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 Raoul Bites
  BQR ~ Fall 1999

verybody has fed Raoul. Most people do it inadvertently: Raoul is smart enough to get into all kinds of things that get left around. Especially in a camp in the Grand Canyon. On a peaceful, isolated beach—the uninitiated would not expect that ol' black raven to unzip a zipper on your daypack. Or flip up a lid on unlatched ammo can. Sometimes those lids are hard enough that a trained guide will fumble with them. But that black bird can get into all kinds of things that contain food, trash or miscellaneous shiny or unexpectedly enticing items.
Of course the attraction in feeding the animals leads people to tempt Raoul purposefully. Toss him a piece of food and he will often hop up to it with all of his suspicions aroused. He may nearly touch the item and jump back, looking in all directions for a dreaded trap or squirt of water. Usually while this is all going on and everybody watches, the other raven, hidden by tamarisk or arrow weed is busily raiding the stashes of power bars, chocolate, toothpaste, rings and watches that await him or her in private camping places. No doubt Raoul is smart and knows what he wants. Looks happy, doesn't he?
But if you ever get the chance to watch a raven try to catch and eat live fare, it's usually a comedy. Once I watched two ravens working hard to eat grasshoppers in our alfalfa field. It was one of those years when we might have had more grasshoppers than hay, pound per pound. We did dose the field earlier in the growing season with BT, which affects only grasshoppers and their immediate kin. The major effect of the treatment seemed to be that by the time that we had cut and bailed the hay the bugs were moving substantially slower than usual. They were easy to catch by hand or by beak, and all kinds of birds had been there for many days. Then Raoul and his mate appeared; after all, who could pass on such an unending feast? All you have to do is walk over and peck up a grasshopper, right?
Watching Raoul and Natasha was like watching a Keystone Cops film. They would step up to a very slow moving grasshopper and eye it carefully. As they would bend over to pick it up it would exert its last best fight or flight response and hop all of two inches. Which would cause Raoul to jump into the air and flap and fall on his back. Repeatedly. Catching and eating live food is obviously not Raoul's usual territory.
So imagine my surprise on a warm summer Grand trip to be lying on my back in Blacktail Canyon, anticipating a short afternoon siesta on a very hot river day. There was a nest of newly hatched lgbs (little gray birds, possibly phoebes or wrens) flitting about. Raoul too was watching these birds. As we watched, that ol' black fart charged along the narrow sinuous slot of sky following a freshly fledged chick. Caught it, too. In midair. And as the guides and passengers that had their eyes open started to respond with astonishment, he speedily retired to the nearest Tapeats ledge and efficiently plucked the wee bird., as though it was not the first time he had ever attacked this dietary chore. Almost as quick as you could say, “Drop that power bar!” he had managed to swallow his possibly deceased meal, with only a bit of hesitation between each dedicated gulp.
It was like watching a cross between a hawk and a flying snake. I have never seen a raven take a live meal, and to see one take a bird in flight and then completely consume it (whole) in under two minutes seemed unbelievable.
Is this learned behavior? Who can say? I know Ravens are smart but it would seem to take a genetic transplant to create a raven that was adept at aerial feeding.
So. The next time you are near Conquistador Isle, watch out for a shiny and well-fed raven. There's no telling what he has learned since then.

Allen Gilberg

big horn sheep