Raven populations continue to grow at Lake Tahoe
Special to the Sun
KINGS BEACH, Calif. – The Ravens of Baltimore may still weigh heavily on Tahoe football fans’ minds, considering their Super Bowl win Feb. 3 over the 49ers. But is it in locals’ imaginations that they now seem to see ravens all over town?
The answer, apparently, is no.
“Ravens’ numbers have exploded,” said Will Richardson, co-executive director of the Tahoe Institute for Natural Science. “They are very clever. They’re very smart. They are very good at exploiting any niche they can find.”
Janice Follmer, a 20-year-resident of Crystal Bay, said she has noticed more ravens in the area over the past few years.
“They freaked me out,” said Follmer, who said she often passed a few of the birds while walking her dog, who recently died. “They’re kind of scary. They just watch you. My old dog didn’t move very fast and I thought they could just take my dog away.”
The ominous black birds made famous – or infamous – by Edgar Allen Poe’s poem, “The Raven,” first appeared in Tahoe relatively recently. The species in Tahoe is the common raven – Corvus corax.
Richardson said he has researched ravens and has not been able to find sightings of them in the region before the mid-1970s, and it wasn’t until the mid 1990s that ravens became known as year-around residents of Tahoe. But even then, he said, the numbers were small.
“They were summer visitors at first – now they are everywhere,” he said.
The birds are quick to adapt to human life, Richardson said.
“There are a lot more people, a lot more cars and there is a lot more garbage,” said Richardson, adding that ravens are thriving on overturned garbage cans and roadkill.
Sheila Harrison, a 21-year North Shore resident, said he recently walked past a Kings Beach apartment building Dumpster full of ravens picking at exposed trash.
“I thought, that’s strange. I don’t remember seeing so many ravens around. That never struck me before,” she said
Jokingly, she said she saw that as a sign, and decided to support the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII. More seriously, Harrison said her experience is another reminder that locals to keep their trash receptacles closed and secured.
While ravens and crows may seem interchangeable, they are not, Richardson said.
Although ravens and crows are a different species, they are “awfully similar,” said Richardson, noting the subtle differences of ravens as being larger, and having wedge-shaped tails, unlike crows’ “squared-off tails,” and a different voice.
“You do have some crows pass through Tahoe in the late summer through early winter, but they are vastly outnumbered by ravens that gang up on the crows and chase them away,” Richardson said.
That ganging up may account for the name given to groups of ravens. Unlike the cute-ish “covey of quails,” a group of ravens is referred to as an “unkindness” or a “conspiracy.”
Strength in numbers becomes an advantage for the survival of a species, Richardson said.
“Reciprocal altruism, or scratching each other’s backs, could be seen as helping out your relatives,” he said. “Ravens are very social and come together in the winter. At that time, you have what you might call the raven singles mixers, where they begin to pair up.”
Courtship and mating begin in the spring. In the spring and summer, ravens tend to disband.
“In the summers, ravens get more selfish. They’re trying to raise their own kids and want to exclude their neighbors,” Richardson said.
But despite historic depictions of ravens as evil, the birds are very intelligent and have a lighter side, he said.
They are “incredibly smart,” fashioning tools to get to otherwise inaccessible food, and ravens also like to invent games. Richardson referred to a YouTube video of a similar crow repeatedly sledding down a metal roof while standing on a little disc, the video entitled “crow boarding.”
While Corvus corax is the species in Tahoe, the common raven has many cousins, including the Chihuahuan raven, white-necked raven and fan-tailed Raven.
– Frank Fisher is a freelance reporter for the Sierra Sun and North Lake Tahoe Bonanza. He can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.