Corvids on Carcass

IMG_4407The elk killed ten days ago now looks like a carcass:  a gnawed on, ripped up, gutted decaying corpse that holds little resemblance to the graceful ungulate that walked and grazed with her herd so recently. Now she is undergoing the transformation from elk to various elements of the ecosystem – mostly energy in this early stage, fueling the many scavengers on her body. The ravens are helping this process along, perhaps more than any other creature.

I’ve been watching the elk almost daily since the wolves brought her down behind the cabin. Initially, I went to the carcass in hopes of finding that the wolves had consumed the meat they’d worked for, regaining the energy lost in the hunt. Something sizeable has been on the carcass – the rib bones are gnawed down in a way even an eagle could not achieve – but I don’t think it’s a wolf. Probably coyote from what tracks I can find in the old snow. But my wolf queries quickly turned to raven observations, as the behavior of the corvids on the carcass has captured my curiosity.

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The ravens leave the carcass when they know I’m there — especially if I have a camera.

A large group of fifteen to twenty ravens is feeding on the elk. If the whole gang is on the body, I see them hunkered and swarming like a swarm of insects or piranhas. Sometimes the large group is in the air, and only a few are tearing flesh and offal from the carcass. The birds lift off the carcass as soon as my presence is known, perching in nearby trees, presumably until I’m gone.

In reading the research of Bernd Heinrich (The Mind of a Raven, Ravens in Winter, plus numerous papers) I’ve learned that big groups of “vagrant” or juvenile ravens gather to defend a spot on the carcass against dominant territorial ravens. To gather the gang, the dominant of the vagrants “yells,” bringing in the masses to feed. This is not about sharing: it’s a way to get some food when a territorial dominant could beat off the outsider.  I think I heard a “yell” last week, early on in the gathering of the group. A few ravens sat in a pine, and one made a completely different call than I’ve heard from ravens before: a preliminary chuckle followed by a extended, musical bark. After observing the birds since that day, I suspect the big group of ravens are all vagrants and/or juveniles, summoned with a yell or two, and the pair or pairs that feed alone on the carcass are the territory-holders of this area, the dominants.

Even as I watch the ravens, they watch me. I stand back from the carcass by a tree, trying to be unobtrusive. Three or four great black birds will circle above, then at least one will hover directly overhead, still in the air except for the fluttering of its wings. Then they depart back into the forest. Not once have the ravens returned to the carcass in my presence – although I must admit, I’ve only waited fifteen minutes at most. That is as long as I feel comfortable staying, me the intruder, disrupting the process of elk dispersing through various channels into a greater system.

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