The ravens and I lunch together

I've been hanging out with ravens lately. Not that they've welcomed me with open wings. Just the opposite, in fact. Ravens - at least those that inhabit Anchorage, Alaska's urban landscape - seem to know when they're being watched, even when that watching is being done from the inside of a Toyota station wagon. Maybe the binoculars are a giveaway - or my scribbling in a journal.

My database is admittedly small and my evidence anecdotal; in other words, I'm relying on highly unscientific methods. Nonetheless, I've come to believe that ravens don't seem comfortable with this "being watched" stuff. I think they prefer to be the ones doing the watching. When they sense that one of the city's strange, bipedal creatures is getting too close - or showing unusual interest in their doings - they exit, cawing.

So I guess it would be more accurate to say I've been pursuing ravens lately, with mixed results.

Finding ravens is no problem at all. A local biologist, who has studied the big black birds, estimates that some 2,000 ravens inhabit Anchorage during winter's daylight hours. Most head for the hills east of town as sunset approaches, to spend their nights in the wild.

Then, come daylight, they commute back to the city to dine on all sorts of urban foods. They seem to have a particular taste for people food. Humans being humans - that is, sloppy - there's plenty to munch on, as long as you're the sort of bird that doesn't mind "dumpster diving" or picking partly eaten burgers and fries from the iced-over parking lots of fast-food restaurants.

Ravens don't mind it at all. In fact, they seem to relish that sort of behavior.

From my home in the foothills, I've often enjoyed the flyovers of ravens on their daily commutes. I've even had the occasional pleasure of their company in my backyard. But to really spend quality time with Anchorage's ravens, you have to to go shopping - or at least visit the city's shopping and eating centers, where edibles get tossed and dumped.

After scouting several spots, I settled on a nearby plaza that happens to include a favorite espresso shop. Though my investigation is still a work in progress, I'm ready to share a little of what I've learned.

The most obvious thing I've noticed is this: Even where the prospects of food are best, ravens do a lot more sitting and watching or flying and aerial playing than they do eating.

Maybe my timing has been off: I've done my field studies in the middle of the day, when the rest of my life has permitted a couple hours of raven watching. Maybe I've simply caught them when they're between morning and late- afternoon meals and possibly less interested in food. But this raises the question: Are ravens ever disinterested in food?

Only twice in three outings have I seen a raven eat what I'd call a good-size meal. One raven dug into the snow to come up with something that looked like a roll or sandwich. The bird immediately flew off, presumably so it could consume its prize without being harassed by - what else? - other ravens.

The second time, a raven consumed the remains of a fast-food burger. After eating itand wiping its beak clean, the bird departed. Going in for a closer look, I found only the wrapping, some sauce, and some strands of cheese.

I've also seen several ravens pecking at ice and snow - and then swallowing - but I'm not sure what they're consuming: Crumbs? Salt? Dirt? Ice?

A snow dump at the western end of the parking lot has proved to be an especially popular hangout. One or two ravens - and sometimes more - routinely perch on the pile. Usually they hop or flutter around or waddle about in their Chaplinesque way, stopping now and then to peck at the pile. Occasionally their pecks are followed by gulps, as if they're finding something tasty - or at least edible - amid all that dirty snow and ice.

Once, as I drove into the parking lot, eight or nine ravens were clumped tightly atop the mound. From a distance they seemed to be having an animated discussion, maybe even an argument. On my approach, all but two of the birds dispersed - some cawing loudly - leading me to wonder if I interrupted a bunch of birds sharing neighborhood gossip.

The most birds I've counted at any one time is 12, and most were looping, diving, and chasing one another as if playing some form of avian "tag."

This is one of the things I like most about ravens, and it'sprobably the biggest reason I've been spending time in the company of these amazing birds. They really seem to enjoy themselves, whether frolicking in the air, tossing ice from snow piles, or talking in loud soliloquies while perched on the tops of light towers, apparently unconcerned if anyone might be paying attention.

Accuse me of anthropomorphizing if you wish, but I think I'm right about their playful nature. And I'm not alone: Some scientists and elders of native tribes see the play in ravens.

Even if we're totally wrong, ravens' behavior helps me take myself less seriously. Can there be a better reason for hanging out in parking lots?

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