Monday, May 9, 2011

Dog Days, Raven Nights

I've been sick the last few days so I haven't had much chance to get out in the yard.  Still, spring is going on and the flowers are blooming.  The cherry tree outside my living room window is in full bloom and looking very beautiful.  

Dog Days, Raven Nights
Dog Days, Raven Nights
I did attend a very interesting event at Seattle's Town Hall last week.  Every once in a while you hear about a book that seems so perfect that you think it could have been written just for you.  That's how I felt when I saw the title of John and Colleen Marzluff's new book Dog Days, Raven Nights.  It's the story of two young scientists (John and Colleen) who set out to the Maine woods in search of Ravens, and who become involved along the way with dog sledding and sled dogs.  Corvids and canines in one book!

In the Company of Crows and Ravens
In the Company of Crows and Ravens
For those of you who don't know about John Marzluff, he teaches at the University of Washington in the College of the Environment, where he is a professor of Wildlife Biology.  He is also one of the world's leading experts on crows and other corvids.  His previous book, In the Company of Crows and Ravens, which he wrote with local artist Tony Angell (you have to check out his artwork if you never have:  here) helped spark my interest in crows and eventually other birds as well.  There's also a great episode of the PBS show Nature that focuses on his work with crows here in Seattle. (Check it out here)  He and his students have done some great experiments, tagging and recording crows to learn more about their lives.  I recommend this show to anyone who's interested in very intelligent birds.  

For the Town Hall event though, they were talking about their new book, so the focus was mostly on Ravens.  Twenty years ago, when Marzluff was a young Postdoc looking for his first job, he and his wife Colleen travelled to Maine to work with the famous biologist Bernd Heinrich (you can see my review of Heinrich's own book about the time, Ravens in Winter at our sister blog Booksand Beasts).  

Crows are omnivores, and frequently scavenge road-kill.
When I lived in Ballard, a much more urban area, crows were definitely the most dominant birds around.  In fact, in Ballard, there is a running squabble between crows and seagulls that is fascinating to watch.   Crows, in my experience (and Marzluff seems to agree with this) are almost unique among wild animals in the amount of attention they pay to human beings.  They really do seem to be curious about us, and to go out of their way to observe us and interact with us.  Marzluff believes that crows (and ravens too, and maybe some other species as well) are co-evolving with humans.  Ravens follow wolf packs and other predators in search of food, so it's very likely that they learned to follow early human groups for the same reason.  Crows are even more closely bound to us.  They have literally followed us across the continent (the American Crow -- the bird almost everyone is familiar with -- is native to the Eastern United states, but like the Virginia Opossum and the Eastern Gray Squirrel it now resides almost everywhere we do.)  Crows have become the consummate urban bird, and the stories of their intelligence and cunning are endless.

While living in Maine, Colleen Marzluff also became involved in raising and racing sled dogs.  Anyone who has ever taken a walk (or a drive) across town with me knows that I can be instantly distracted by the sight of an interesting dog.  (Okay, all dogs are interesting).  But if a Malamute happens by, you've lost my attention entirely.  Learning to drive a dog sled is one of my bucket list items.  This part of the book, as well as the fascinating descriptions of the work with the Ravens, could have been written just for me.

Steller's Jays are also members of the Corvid family.
I got to speak to Marzluff briefly at the book signing and I mentioned the frequent Raven sightings in West Crest Park, just up the hill form me here in West Seattle.  He told me that there was a pair of crows nesting on Mercer Island, which might be crossing over to West Seattle.  But he also told me that someone else had reported a pair in Lincoln Park (which is just down the hill from me).  He was very interested in learning more about any ravens nesting in this area, and so am I.  So if any West Seattle readers (if I have any) know anything more about ravens in West Crest or Lincoln Parks, or anywhere in the area, I'd love to hear from you.

Like Ravens in Winter, which is one of my favorite non-fiction books, Dog Days, Raven Nights is a wonderful book for getting a taste of what the day to day work of doing science in the field is really like.  And the book is full of sled dogs and ravens.  What more could you ask?

Related Posts

And on Books and Beasts
Ravens in Winter

(Many of the original photograph featured on Birdland West are available for sale as art quality prints.  You can check out all of our offerings at If you see an image here that does not show up on our Imagekind site please contact me directly and I'll let you know about availability.)

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