Are we smart enough to solve our raven problem?

As ravens spread, they’re finding friends and foes in Western states.

  • The brilliance and adaptability of ravens have helped them triumph in an era that has been disastrous for most wildlife.

    Brendan McGarry
  • Human infrastructure, like these transmission lines in southeastern Idaho, gives ravens an edge.

    Kristy Howe

For millennia, the sagebrush steppe that sprawls from Wyoming to California was a treeless scrubland, unbroken by anything taller than the occasional piñon or juniper. Common ravens, which prefer to nest in trees and on cliffs, were scarce. That changed during the 20th century, when transmission towers and telephone poles sprouted in the high desert. With the advancing infrastructure – not only power lines, but also roads, dumps and towns – came the ravens. Today, Corvus corax is ubiquitous in the West.

The birds' success testifies to an intelligence nearly unmatched in the animal kingdom. Ravens are resourceful, talkative, capable of using tools. They can hunt in packs. They solve puzzles. They're one of only two vertebrates known to be capable of displacement, the ability to communicate about objects and events distant in time and space. Humans are the other.

The brilliance and adaptability of ravens have helped them triumph in an era that has been disastrous for most wildlife. Ravens feast on refuse and roadkill, drink from livestock troughs and nest on and hunt from human power structures. They are what biologists call a subsidized predator, thriving on the food and habitat humans provide. In the last 40 years, raven numbers have grown fourfold in the West at large, fivefold in Idaho, sixfold in Nevada.

We humans, however, have not greeted them warmly. Ravens devour crops, attack livestock, and, perhaps most notoriously, clash with sage grouse. In response, Westerners have shot and poisoned thousands of them. Ravens have become victims of their own success. The question is, what do we do about them?

Joel Geier
Joel Geier Subscriber
Jul 25, 2014 04:50 PM
Thanks for the good article on the origins of this bizarre and unscientific vendetta by Idaho Fish & Game.

One correction: The sage-grouse nest-monitoring study by Peter Coates and co-authors was published in 2008 (Journal of Field Ornithology 79(4):421-428).

The actual numbers from this study are also worth noting. Raven predation was documented at 10 of the 55 monitored nests. Predation by badgers was documented at 7 nests.

Cattle flushed grouse from five of the nests. In one case, a cow ate one egg and three other eggs were damaged, leading to nest abandonment. One other nest was abandoned after the flushing incident.

One wonders if, for the sake of being consistent in their lunacy, Idaho Fish & Game plan to shoot seven badgers and two range cows for every ten ravens that they manage to shoot.
Ben Goldfarb
Ben Goldfarb Subscriber
Jul 29, 2014 02:42 PM
Hi Joel, thanks very much for taking the time to read and comment on our story about ravens. You're absolutely right that Coates and co-authors originally published their nest-monitoring research in 2008 — good catch. The 2010 study that I refer to in the story is their follow-up paper in the Journal of Wildlife Management, "Nest Predation of Greater Sage-Grouse in Relation to Microhabitat Factors and Predators," which incorporated the camera-monitoring data into a nest-survival model. Thanks again for reading, and for your sharp eye.
Liana M Aker
Liana M Aker
Jul 29, 2014 05:02 PM
Great story and I hope you guys continue highlighting the raven issue. I'm a biologist in southern California where we are constantly trying to outsmart ravens that are significant predators of desert tortoises as mentioned in your story. We are Definitely losing the battle. Our research indicates that it may be even worse than we feared. Only problem is, the problem is not ravens - it's us! The problem of how to control the raven population pales in comparison to the challenge of controlling our own behavior.
Kirk Hohenberger
Kirk Hohenberger Subscriber
Jul 29, 2014 06:29 PM
How about the real problem controlling the human population?