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?