A common raven may be uncommon way to find lost hikers
Expert trains her pet raven to find lost objects with uncannily accurate results.
Thu, Sep 02 2010 at 1:44 PM
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Ravens are known for their jarring “squawk” and a role as Edgar Allen Poe’s diabolical foe, not to mention they're frequent use in pop culture imagery. But NPR reports on another raven that may prove to be more savior than foe. Shade is the pet raven of doctoral student Emily Cory. When Shade showed signs of extreme intelligence, Cory decided to train the bird in the art of hide-and-seek in hopes of assisting search and rescue teams. What Cory learned was that Shade has an uncanny knack for memory, language and even game skills.
Ravens are extremely resourceful and wily in terms of finding foods for their omnivorous diets. Their brains are among the largest of birds, and they have a keen grasp of problem solving, imitation and insight. They have even been known to multitask. Ravens have also been known to get other animals to work for them, such as calling wolves to the scene of a carcass to rip up the meat and make it more accessible to the birds. Their corvid cousins, crows, have also been seen dropping nuts onto freeways, allowing cars to drive over them. Once the nuts are crushed, the birds swoop in and grab the meats.
Cory grew up in the canyons of Sedona, Ariz., often listening to helicopters flying over, searching for lost hikers. As an adult, Cory worked with birds at the Arizona-Sonora Museum. A common raven caught her attention. As Cory tells NPR, "She'd [the raven] play horrible tricks on the volunteers, she'd get in so much trouble. She never forgot a thing, never missed a thing [and] that really got my attention."
This prompted Cory to consider training a raven to seek out lost hikers like the ones so common in her childhood. She purchased Shade and began to train her in elaborate games of hide-and-seek, all the while writing her master’s thesis on the project. Shade showed an uncanny knack for finding anything Cory hid from her — even looking in places Cory never thought to hide objects. She even noticed that Shade understood verbal commands. As Cory tells it, "Sometimes she [Shade] responds correctly even when my back is to her. For example, she loves Chapstick. She always steals Chapstick." Cory notes that if Shade even hears the word “Chapstick,” she will immediately fly off and find it.
Cory hopes to train Shade to work in the back country, flying back and forth between hiker and trainer with a GPS attached to her foot. But her attempts have hit a roadblock, as no colleagues or professors will support her research. Nonetheless, Cory is undeterred. She recently started a Ph.D. program at the University of Arizona focusing on ravens and language.
This isn't the first time scientists have successfully taught crows and ravens to accomplish tasks. A tech expert built a crow vending machine which allows the birds to deposit spare change for various items.
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