Alaska bird behavior intrigues

Gulls form a white edge on the beach at the Sitka National Historical Park in Sitka, Alaska, in early October on a rare sunny day. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle Nov. 10, 2019, “Alaskan bird behavior intrigues birdwatchers.”

By Barb Gorges

            Our family lost its guide to Alaska in October. My husband Mark’s brother Peter, a Catholic priest in southeast Alaska for 51 years, died at age 84.

            Peter was an inveterate explorer, from his days growing up in the Bronx a block from 1,146-acre Van Cortlandt Park—larger than Central Park—to voluntarily relocating to Alaska. His extensive foreign travels with parishioners took him many places the last 20 years.

            Whenever we visited, Peter was our tour guide: Ketchikan, Sitka, Juneau, Skagway, Haynes, Fairbanks, Denali, Anchorage, Homer (search “Alaska” at https://cheyennebirdbanter.wordpress.com). Like his father and three brothers, he was a fisherman and camped and hiked. But he also was interested in botany and Native cultures. He didn’t just reside in Alaska. He knew the state’s history, political and natural.

            Peter became more interested in birds after he retired. It’s hard to ignore them in southeast Alaska. For instance, Sitka Sound, opening onto the Pacific, has an abundance of gulls, ravens and bald eagles that mingle with Sitka townsfolk and summer cruise ship visitors.

            Spend time among ravens that walk within ten feet of you unafraid and you will never mistake a crow for a raven again: enormous bills, bushy cowls of neck feathers, bouncy landings, deep croaking voices. And you know they are staring at you, calculating if you might share food.

            One raven I met after the memorial mass for Peter accompanied me to the Sitka National Historical Park parking lot. It chose a dark blue car and fussed at its door, all the while looking over at me hoping I had a key to food inside.

            I’ve been reading John Marzluff and Tony Angell’s book, “Gifts of the Crow.” Marzluff’s study on the University of Washington campus revealed that crows remembered the faces of researchers that captured and banded them and mobbed them whenever they saw the researchers again. Luckily, the researchers wore masks. The original crows taught subsequent generations to recognize the masks.

            Crows have many human-like behaviors because their brains operate in ways very similar to ours. The book is full of technical explanations. Crows especially, and the other corvids to some degree, jays, ravens and magpies, have developed a relationship with people. The local indigenous people, the Tlingit, divide their clans into two groups, Raven and Eagle/Wolf (there’s a north-south divide for the second group).

            Because ravens and crows do not have bills strong enough to break the skin of other animals, they are known to lead predators, including hunters, to prey and then feast on the leftovers.

            Perhaps the parking lot raven updated the tradition, finding park visitors have food. I think all the other cars in the lot were white National Park Service vehicles because the visitor center was closed. And you know that the agency forbids feeding wildlife in its parks, so that’s why the raven chose a blue car. And maybe it picks out people who aren’t wearing park service uniforms.

            Southeast Alaska is not particularly cold, but it is darker in winter than the lower 48, and much rainier, so everyone has enormous windows to maximize natural light. From Peter’s rooms at the rectory he had a panoramic view of Crescent Bay and its resident bald eagles.

The pilings by the breakwater on Crescent Bay are a favorite perch for Sitka, Alaska, bald eagles. Photo by Mark Gorges.

            Sitka’s bald eagles are not as chummy as its ravens, but they have their favorite perches around town. One is a piling outside the marina breakwater. On our last day, Mark and I walked the waterfront out far enough to look back at the rocky structure and I caught a glimpse of something in the distance swimming towards it.

            Neither of us had binoculars, if you can believe it. Mark didn’t have his camera with the zoom lens either. I have better than 20/20 distance vision but still, all I could tell was some brown animal was swimming. But it wasn’t a consistent movement forward like the usual animal paddling. More like the jerkiness of the breaststroke.

            Then there was a flash of white. Hmm, maybe a bald eagle? Have you seen any of the online videos of bald eagles catching fish too heavy to fly to land and instead swimming, using their wings like oars on a rowboat?

            We waited and sure enough, the brown animal climbed onto the rocks and it became an eagle, white head and tail visible—but not what it beached. At least one raven flew over to inspect it. I wonder if Peter ever observed this behavior.

            I don’t think this will be our last trip to Alaska, now that two generations of our family reside nearby in Seattle. But we will have to find a new guide—or do more homework.

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