Several years ago, we were at the Grand Canyon during the second week of June. We arrived late in the afternoon, and waited in the dry heat for the harried campground ranger to find us one of the remaining campsites that were still available. Our car, our tent, and everything else were stuffed into a small site that was stuck between two immense R.V.’s. We didn’t care about the location because we were just happy to get a spot. The next morning, we woke up at the crack of dawn so that we could see what permits were available at the Backcountry Office. We had oatmeal for breakfast, as well as some hot coco. After breakfast, I went over to the car to get my sponge to clean the dishes. As I reached the car, I heard the sound of scrabbling talons; and I had the distinct impression that I was being intently watched.
I turned around quickly. Our campsite had three things in it: our tent; a firering full of ashes; and a standard metal picnic table that was chained to the ground to prevent theft. I had left the dishes alone and unattended on the table. The table now had the dishes, and three new diners atop of it. The new diners were three of the large ravens I had seen while walking around the campground the day before. These ravens were some of the most confident birds I had ever seen. The day before, I had watched them briefly, strutting around the gaps between trees in their cocky hopping manner. They had been unfazed by the assorted humans that had waived various implements at them to scare them off; and had not even deigned to fly at such threats. Now, sensing another opportunity for a free meal, they had occupied our table.
I froze. The rearmost raven froze too. His inky bright black jaunty eyes stared at me with boredom. He cocked his head in my direction. Nonchalantly, he stretched out his wingspan. I had to admit that it was impressive. He was probably close to being about eighteen inches tall, and was clearly, very well fed. Once he saw that I wasn’t going to feed him for his display, he indignantly folded his wings. His two comrades weren’t interested in posing for photos – they were interested in scavenging. They continued to step around the table, peering into empty metal bowls and plastic cups. I wasn’t concerned – I knew there was no food on the table. I also knew that I was going to go back to the table once I had my sponge which would cause them to scamper away, unfed. That was my plan. It didn’t solve the problem about animal habituation to humans; but at least it didn’t contribute to the problem.
Suddenly, the first raven seized an empty plastic spoon in his beak. I still wasn’t concerned. At best, there were a few licks of oats on the plastic. I watched him more or less “beak” the spoon for a second before I decided that I was going to intervene. After all, it probably wasn’t good for a raven to be chewing on a plastic spoon; and it probably wasn’t good for my spoon to have all sorts of beak gouges in it. I took a step away from the car, intending to shock the bird into dropping the utensil. My action had the opposite effect: the second raven picked up the second spoon that was on the table. I took another step forward. The ravens - as a group – and still with the spoons - all took a collective step backward. We had a standoff.
I knew that they weren’t scared of me. And I wasn’t sure what exactly I could do to make them scared of me. I also didn’t really care if they were scared of me; I just wanted them to realize that the spoons weren’t edible and that they didn’t really want them. There was also an alternative to scaring them – I could bribe them. I had plenty of food in the car; it would have been easy to waive a piece of bread at them to get them to come to me, and drop the utensils. I didn’t like that idea because it would only encourage their hostage taking behavior. It also seemed a little ludicrous to be more or less, negotiating with a gang of birds over plastic spoons that I owned.
I decided that I would rush the birds. I thought that if they were chased, they’d drop the spoons and fly off. I ran forward. I didn’t waive my arms, or yell, or do anything really crazy; I just ran. The ravens hopped from table to bench, and then off the bench, placing the table squarely in between us. They still had the spoons. By the time I was at the table, I was beginning to doubt whether my gambit was going to work. One step later, I was at the midway point of the table. At this point, the ravens took to the sky with my utensils. Off into the wild blue sky they flew, with my spoons firmly clenched in their beaks. I had been outsmarted by a group of birds. Later, after dinner, they returned to our table to look for food, and more utensils. However, this time I was ready. I had taken the utensils with me when I left the table. It had only taken me two meals to demonstrate to the ravens that I had the superior intellect, and that I could protect my eating implements. Unfortunately, my superior intellect had to eat his oatmeal with a fork for a large portion of the remaining trip, because I couldn’t find a replacement plastic spoon for quite some time.
This spring, we returned to the campground. I was curious to see if the ravens would still be there; and whether they still would be interested in acquiring a full set of knives and forks. My first question was quickly answered. Shortly before dawn on the first morning, I could hear them talking to each other in croaks and rattles, with an occasional “caw” mixed in for good measure. As I ate breakfast, I watched them traveling around the empty campsites with their lazy swagger, looking for leftovers from careless campers. It was comical for a moment to watch the ravens walking in a dispersed line and going from campsite to campsite looking for food. But it was also tragic to watch wild animals acting in such a tame and habituated manner and looking for things that it shouldn’t eat. Across the road from us, our neighbors disassembled their tent, packed their car, and left. They were probably glad to be away from the creepy unshaven guy looking around the area while he ate his breakfast.
Within minutes, the raven search party arrived and found plenty of items in the dirt. Rather than bagging and packing their trash, our neighbors had left it lying on the ground, something that I hadn’t noticed. The ravens, noticed this fact right away. They easily found the abandoned half sandwich and several hard-boiled eggs; and immediately there were seven very large birds pecking and carrying the constituent pieces of food off in every direction. I considered driving the birds off, and picking up the rest of the trash, but by the time I had come to that decision, and made it across the street, all the food was gone; carried off into thin air.
My second question was answered quickly after that. We were keeping our dishes in a mesh bag on the bench of our table. On top of the dishes, we placed the plasticware. The utensils were still visible to the eye; but they were secured in the bag, and the bag was way too heavy for the ravens to carry off, despite their super size. After breakfast, I washed the dishes, and placed them in the bag. I then left the table for to go pack my bag for the day’s hike. As I sat on a nearby rock, placing items in the bag, I saw a raven land on the table. He could tell that there was no food. It didn’t matter. He was still curious about what was going on. Absently, he pecked at the closed stove. He walked around the closed cooler. Then, he saw something he really liked.
He saw the white plastic utensils in the bag. He hopped over to the bag, and grabbed on to the end of what was a fork. He frantically tugged on it for a moment before realizing that it was caught by the bag. Then, he stepped back, and began to size up the bag. I could see the mental wheels turning. He knew that if he could get into the bag, he could have a lot of utensils. Enough for a dining set. While I was curious to see if he would – or could figure it out, I decided that it was better to intervene, so I drove him off – empty beaked. Over the next several days, I saw several attempts by ravens – some half-hearted – some not – to finagle our utensils. These attempts – for the ravens – were unsuccessful. We left the park with all of the forks, spoons, and knives that we came in with. The whole series of incidents, however, has left me somewhat puzzled. It’s easy to understand how animals become habituated to human food. But it’s harder to understand how – or why animals become involved in a utensil stealing ring. Maybe spoons make good nesting materials. Or maybe the raven who has the most spoons becomes king. I’m not sure. But what I am sure of is that people should attempt to limit the amount of human food animals consume. I’m also sure that until the animals around the Grand Canyon get un-accustomed to human food, people should continue to watch the little things – because it’s likely that they will be confused for food and carried off.