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Occasional posts - from the quirky to the momentous - on the life and times of the Methow Conservancy.
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Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Corvid Course - Class #4 Corvid Mythology, Legends & Lore

Our 2016 "Conservation Course" started January 25th.  Below are notes and a video for the fourth class in the 6-class series.  See notes and videos from the previous classes here: 
first class
second class 
third class

Class #4 - Corvid Mythology, Legends & Lore with Mary Kiesau
February 16, 2016

Watch and listen to the second half of the class on this video (we had a problem recording the first part of the lecture; this video starts late.)

Corvids are popular figures in mythical stories throughout the world. The most popular corvids in mythology are ravens and crows but magpies and jays are also featured (Mary said she couldn’t find any nutcracker stories).  Mary covered stories from Native American or other First People cultures; tales from the Far East; and legends and myths of Western Europe from both the old Norse/Viking era as well as from the more recent “Christian” era of say the last several  hundred years.

Magpies are a very common symbol throughout many Asian countries. They are seen very positively - generally representing happiness, good luck, and good news.  A famous love story about Niu Lang and Zhi Nv is called the “Cowherd and the Weaver Girl.”  After marrying and having 2 children, they were separated by a great river and can meet each other only once a year by crossing a “magpie bridge.”  The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl are represented in the night sky by the stars Altair (in the Eagle, Aquila) and Vega (in the Harp, Lyra), respectively, and the Milky Way is the river.  The Qixi Festival is the annual Chinese festival that celebrates the once-a-year meeting of the cowherd and weaver girl. It is sometimes called the Chinese Valentine's Day or the Magpie Festival.  The tale of The Weaver Girl and the Cowherd has been celebrated in the Qixi Festival since the Han Dynasty.  This story is also told and celebrated in Korea and Japan. 

In China magpies are also associated with children and marriage.  The magpie is regarded as the bird of joy, and the Chinese call it “The Happy Magpie.”  It is a symbol for marital bliss, sexual happiness, nesting, and long lasting fortune.  In Korean art, magpies are frequently painted along with tigers.  Magpies are said to deliver good news and the tiger represents good luck.
The good nature of Asian depictions of magpies is contrasted by Western cultures negative depiction of the birds.  In European cultures magpies are often seen as bad omens. The following saying shows that seeing one magpie is an ill omen but it is not nearly as bad as seeing a flock of magpies.

“One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl, four for a boy, five for silver, six for gold, seven for a story never to be told.”

If you see just one magpie there are certain measures you can take to avoid imminent tragedy.  First- salute the bird and say, “Good morning, Mr. Magpie. I hope your wife and family are well!”  If that doesn’t work caw like a magpie while flapping your arms. This way there will actually be two magpies which is a good omen!

There is one English fairy tale that actually acknowledges their intelligence. It’s called The Magpie’s Nest –read it here. 

Skadi, the Norse goddess of winter is often associated with magpies.  The Danish word for magpie is skade.  In Greece, the magpie was sacred to Bacchus, the God of wine. So the magpie is sometimes associated with intoxication.

Western Indigenous cultures, like the Asian cultures, see the magpie as a friend and helper, though they also often see him as a trickster, like they do with the corvids in general. Many Native American tribes have stories involving magpie, and wearing a magpie feather is a sign of fearlessness in some tribes as the magpie is bold and has little fear.  Here’s a Cheyenne story about Magpie and why he is a friend to humans. 

There is not a lot of folklore or mythology about jays across the world. The ones Mary found were from Native American tribes, about both gray jays and various “blue” jays.

Stellar's Jay by Fred Croydon
Bluejay appears to be most affiliated with Chinook, Chehalis, and other Northwest Coast tribes.   The Cowichan of the Coast Salish have a story of a blue jay (does not specify Steller’s jay) bringing a young women he loved back to life.  Read that story here.

Wesakechak (wee-sah-keh-chahk) is the benevolent culture hero of the Cree tribe. There are hundreds of stories about him, but no one really knows what he looks like because Wisakecahk
has many powers, such as the ability to change shape and be anything he wants, and to speak the languages of the animals and plants.  Stories about Wisakecahk usually begin with him walking and feeling hungry. He is too lazy to get food for himself, so he will try to trick other animals into giving him their food, or into becoming his food.  Wisakecahk became anglicized as “whiskey jack,” which became an alternate name for the gray jay.

Crows are one of the most popular corvids featured in mythology.  Crows and ravens (and most likely rooks, jackdaws, hooded crows and carrion crows) are often, though not always, interchangeable in folklore and mythology. They are often portrayed with dichotomous roles and meanings (good and evil, bird of darkness and death or creator of the world and light, etc.) 

Mural from the Han Dynasty period found in Henan province
The three-legged crow is a creature found in various mythologies and arts of East Asia. It originated in China during the Neolithic Era - items with depictions have been excavated from the lower Yangtze River delta area and dated back to around 5000 BC. The three-legged crow, called the sanzuwu, is believed by East Asian cultures to inhabit and represent the sun, and is often called the bird-sun or the sun crow. Three was the number they associated with light and goodness, which the sun embodied.

The crow also appears in Japanese mythology and to some extant modern culture. In Japanese mythology, a jungle crow called Yatagarasu is evidence of the will of Heaven or divine intervention in human affairs.  Yatagarasu the Crow-God is symbolic specifically of guidance. This great crow was sent from heaven as a guide for Emperor Jimmu (was the first Emperor of Japan, according to legend) on his initial journey from the region.

The crow is considered by orthodox religious Hindus to be a messenger from the world of the ancestors and is ceremonially offered cooked rice in the annual event Shraddha.  Crow calls are viewed as an omen of unexpected guests. 

In many cultures crows (or ravens) started out white and there are many stories about why they turned black.  Here are several of those stories.

Corvids, like any animal, can be Albino or leucistic
In Greek mythology, there is a tale of Apollo who fell in love with Coronis.  Apollo asked his divine messenger, the white crow (some stories say it’s a raven), to guard Coronis while he was away.  Coronis was pregnant with Apollo’s child, but gave in to the advances of a mere mortal, Prince Ischys.  When the crow brought news to Apollo of Coronis’ infidelity, Apollo became enraged that his faithful messenger had not pecked out the eyes of the prince.  Apollo flung a curse so furious the crow’s pure white feathers were scorched black.  Coronis was killed and later set among the stars as Corvus, the crow (korônê in Greek).

There’s a story about Muhammad, the founder of Islam and the last profit sent to earth by God sometime around 570. A popular legend depicts a time Muhammed was hiding from his enemies in a cave. A crow, then white, spotted him and cried “Ghar, Ghar!” (cave, cave!) to his seekers. They did not comprehend the crow’s cries, however, and Muhammad escaped, but he turned the crow black for the betrayal and cursed him to only utter one phrase for the rest of time; “Ghar, Ghar!”

Crows or ravens frequently appear in “Great Flood” stories. Some legends depict the bird as a Noah-like creator, saving all the other animals.  However, one biblical “Noah” story says that after it had stopped raining, Noah sent a white raven to explore the sea and look for a dry piece of land. Instead of coming back the bird just flew around. So Noah sent a white dove which came back with an olive branch signifying land. The raven was summoned to come and was blackened by Noah and condemned to feed on carrion as a punishment.

In a North American tribal legend, the raven and the peacock were close friends. One day, the two birds decided to amuse themselves by painting each other's feathers.  The raven set willingly to work and so surpassed itself that the peacock became, as it is today, one of the most beautiful birds on earth. Unwillingly to share its glory even with its friend, the mean-spirited peacock painted the raven plain black.  Other variations of this story suggest the raven exhausted all the color on the peacock, leaving only black for itself.

The Sioux tell the story of how a white raven used to warn buffalo of approaching hunting parties. The buffalo would then stampede, and the hunters would be left hungry. Eventually, an angry shaman threw the bird into the fire which turned it black.  Mary’s last crow story came from Lenni Lenape Tribe in Delaware.  It’s called “Rainbow Crow.”

Ravens are perhaps the most common bird symbol in the mythologies, legends and folklore of ancient (and modern) cultures. They assume a variety of roles, ranging from messengers of deities and sages to tricksters and bringers of death. They play a central part in many aboriginal creation myths and, like crows and other corvids, are typically associated with the supernatural realms lying beyond the ordinary experience.

In many western traditions ravens represent darkness, destructiveness, uncleanliness and evil. They are sometimes associated with deities of impurity and death.  Their black color is certainly a part of these beliefs, but it’s also because the eat carrion, and were seen among the dead, on battlefields and elsewhere, often with wolves, which symbolically is one of man's oldest enemy.

But before ravens began to be vilified throughout Europe (and then wherever Europeans went), they had a long history of myth and legend with numerous ancient cultures, particularly in the Norse and Celtic regions.  The ravens of European mythology are invariably messengers, or an alternate shape for various deities and spirits (vs. in the indigenous cultures of North America, ravens are often the deities themselves).  The most widely known heroes of European folklore that are associated with ravens are Bran, Morrigan, King Arthur and Odin.  Mary discussed each of these.

In old Welsh and Celtic mythology, the Welsh giant Bran (aka Bran the Blessed) was the King and
protector of all of Britain, and he kept ravens.  When Bran was mortally wounded while warring against the Irish, he commanded his followers to behead him and bury his head in what is now Tower Hill in London to protect Britain from invasion. A popular superstition arose declaring that if the ravens ever fled the Tower of London, the monarchy would fall. As long as they nested there, Britain would never be successfully invaded. Bran's Ravens have been there for over 900 years and are kept there to this day, as protection against invasion.  During World War II, Tower Hill was bombed, and the ravens were lost. Winston Churchill, knowing full well the ancient legends, ordered the immediate replacement of ravens, and they were brought to Tower Hill from the Bran’s land of the Welsh hills and Scottish Highlands.  The name "Brân" in Welsh means crow or raven.

Among the Irish Celts, ravens are associated with the “Triple Goddess,” Morrigan, who would take shape as a raven (or crow) and fly over battlefields choosing the slain and protecting warriors, such as the famous warrior Cuchulian. She was sometimes called the Battle Crow. Morrigan was also prone to prophecies and predicting the outcome of battles.

In “The Dream of Rhonabwy” (written in the 14th century but set many centuries earlier during the time of King Arthur), the knight Owain who has an army of ravens is playing King Arthur in a game of cheese in Cornwall. King Arthur’s people begin to harass Owain ravens and Owain asks the King to leave his ravens alone. King Arthur ignores Owain who then sets his ravens on Arthur’s mean. The ravens kill many people and then turn the great King Arthur into a raven. Well into modern times, many people still believed that King Arthur was alive in the form of a raven, and in Cornwall especially, people will not kill a raven.

"Odin, der Göttervater" by Wilhelm Wägner, 1882
One of the most interesting human/raven relationship was with Odin, the great Norse god of the Vikings. Narratives regarding Odin are primarily from 13th century texts recorded in Iceland. He is sometimes called the God of Ravens.  Odin is depicted as one-eyed and long-bearded, frequently wielding a spear, and wearing a cloak and a broad hat. He is often accompanied by his animal companions—two wolves, Geri and Freki, are on either side of his feet and two ravens, Huginn and Muninn, are on opposite shoulders.  Huginn translates to “Thought,” and Muninn to “Memory.” Each daybreak Odin sent them from him to fly throughout the world, delivering messages and gathering news and information to bring back to him. They were to observe what was happening, question people and even talk to the dead.  They would come back to whisper to Odin what they had seen and learned. Since they embodied Odin’s mind and thoughts, they symbolized his ability to see into the future, and likely helped create the concept that ravens are prophetic.

“Raven and The First Men,” by Bill Reid
In indigenous cultures of North America ravens often have roles of transformation and/or are seen as creators of the world.  Details of the creation tale differ, but essentially “Raven”— sometimes a creature with human body and raven’s beak—is believed to have made the world. There are numerous legends from tribes across North American about how Raven “Gave Light to the World.” They vary slightly but mostly follow the same story provided here by a Haida elder in this video.   

Creation myths continue with various stories about how Raven created the earth and/or how he created the First People. Here’s another video story from Haida Gwaii called “Raven & the First People.”

In other stories, perhaps when Raven is still young, he is the trickster, like Coyote, sometimes devious and sometimes benevolent.  Mary closed the program with one of these “trickster” tales from a Northwest coastal tradition called, “Raven and the Man that Sits on the Tides.”

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Corvid Course - Class #3 The Biology, Behavior and Big Brains of Our Charismatic Ravens

Our 2016 "Conservation Course" started January 25th.  Below are short-hand notes taken by Raechel Youngberg and a video by CJ Peterson, both class participants.  See notes and videos from the previous classes here: 
first class
second class

Class #3 - The Biology, Behavior and Brains of Ravens with Dana Visalli
February 8, 2016

 Watch and listen to the entire class on this video

Corvids are in the passerine family, which contains more than half of all bird species.  The passerines are often thought of as "song birds," but their common characteristic is really that they are "perching" birds.  All passerines have two toes that point forward and one toe that points backwards which helps them perch.

How to identify a raven versus a crow:
-Crows have straight tail feathers that may appear to be cut.
-Crows have a smaller body than ravens.
-Crows have a smaller beak than ravens.
-Crows generally travel in flocks whereas ravens travel alone or in pairs unless there is food around.
-Crows are rarely found in the Methow during the winter.

Raven-Ravens have a very big bill.
-The tips of ravens "primary" wing feathers are spread out like fingers, similar to eagles and vultures (reduced drag when soaring, which is something ravens do and crows not so much)
-Ravens have a wedge/fan shaped tail.
-Ravens are noisy fliers due to the air displaced by their wings.
-Ravens have large neck feathers that can be puffed out in a similar way to a grouse to communicate social rank and dominance.
- Ravens are widespread throughout the Northern Hemisphere. 

Ravens are highly adaptable and intelligent animals and these traits have helped them adapt to a variety of different environments. The Common Raven (Corvus corax) can survive in deserts, rainforests, and mountainous regions.

Ravens average lifespan is 15-20 years, but in captivity they have been know to live until 40 years of age. They are one of the largest passerine birds and can weigh 2-4lbs.  The Thick-billed Raven (Corvus cassirostris) from the Horn of Africa is the largest raven species and can weigh up to 6lbs.

It is very difficult to distinguish if a raven is male or female unless you see them right next to each other. Males are slightly larger than females. Females can be identified without a male present for comparison by a unique knocking call that is specific to females. Both males and females have expressive neck feathers that they use to communicate dominance. They will puff their neck feathers and legs feathers out to appear larger and more dominant.

There have been many studies on the intelligence of ravens and other corvids, especially their use of tools and problem solving skills.

Caledonia Crows display the most elaborate tool use of any corvid. Caledonia crows use two types of tools. The first tool they make is a stick with a hook strategically broken off at the end so they can probe insects out of holes.  For the second tool they find a specific leaf that features barbed edges that they then roll into a spear shape. The second tool takes multiple steps and demonstrates causal reasoning (they see the relationship between a cause and its effect).

Corvids have the largest brain size to brain stem ratio of any bird species (excluding parrots).  The European magpie has demonstrated self-awareness in several studies.  In one study, scientists placed a small yellow dot underneath the beak of the magpie where it could not see it. Then the birds were placed in front of mirrors. The birds quickly realized that they were looking at a reflection of themselves and would then scratch off the yellow dot.

Many studies have been done on the problem solving abilities of ravens. In several studies, scientists placed a piece of meat on a string and then tied it to a branch. This would never occur naturally in the wild and thus was a unique experience to which they have not previously been exposed. The ravens quickly realized they could use their foot and beak to pull up the string, hold it with their food, then pull it some more, continually holding it down until they have the meat.

Scrub jays demonstrate brain flexibility and prospection while caching food for the winter. Scrub jays cache perishable and non-perisable food items and are able to retrieve around 75% of their caches after 6 months. The jays not only remember where they stored the food but how long it will last before rotting, and go for the perishable food first.

Ravens mate for life and are socially monogamous.  Pairs build nests together and raise their young together. Ravens frequently start incubating eggs before all the eggs have been laid. The last egg to be laid therefore has a shorter incubation period and is smaller and weaker. This is believed to be a backup food source for the other young when times between meals are scarce.

Ravens interestingly enough cannot tell the difference between their own eggs and another bird's eggs. Well-known raven biologist and author Bernd Heinrich individually placed a chicken egg, a plastic easter egg, and film canister filled with water in a ravens nest. The ravens incubated the chicken and the plastic easter egg but did at least toss out the film canister.  Ravens are fierce guards of their nest and in the wild it is unlikely that another creature would be able to sneak an egg into a ravens nest (like many birds do with "brood parasitism"), so ravens never had to develop ways to distinguish their eggs. 

Ravens are omnivores but sometimes demonstrate meal phobia (often called neophobia).  They are wary around unknown carrion sites and often wait for the presence of crows, magpies or large carnivores before approaching novel carcasses.

Ravens and wolves have a very interesting relationship.  A study in Yellowstone tracked the number of ravens found on wolf kills versus hunter kills.  On every single wolf kill the scientists discovered ravens but they never found ravens on the kill sites of human hunters.  Ravens listen for wolf howls that signal the beginning of a hunt and this relationship may benefit both species.  Ravens are more alert to their surroundings than wolves and may act as a early warning system for danger for wolves.

It seems that the local Methow population of ravens has been on the rise. This could be linked to human inhabitants building roads and clearing snow which allowed more deer to inhabit the valley and survive better during the winter.  Deer carcasses are a common food for corvids during the winter. 

Monday, February 8, 2016

Corvid Course - Class #2 Steller's Jays & Communication

Our 2016 "Conservation Course" started January 25th.  Below are short-hand notes taken by Raechel Youngberg and a video by CJ Peterson, both class participants.  To see the notes and video from the first class click here

Class #2 - Steller's Jays & Communication with Alexis Billings
February 1, 2016

Watch and listen to most of the class on this video (we had a problem recording the first part of the lecture; this video starts late.)

Alexis says she studies "bioaccoustics" - sounds that living things make

Jays are spread throughout the phylogentic (aka evolutionary) tree and there is not one overall characteristic of what makes a jay a jay.

Boreal jays (gray jays etc), ground jays and old world jays are not in the same genus as scrub jays, steller & blue jays, pinyon jays etc.

Gray Jay (Perisoeus canadensis)
Gray jay by Mary Kiesau
-Boreal forests
-We are southern range of their territory
-do not migrate
-make long term pair bonds, and are socially monogamous
-one of the few corvids that has something that sounds like a song, the “whisper” song
-breeding starts in February
-they are a semi-cooperative breeder: family groups work together to raise young but helpers are not allowed to feed the chick until it becomes a fledgling
-cache food under bark using special sticky saliva

Steller's Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri)
Steller's jay by Mary Kiesau
-Named by George Wilheim Steller, a German who worked for Russia and who is considered a pioneer of Alaskan Natural History
-Black, gray or blue chest, head and upper back and breast
-Blue body w/ black on feathers
-Lots of variation between subspecies and hybrids (our local subspecies is Cyancitta stelleri annecterns)
-Sexually dimorphic(males and females are different)
-males slightly larger with slightly longer tails

-males are much more colorful than females in UV spectrum (we can't see it but the birds can)
-sex specific calls (creek call = males only, rattle call = females only)
-the are western coniferous forest birds
-subspecies can interbreed, though they have slightly different genetics, and they can vary in size, coloration, habitat range

Our local Steller's jay is Cyanocitta stelleri annectern
-Forehead has small light blue streaks
-white eye area
-paler than Cyanocitta stelleri (especially on belly)

-begins in March-April with sexual sidling and courtship circling
-culminated courtship feeding

Pair Bonds:
-long term pair bonds
-not sexually monogamous
-often stay with mate outside of breeding season

-Nest site selected by both pairs and built by both pairs
-horizontal brances close to truck between ground level and 30m high
-bulky structure of plant material, sticks, leaves and mud (one of only two corvid species known to use mud)

Photo by Jim Peaco, NPS
-blueish gray with brown freckles
-slightly glossy
-average 3 to a clutch
-16 days incubation

-Altrichial young (young need assistance from parents after birth)
-remain in nest for 16 days after hatching
-once fledged they beg for food for one month before parents stop feeding them
-may stay with parents for fall and winter

-diet primarily consists of anthropods, nuts, seeds, berries, small vertebrates

Places they forage:
-ground, bushes, trees
-fly catch
-forage under loose bark
-Also help spread seeds of white bark pine
-cache food in trees and ground
-eat snow and ice even when water is abundant
-nest raiders and eat young of other birds

-flight: strong & deliberate
-accomplished hoppers
-expressive crest (stands taller when stressed)
-use wings, tail feathers for posturing in conflict and courting behavior

Intelligence is displayed by:
-problem solving
-spatial memory
-self awareness
-use of tools
-complex social interactions

Predation and anti-predation behavior:
-give alarm calls as responses to danger
-display mobbing behavior (attack predator)

Sharp-shinned hawk by Mary Kiesau
-Northern Pygmy Owl
-Sharp-Shinned Hawk
-Red-Tail Hawk
-Northern Goshawk

Study used visual and acoustic cues to see how Steller's jays reacted to the four predators
-Size is not everything
-Hunting strategy counts (sharp-shinned hawks are quicker and more agile than red-tailed hawks)
-No distinct difference between visual and acoustic cues

Alexis predicted that size would be the biggest factor in the Steller's jays reactions to the cues. But a variety of factors influenced the result (see above). Alexis predicted that the jays would have the most significant vocalizations and mobbing attacks towards Northern Goshawks but it turned out that Sharp-Shinned Hawks and Northern Goshawks elicited similar results.

When the jays heard red-tailed hawks calls they responded by mimicking their calls which may act as a warning system for other jays nearby.

Alexis also is studying how animals of different species communicate in a forest setting. She found that other birds (and even squirrels!) listen to red-breasted nuthatches for warnings about their environment. She also found that black-capped chickadees are not considered reliable and are not listened to. It seems that Steller's jays are only listened to by other Steller's jays.