet and mutter amongst themselves.

One of the most conspicuous raven vocalizations is "yelling," which is exactly what it sounds like in human terms. I've heard the Gang of Four yelling--at least I assume it's our gang--but I haven't yet been able to see the circumstances in which they're showing this behavior. Ravens do their yelling to attract attention, often when they've found food in a feeding territory held by other birds. The strategy is that if they can attract other ravens to a food source, they may be able to overwhelm the territory holders' defensive moves and get themselves a meal, even though the technique may involve some unraven-like sharing. I'm curious to find out if it's members of my Gang that are yelling, or if they're other birds that are trying to encroach on the Gang's food turf.

Bernd Heinrich, who wrote the fascinating "Mind of the Raven," (The book is available at Fort Abercrombie.) has an interesting hypothesis about ravens and their interactions with humans. He speculates that ravens and wolves evolved a cooperative relationship with each other. Ravens locate possible prey for the wolves, and give their vocalizations which the wolves key in upon. The ravens can then feast on what the wolves leave behind after the kill. Heinrich goes so far as to call the ravens "wolf-birds," and depicts humans as a sort of substitute wolf species which has also become a source of available food for the ravens. Remains from dressed-out hunting kills, and even our picnic leavings or trashpiles become analogous to left-over wolf kills for the birds, and we have taken the place of wolves in raven feeding behavior.

All of which places a sinister interpretation on a number of stories about people who have been "saved" by raven yells alerting them to nearby predators. In the newer view, the ravens were communicating to the predator, not to the potential human victim, and were trying to lead the predator to the human prey. Rescue was the farthest thing from the raven's mind.

Wolves and people have become a part of the raven's environmental niche. It's not surprising that ravens have become inculcated into our religion, mythology, and symbolism, because they in turn have become one of the parts of our own human interaction with the biological world. Updated 2001 August 28