Published in Trumansburg Free Press November 3, 2004


 
Land & People
The Ravens Return

by Bill Chaisson 

Last weekend my wife and I were walking the Rim Trail at Taughannock Falls State Park when I heard a deep, grating croak from above.  The leaves, bright yellow and red, were still on the trees and I moved quickly to find a clear look upward.  But then, just a little higher than the level at which I stood, I saw the raven (Corvus corax) soaring in tight circles in the emptiness above the falls.  I associate ravens with wild areas and was surprised to hear and see one in central New York.

Ravens are distinct from crows (Corvus brachyrhyncos) in many ways other than their sonorous, ragged voices.  As the raven at the falls rose up into the sky, it rarely flapped its wings, and once it had gained altitude it soared like a large hawk or an eagle.  Crows never do this.  In silhouette against the gray cloud cover I could also see the ravenís long, wedge-shaped tail, so distinct from the fan-shaped tail of a crow.  Finally, ravens are just plain big, with four and half foot wingspans compared to the three-foot span of a crow.

As I watched, the raven banked and moved off to the south and out of sight, croaking as it went.  To my delight, however, its croaks were answered by a second bird, which was moving just above the treetops to the west over the upper gorge.  Their guttural cries echoed off the exposed rocks, ringing above the white noise rush of the falls and the rattle of the autumn leaves about to fall.  Was this a breeding pair?

Intrigued, I called the park office the following week.  The park naturalist, Sarah Fiorello, is out on leave, but I spoke with her supervisor, Sue Poelvoorde.  Poelvoorde was not sure how many years the ravens had been around, but said that they had nested as recently as two years ago in the Taughannock gorge and also over at Enfield Glen.  Apparently people have been seeing them more and more often.  She referred me to Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) branch office in Cortland for more information, but I did not get a return call.  Left to my own devices, I naturally turned to the internet.

At the website of SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) (http://www.esf.edu) I found out that the history of ravens in New York state is tied to the fate of the regionís wolves (Canis lupus).  Ravens are carrion feeders and depended heavily on the deer carcasses left behind by wolf packs.  When wolves were extirpated from New York in the late 19th century, the ravens disappeared as well.  They did not begin to return until coyotes (Canis latrans) moved into the state to fill the ecological niche left vacant by the local extinction of the wolf.

Since the 1920s coyotes have been moving into New York from Ontario.  Eastern coyotes are much larger than their western counterparts.  For many years there were two hypotheses about the greater size.  One held that the more benign climate of the east allowed the coyotes to grow to greater size.  But the other idea was that the coyotes had interbred with wolves on their way east through Canada.  Modern molecular genetic analysis has borne out the latter theory.  Large coyotes can bring down deer, especially in the deep snows of winter.  And these deer carcasses are apparently one factor allowing the return of ravens to the Finger Lakes region.

Ravens nest on cliff ledges, of which we have no shortage in the greater Ithaca area, but they also prefer open country to extensive, unbroken forest.  When I have encountered them in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, it has been above the tree line, and in the Canadian Maritimes they are most common along the sea coast.  One wonders, then, how abundant ravens would have been in the Finger Lakes region during the thousands of years between the return of the hardwood forest following the last glaciation and the coming of European settlers in the latest 18th century.

One can imagine a brief heyday for Corvus corax in the early 19th century, when the human population was low, but patches of forest were cleared for lumber and agriculture.  Like ravens, deer prefer a mixture of open country and forest and their populations may have actually grown in response to logging.  But as the century progressed and the forest and the wolves were eliminated (and even the deer were reduced), the ravens must have withdrawn to the fastnesses of the Adirondacks and the high Appalachians.  Now, with agriculture fading, the landscape returning to a mixture of forest and open land, and big coyotes padding along in the wolvesí tracks, the ravens have returned.

Hibernian Weather Channel Productions

Last revised:  May 3, 2005