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Stubborn autumn not going down easy

December 17, 2011
By JOE HACKETT - Outdoors Columnist ( , Lake Placid News

As winter attempts to seize the season, it appears autumn plans to hang on a bit longer. As a result, the available options for outdoor recreation are rather limited.

The current snowpack has not developed an adequate base to support cross-country skiing or snowshoeing and most of the local lakes and ponds still show no signs of safe ice.

Although skim ice has set up on a few of the smaller ponds in the region, it will take at least a full week of freezing nights to establish adequate cover for ice fishing, ice skating and similar pursuits.

Fortunately, Whiteface Mountain has been busy making snow, feeding the needs of skiers and boarders alike. However, snowshoers and Nordic enthusiasts must patiently await the arrival of winter's wrath, or at least a bit more snow.

The transition of seasons, which is currently deep in the fourth quarter of the year, has always been marked by fits and starts, with warmer days erasing the dustings of snow, combined with thaws that feature snotty rains and warm winds.

Typically, winter is jump-started with the arrival of first major storm of the season. The arrival date of the storm, is always crucial to the success of the holiday season.


Show and tell, on the wing

Like many woodland travelers, I've always been fascinated by the wide variety of sounds that ravens produce. From their unmistakable scolding calls of "aaawk, aaawk" to their wide variety of low-pitched gargles, croaks and googles, ravens exhibit a wide range of unique vocalizations. Occasionally, their calls resemble laughter from above.

They are the bane of "still-hunters," those slow-moving, patient stalkers who attempt to quietly stalk whitetails in the deep woods. Ravens have a habit of scouting out woodland wanderers and scolding them from above. Their loud croaks and calls provide a warning to other denizens of the forest, "Danger lurks below."

As they fly over the forest at tree-top level, their powerful wing beats are often audible on the ground below. So too are their unique vocalizations. I've long considered the big, black bird as runners-up to bluejays as the town crier of the forest.

It is not uncommon for a hunter to find a pair of ravens spying on them. As scavengers, ravens are opportunists, and they regularly recognize a potential opportunity to find a meal.

The pair that followed me around during the recent hunting season didn't stick around for long. I expect they found a steadier diet at a local dumpster. However, a raven's call is known to invite other predators to the site of a dead animal.

Ravens often rely on coyotes, wolves or other large predators to open up a carcass so they can feed on it. They also have a refined sense of smell that allows them to locate carrion from the air.

A recent study of ravens conducted by the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Munich, indicates that their unusual vocalizations provide a key to gauging their intelligence.

A study published in the Nov. 29 issue of Nature Communications reveals that ravens "purposefully show objects to their mating partners." It was the first time that researchers have observed ravens exhibiting such behavior patterns in the wild. Previously, only chimpanzees and apes were believed to have developed such advanced intelligence.

Researchers believe a raven's unique sign language belongs to a class of behaviors labeled "deictic gestures," which include pointing and showing. Scientists consider these behaviors to be aimed at drawing attention to an external object.

Essentially, this type of gesture beckons to mates, "Hey, take a look at this!" Many scientists believe the behavior in an indication of complex intelligence, which represents a starting point for the use of symbols and eventually language.

It makes me wonder whether such sign language is responsible for the coining of the more common term of "flippin' the bird"?

Such deictic gestures are rare outside of humans, although some chimps have been observed using gestures described as "directed scratches" to indicate a particular spot on their body that they want a partner to groom.

After observing ravens for the study, researchers concluded the birds often use their beaks like hands to show off objects or to offer such items as moss, stones and twigs to their mates.

Ravens, along with crows and magpies, are members of the corvid family, the largest of the songbirds. They are extremely intelligent birds and they have achieved scores on intelligence tests which indicate a level comparable to chimpanzees.

Mating pairs of ravens also exhibit a complex form of communication, which is considered to be comparable to sign language. During the mating season, the birds often perform amazing acrobatic aeronautical maneuvers, including free falls while interlocking their talons.

"Gesture studies have too long focused on communicative skills of primates only. The mystery of the origins of human language, however, can only be solved if we look at the bigger picture and also consider the complexity of the communication systems of other animal groups," explained a lead researcher of the study.

Ravens are great mimics and they possess an uncanny ability to vocalize the human voice. Additionally, research indicates that the birds also have the ability to understand the spoken word. It is no wonder that ravens are believed to have the largest brain of any bird species.

A flock of ravens is known as an "unkindness of ravens, a conspiracy of ravens, or a constable of ravens." It's no wonder! Ravens are notoriously quarrelsome and yet they demonstrate considerable devotion to their families.

Possibly the world's most famous ravens are the ravens of the Tower of London. The Tower's ravens cannot fly away because their flight feathers are kept clipped so they can only fly for short distances to perch. The oldest known Tower raven is reported to have lived for more than 43 years in captivity.

The ravens are believed to protect the Crown and the Tower, as superstition suggests that "If the Tower of London ravens are lost or fly away, the Crown will fall and Britain with it."

The superstition is believed to have developed in the early years of the British Empire, however records indicate it actually began in the age of Queen Victoria, in the late 1800s.



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