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Livia McRee

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A Tale of Two Ravens

Posted: 10/25/10 08:45 PM ET

Working as a wildlife rehabilitator has many ups and downs. The sadness of watching animals suffer can be overwhelming and often seems pointless, especially when the cause is human carelessness or cruelty. But occasionally there are bright spots that put everything into perspective.

Two ravens were brought to our hospital by people with compassion and quite possibly some outrage at the selfish and careless acts that caused these special creatures harm. It took more than a year and the help of many volunteers to care for these birds and set things right. I'd like to share this story with you.

In the summer of 2009, one of our volunteers, a raven expert, got a call from a rehabilitator hours away from our hospital asking if we could take a juvenile raven. We reached out to our network and one of our dedicated volunteers offered to sacrifice her day off from work to make a very long journey. She had to fetch the bird at a location hours away by car and bring her to us.

When we got the raven, we determined she had been born that summer and was only a few months old. We also discovered that someone had tried to keep her as a pet -- they had clipped all her flight feathers, making her unable to fly. She would have to wait an entire year until her first molt next summer for these feathers to grow back. This was very disappointing; we always hope to get youngsters well quickly so they can return to their families. Ravens are excellent parents!

It's really important that juvenile birds have contact with their own species in order to develop normal social behaviors, so we put "Clipped Wings" with another young raven we had at the time and they became fast friends. They were together for a couple of months. But her friend got well fast enough that we were able to release him in his home territory; the people who found the bird reported that the parents were still in the area. Success!

Sadly, Clipped Wings became very depressed after her friend was released. The hospital is not an ideal place to keep a healthy young bird that just needs to wait out a molt. So, we decided to transfer her into the care of our raven expert, who has several non-releasable ravens on her property that go to schools to teach children about wildlife. Clipped Wings would be able to see and hear ravens, and her active raven mind would be kept occupied by enrichment activities.

In July 2010, we received an adult raven that was stuck forty feet up in a tree, tangled in fishing line. A dedicated park ranger spotted him and used a cherry picker to cut him down, then promptly drove more than an hour to bring him to us.

After removing the line, we discovered that the injury was not severe, and we were confident it would heal quickly. But something was wrong with his right wing; it didn't extend fully. We took radiographs to try and determine the cause.

We discovered that this raven's metacarpal bones, which are comparable to the bones in our own hands, had been smashed and had a giant hole in them -- possibly a gun shot -- but it was an old, completely healed injury. Normally such an injury would prevent a bird from ever flying again.

Something didn't add up. How did this raven get forty feet up a tree? In most cases a bird grounded by a wing injury quickly becomes emaciated and dehydrated. This bird was healthy and fat. Obviously, this animal knew how to take care of himself before the unfortunate fishing line incident. So, we decided to wait and see. I called him "Old Man" because he seemed to know the ways of the world.

After the wounds from the fishing line healed, we did a test flight. He flew, but not nearly well enough to be released. Nevertheless, we had hope. Something told me that this bird could do it.

We started a physical-therapy program that involved adjusting the height of his perches every few days to just barely within his reach so he would have to work to get up to a safe spot and his food dish (ravens do not like to stay on the ground at night). We accepted that he might never be perfect but we hoped we could get him to a point where we felt he could successfully evade predators and forage for food.

Right about then, early in September of 2010, Clipped Wings had molted enough that she was able to fly but needed a larger aviary to build up her flight muscles. We were very worried about her since she had lived most of her life in captivity without the benefit of her natural raven family teaching her the ways of the world.

We never raise or release young animals alone -- we raise them in groups and release them in groups. So while Clipped Wings had enough exposure to other ravens to know how to act socially, we were not satisfied releasing her alone. She wouldn't have any raven friends for support or know where to find food, water or shelter, or have any the "street smarts" she would have learned from an adult.

So, we decided to put her with Old Man, and hope for the best. This was a risky move. Ravens are territorial and can be very violent with each other. Happily, they bonded immediately and went through conditioning together with flying colors.

On the day of release, the Park Ranger met one of our volunteers -- the very same one who had driven hours to pick up Clipped Wings over a year ago -- and the two birds were freed together in Old Man's territory.

Old Man flew to the tree NEXT to the one he was caught in (those ravens remember everything) and Clipped Wings circled higher and higher above them: the first time she was ever able to fly free. Old Man immediately started calling, and got answers back from the local ravens. I imagine he said, "I'm back!"


Livia Stone is a volunteer wildlife rehabilitator at WildCare and director of The Biz and Livia Stone Foundation.