Ravens Eat Snowy Plover Babies, and That’s Okay

Last April, I went searching for river otters at Abbotts Lagoon in Point Reyes. It was part of the wonderful Point Reyes Birding & Nature Festival and led by Megan Isadore of the River Otter Ecology Project. Among the many wonderful things we saw on our ambling was this magnificent ravens’ nest on the face of a sheer cliff. We stared at it in awe for many minutes, marveling at the two large birds residing there and their remarkable feat of engineering.

Raven couple and their nest on the face of this cliff at Abbotts Lagoon in Point Reyes National Seashore, California.

Later, we came across a field biologist who was checking up on the Snowy Plovers. These adorable little birds inhabit many Bay Area beaches, where there are often fences attempting to protect their habitat. Unfortunately, there are only about 2,500 Snowy Plovers left on the West Coast, down from tens of thousands. Despite almost 40 years of protection, population recovery has been slow. Humans are the main reason why, but another nontrivial factor has been natural predation. And as we learned from the biologist, one of the most voracious predators of Snowy Plover eggs on that beach were those same ravens we were enjoying earlier.

I’m one of the thousands of folks who seem to have discovered birds for the first time during the pandemic. I’ve spent hours and hours and hours watching them in our garden and on the balcony outside of my office, and I’ve become familiar with many of them. I won’t lie, I usually greet them out loud when I see them, most often by their common name, but sometimes by names my partner and I have given them: Hoppy, Twisted Lip, Helen Hunt, etc.

The line between valuing and anthropomorphizing wildlife is a fine one. If you pay enough attention, you start to notice behavior that may feel unsavory to our human selves — bickering, bullying, and sometimes a lot worse. One time, I was at a red light on Martin Luther King, Jr. Way in Oakland, watching in horror as a murder of crows ganged up on an injured pigeon in the intersection. I wanted to get out of my car and chase the crows away, but the light turned green, and I ended up driving past, watching helplessly as the crows shifted their business to the sidewalk.

Corvids — including the ravens who snack on Snowy Plover eggs and the crows who bullied the poor pigeon — are large, social, and notoriously intelligent. They are marvelous birds, and, not surprisingly, many of their kind have adapted well to human development. Corvids are also known for theft and pedicide, often stealing hard-earned food from smaller birds or feasting on their hatchlings. It feels all too easy to pass judgement, but it doesn’t make any sense. Corvids are not people. This is what they do to survive. Moreover, many of the changes that we’ve made to the environment have served to amplify these “distasteful” behaviors.

On our river otter walk, Terrence Carroll (the Director of Research at River Otter Ecology Project and Isadore’s husband) explained that, over the past few years, river otters have been seen hunting and eating Brown Pelicans, one of the Endangered Species Act’s great success stories. According to Isadore, witnessing this is not for the weak of heart or stomach. The otters sneak up on the pelicans while they’re resting in the water, grab them by the leg and pull them under until they drown. They then drag them to shore, where they either consume them or stash them away in makeshift larders.

Angry birders who have found beaches strewn with pelican bodies have begun demanding that something be done about the otters. Carroll explained that we don’t know whether or not otter predation is having a significant impact on pelican populations. Their organization has applied for grants to try and study this. Regardless of what they find, the anger seems misguided. Ravens eat Snowy Plover eggs. River otters (which themselves have only recently returned to the Bay Area after disappearing for decades due to pollution) eat shorebirds, including Brown Pelicans. That is in their nature, and this is how nature works. The main reason the Brown Pelicans were and the Snowy Plovers are endangered is us — we human beings and our ongoing attempts to co-opt rather than co-exist with nature.

I’m still learning this lesson. I try not to project my human code of ethics onto wildlife, but I also have the opportunity to create my own space that encourages co-existence in a way that seems palatable to everyone. Early in my birder evolution, I started experimenting with bird feeders. Inspired by my friends, Jon and Linzy, I started by tying an old frying pan to a tree and filling it with sunflower seeds. That enabled me to see what felt like a wondrous number of birds in our backyards, and it also acquainted me with a familiar bird feeder foe: Sammy the Squirrel. (I name all squirrels I see, “Sammy.”)

Many of my early design experiments were spent trying to fend off Sammy. (Yes, I’ve seen the Marc Rober video on deterring squirrels, and yes, it’s amazing.) However, over time, I shifted my attention to creating harmony among the many different bird species who visit my feeders and baths. I noticed that bigger birds sometimes dominate the feeders, chasing away (or worse) the smaller birds, so I created a tube feeder that only smaller songbirds could access. I noticed that a small single point of access would cause the smaller songbirds to fight with each other, so I strategically placed branches nearby where the birds could queue up.

Tube feeder I designed for small songbirds. There are two slots (carved in the shapes of a House Finch and a chickadee) covered in hardware cloth and a couple of branches to let the birds queue up. Larger birds and sparrows can’t balance themselves on the feeder or fit their beaks through the hardware cloth.

Hummingbirds are viciously territorial, and I often saw them fighting over our two feeders. Earlier this year, I visited bird illustrator Keith Hansen’s studio in Bolinas and noticed to my surprise that the hummingbirds fed side-by-side in harmony at his feeders. He has found that if you have at least six feeders up, the hummingbirds decide that there’s enough for everybody, and they cooperate rather than fight.

Structures impact behavior. I have always applied this principle in my work of getting people to collaborate more effectively with each other, but watching birds over the past few years have caused me to appreciate this even more. On my small balcony, I have managed to create my own little ecosystem of birds and nature. I have two feeders and two small bowls, which I regularly fill with clean water for drinking and bathing. I designed and placed them strategically among my pots of native plants to favor different kinds of birds so that there’s enough food and water for everybody.

The House Finches and Mourning Doves hang out on my balcony year-round, and a wide variety of birds visit regularly depending on the season — sparrows, Lesser Goldfinches, Chestnut-Backed Chickadees, hummingbirds, Scrub Jays, Brewer’s Blackbirds. I have a few individual stragglers as well, from the Dark-eyed Junco that serenades me almost every morning to the Yellow-Rumped Warbler (i.e. “Butter Butt”) who seems to enjoy the company of my bird cohort, even though their kind don’t traditionally visit feeders. I don’t know why, but the ubiquitous city pigeons mostly stay away, with the exception of one goofy couple that makes me chuckle every time I see them.

When the crows started coming, I had mixed feelings, as I was afraid they would scare away all the other birds. But I observed them for a while, and I came to love them. There are a few who now recognize me, and when I see them, I often take a short break to step out onto my balcony and feed them peanuts. A few of their cousins, the raven, even come by every so often, including an affectionate couple, and I’ve been able to marvel at their size and beauty up close.

Ravens cuddling on my balcony.

Last year, I was on a client call, when I heard a loud thunk outside. I looked outside, and to my surprise, a Cooper’s Hawk was sitting about ten feet away from me. It took all of my willpower not to jump off the call and grab my camera. Fortunately, the hawk and its mate became regular visitors, and I was able to watch them with interest. I didn’t want my balcony to become a restaurant for these raptors, which love to feast on Mourning Doves, although I was open to it happening. However, while the ongoing activity continued to attract the hawks’ interest, it turned out that some combination of my balcony’s proximity (which made it hard for the predators to sneak up on other birds) and my crow friends (who were used to warding off fiercer, larger birds) kept them at bay.

Cooper’s Hawk on my balcony!

It’s not my place to dictate whether or not a bird eats or bullies another bird. However, I think it’s fair for me to be thoughtful about how I can positively impact an ecosystem by learning as much as possible about these wonderful feathered creatures and by loving them without anthropomorphizing them.

I’m not going to stop naming them, however, or saying hello when I see them. I have to draw the line somewhere!

Close Encounter with Tule Elk

A few weeks ago, I went on what I thought would be an uneventful hike with Pete Forsyth. We decided we’d go up to Point Reyes to check out the Tule Elk Preserve along the Tomales Point Trail. Point Reyes is one of my favorite places in the world, Pete had never been, and Tomales Point Trail is a long, easy, and scenic trail, perfect for us since we were getting a late start.

I was worried when we arrived in Point Reyes, because it was foggy and cold. However, the weather patterns change quickly there, and it was sunny at the trailhead, and so we decided to push on for as far as it made sense. That turned out to be a great decision, even in light of the scary adventure that awaited us toward the end of our little jaunt.

The Tule elk were out in full force that day. I had been to the Preserve once before, but there were many more elk out and about, including many more full-horned bull elk. They grazed openly along the trail, no more than a few hundred yards away.

As we stared at the elk, I started telling Pete about a conversation I had had with a friend before a trip to the Boundary Waters last July. My friend and I had been joking about my lack of outdoor savvy when the conversation had turned to a recent grizzly mauling at Yellowstone. Those unfortunate hikers had come across a grizzly and its cubs along the trail. The hikers had apparently done all of the right things (although later reports indicated otherwise), but the grizzly ended up mauling and killing one of the hikers anyway.

My friend had suggested that the bear should have been euthanized, but I had defended the bear. “What are you going to do?” I asked. “You’re on its turf, and nature is not something to trifle with.” I told the story to Pete with a note of irony, given that I was standing completely in the open, a few hundred yards away from a few dozen bull elk, snapping away on my camera like a fool.

We continued to walk without incident, marveling at the natural beauty along the trail. Although we saw patches of fog, the fog always seemed to clear ahead of us, and we pushed along to Tomales Point, where we were treated to the raw beauty of the Pacific Ocean meeting Tomales Bay.

We lingered for a while at Tomales Point before heading back. Even though dusk was near, we knew we had enough sunlight to return before dark.

The walk back may have been even more beautiful than coming, as the late afternoon sun created wonderful hues along the hills. We passed some elk cows, lazily grazing along the trail, and we saw more fog starting to roll in from the ocean.

We were deeply immersed in conversation, and we didn’t pay much attention to the fog. Even as the fog encircled us, we still moved forward, unconcerned. We couldn’t see more than ten feet ahead of us, but it was still light, and the trail was not particularly treacherous.

We continued to press forward when we heard the sound of an elk bugling in the distance. I say now, with an air of confidence, that the elk was “bugling” (the mating call of a bull elk), because the noise sounded a bit like a bugle and because I looked it up on Wikipedia afterward. But the truth was that we had no idea what the sound was, and frankly, I still can’t say what it was for certain. We stood there for a few moments speculating, and we continued to walk.

A few moments later, we heard the noise again. This time, it sounded much closer, and it sounded like something had started galloping toward us. Now we were concerned. We couldn’t see anything ahead of us, but something was definitely moving toward us, and we had no idea what to do. Pete and I stayed calm and discussed our options. We decided to slowly backtrack to see if the galloping stopped. It did. Then we discussed our next move.

I couldn’t help but think of our earlier conversation about being on nature’s turf. Here we were on what we thought was a safe, comfortable trail, and we were suddenly thrust in a situation where we had completely no idea what to do. I was worried that a bull elk was trying to send us a message, and I wanted to listen to that message. Unfortunately, I didn’t know what that message was. That elk was standing between us and the trailhead. At this point, no one else was on the trail.

We briefly discussed going off trail, but we decided that staying on the trail was probably our best bet. We had seen elk on both sides of the trail, and we hoped that the elk considered the trail to be human — or at least neutral — territory.

Pete suggested that we forge ahead slowly, so we tried that. We moved about 20 yards when we heard the bellowing again, this time much closer and from both sides of the trail. We decided to backtrack again to higher ground and reconsider our options.

We still couldn’t see a thing because of the fog, and it was starting to get dark. We continued to maintain our heads, and we managed to joke about our situation, but I was scared. I had no idea what to do. We decided to check to see if our cell phones were working. Mine wasn’t (damn you, Verizon!), but Pete’s was (thank you, T-Mobile!). He decided to call his friend, Colin, who was an experienced hiker and camper.

Thankfully, Colin picked up. He suggested that it might be runting (mating) season, which might have explained the bugling, but he wasn’t sure what we should do. While his partner looked up the ranger station, he stayed on the phone and offered his thoughts. At one point, he asked if we had anything to throw. “Dude,” I responded, “we can find something to throw, but you’d better be damn sure that that’s the appropriate thing to do in this situation.”

At that moment, two hikers emerged from behind us in the fog, seemingly out of nowhere. They were locals walking home after an evening hike, and after hearing our plight, they assured us that they knew exactly what to do. Walk forward, keep moving, and the elk will leave us alone.

And so we did, this time with confidence, partially because they seemed to know what they were talking about and partially because if the elk did charge, they would hit the other two hikers first, leaving Pete and me additional time to escape. Having played basketball with Pete and having seen him run, I knew I would have a third buffer if necessary.

It was pitch black and still foggy. As we pressed forward, the bellowing stopped, and we moved quickly, mostly in silence. I kept my eyes on the trail, straining to see the path ahead, badly wanting to return as quickly as possible.

Suddenly, Pete nudged me. “Look!” he exclaimed. I turned my head in time to see one of the most surreal, hauntingly beautiful things I have ever seen in my life. A herd of elk was walking alongside us in the opposite direction. They were close enough to see through the fog, and they moved quickly and with purpose. We kept moving, but I couldn’t keep my eyes off of them.

I was awestruck by what we saw. I have never felt so exposed to something so wild, and while I was still scared, I felt blessed to be experiencing that moment.

We got back to the car without incident, and after a beer and the warm ride home, I almost felt normal again. Still, thinking back, I am struck by how many things we take for granted in the world, how disconnected I am to the world around us, and how much I still have to learn.