UA researcher is devising games to distract the rascally ravens of Red Rock

2013-12-27T00:00:00Z UA researcher is devising games to distract the rascally ravens of Red Rock By Tom Beal Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

U.S. Forest Service biologist Janie Agyagos has been compiling a dossier on the delinquent ravens that are ripping windshield wipers from vehicles parked at the Red Rock Ranger Station south of Sedona.

She needs evidence if she is to do anything about scaring off or removing the ravens wreaking havoc on Forest Service vehicles and employees’ cars.

These ravens are a protected species and any permit for action taken against them needs documentation.

The birds are also destructive. In the last year and a half, they have ripped out wiper blades and the weatherstripping around moon roofs in the parking lot where the Forest Service also stores its big machines.

Agyagos has documented about $700 in damage so far, and she’s not done with her investigation.

She’s unsure what can be done about it. Employees have tried simply harassing the birds, scaring them off when they pass by, but the birds come back when everybody goes to work.

For the short term, she’s hoping the birds can be distracted by giving them some puzzles to solve. University of Arizona raven researcher Emily Cory has installed a table with a puzzle box in the parking lot.

To get a food reward, the ravens will have to open a latch and, if they accomplish that, Cory plans to make the task progressively tougher, employing up to four latches.

Cory, who wrote her master’s thesis on her own raven, named Shade, is pursuing her doctorate in psychology with this latest raven study.

She had originally set up the experiment on a campus rooftop in Tucson, but the ravens that were habituated to the site were scared off by construction on a stairwell and air handler.

When she heard about the rascally ravens of Red Rock, she contacted Agyagos and offered to move the operation north during her holiday break.

Ravens, the largest members of the songbird family, are pretty darn smart.

Cory said she doesn’t know for sure why ravens remove wiper blades and weatherstripping. They seem to just like the texture, she said.

“The species does tend to be destructive. They are very curious and very good at taking things apart. My raven took all the weatherstripping off one of my windows,” she said.

“They are very, very smart, as are all the corvids — crows, jays, magpies.”

Cory said crows have been shown to remember human faces in studies. “Ravens follow eye gaze and pointing. That’s unusual for animals.”

Cory said she has a few tricks planned for scaring off the Red Rock ravens after she is done with her testing. “For some reason, they are also neophobic, afraid of new things. You can take advantage of that, maybe put up some little balloons. I haven’t met a raven yet who likes balloons.”

Nothing will last, however, as ravens can habituate to new things. She suggests “swapping things out, maybe some flags.”

Cory’s own raven, Shade, is something of a celebrity. She is the subject of a children’s book, “Shade, a Story of a Very Smart Raven,” by Sedona author Diane Phelps Budden.

In the book, Shade helps find a lost hiker. Cory said her master’s thesis centered on an investigation of whether ravens could be trained for search-and-rescue work.

Her research found the approach is feasible, she said, though it has yet to be tested in the field.

Contact reporter Tom Beal at tbeal@azstarnet.com or 573-4158.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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