Animals: Training Ravens To Find Lost Hikers

Animals: Training Ravens To Find Lost Hikers

Sep 11

A COMMON RAVEN MAY BE UNCOMMON WAY TO FIND LOST HIKERS
By Katherine Butler
Mother Nautre Network
September 2, 2010

Original Link

Ravens are known for their jarring “squawk” and a role as Edgar Allen Poe’s diabolical foe, not to mention they’re frequent use in pop culture imagery. But NPR reports (see below) on another raven that may prove to be more savior than foe. Shade is the pet raven of doctoral student Emily Cory. When Shade showed signs of extreme intelligence, Cory decided to train the bird in the art of hide-and-seek in hopes of assisting search and rescue teams. What Cory learned was that Shade has an uncanny knack for memory, language and even game skills.

Ravens are extremely resourceful and wily in terms of finding foods for their omnivorous diets. Their brains are among the largest of birds, and they have a keen grasp of problem solving, imitation and insight. They have even been known to multitask. Ravens have also been known to get other animals to work for them, such as calling wolves to the scene of a carcass to rip up the meat and make it more accessible to the birds. Their corvid cousins, crows, have also been seen dropping nuts onto freeways, allowing cars to drive over them. Once the nuts are crushed, the birds swoop in and grab the meats.

Cory grew up in the canyons of Sedona, Ariz., often listening to helicopters flying over, searching for lost hikers. As an adult, Cory worked with birds at the Arizona-Sonora Museum. A common raven caught her attention. As Cory tells NPR, “She’d [the raven] play horrible tricks on the volunteers, she’d get in so much trouble. She never forgot a thing, never missed a thing [and] that really got my attention.”

This prompted Cory to consider training a raven to seek out lost hikers like the ones so common in her childhood. She purchased Shade and began to train her in elaborate games of hide-and-seek, all the while writing her master’s thesis on the project. Shade showed an uncanny knack for finding anything Cory hid from her — even looking in places Cory never thought to hide objects. She even noticed that Shade understood verbal commands. As Cory tells it, “Sometimes she [Shade] responds correctly even when my back is to her. For example, she loves Chapstick. She always steals Chapstick.” Cory notes that if Shade even hears the word “Chapstick,” she will immediately fly off and find it.

Cory hopes to train Shade to work in the back country, flying back and forth between hiker and trainer with a GPS attached to her foot. But her attempts have hit a roadblock, as no colleagues or professors will support her research. Nonetheless, Cory is undeterred. She recently started a Ph.D. program at the University of Arizona focusing on ravens and language.

This isn’t the first time scientists have successfully taught crows and ravens to accomplish tasks. A tech expert built a crow vending machine which allows the birds to deposit spare change for various items.

A team of researchers from the University of Washington studied the ability of crows and ravens to facially recognize certain human beings. Those researchers wore rubber caveman masks while capturing and tagging wild American crows. When a person wearing the caveman mask approached the crows later, the birds attacked, or “scolded” them loudly. If the same person approached the birds wearing a mask of former Vice President Dick Cheney — whom they had not seen before — the birds didn’t bat an eye.

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SOMEDAY, THIS RAVEN MAY FLY TO THE RESCUE
By Daniel Kraker
NPR
August 31, 2010

Original Link

A couple of years ago, Emily Cory had an epiphany. She worked with raptors and owls at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. But she was fascinated by the one common raven there.

“She’d play horrible tricks on the volunteers, she’d get in so much trouble. She never forgot a thing, never missed a thing [and] that really got my attention,” Cory says.

Cory began to realize just how smart this raven seemed to be. At the same time, she thought about her childhood in Sedona, where she used to watch helicopters from her house searching for lost hikers.

“I started thinking, ‘Well how come nobody’s put these two together?’ Because clearly birds are easy to train — falconers have been training them for thousands of years. And ravens are super intelligent,” she says.

Hide-And-Seek Training

So she bought a raven and named it Shade. Her goal was to eventually use the bird to help rescue tourists lost in the Grand Canyon or in the rough Arizona desert. Shade quickly learned to play difficult games of hide-and-seek with one of her favorite objects — a wooden blue star.

“And soon she was finding that blue star no matter where I hid it,” Cory says. “She was looking in places I didn’t even think of hiding it, that really were very good hiding spots.”

To demonstrate, Cory hides a tube of Chapstick under a pillow. But Shade is distracted by my microphone. The bird cocks her head to the side to get a better look.

“I know, it’s too scary. She thinks that we’re up to something,” Cory says.

A St. Bernard With Wings

Cory’s plan was to bring Shade outside and teach her to spot people in the backcountry. Then, Cory would work with her to fly back and forth between the hiker and the trainer with a GPS tracker attached to her foot.

Cory was also writing her master’s thesis on the project. Despite the progress she was making training Shade, her plan hit a snag because no one would support her research.

“I actually got laughed out of a couple of professor offices,” Cory recalls. “They would say, ‘That’s nice, but let me introduce you to reality — you cannot train ravens.’ ”

Understanding Verbal Commands

But the training revealed something else: Shade could seemingly understand verbal commands.

“Sometimes she responds correctly even when my back is to her,” Cory says. “For example, she loves Chapstick. She always steals Chapstick.”

The second Cory says the word “Chapstick,” Shade flies away, flips over the pillow and retrieves the tube of Chapstick.

“See, she heard me say ‘Chapstick’ and she picks up a Chapstick,” Cory says.

Back To School With A Mission

Earlier in August, Cory finally started a Ph.D. program at the University of Arizona in animal behavior science.

She’s going to start by studying ravens and language.

But ultimately, she’s hoping to find a way to put the bird to practical use — searching for lost hikers in the backcountry.

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RELATED LINKS:

Shade: A Story of a Very Smart Raven
By Diane Phelps Budden (author), Cyndi Thau (illustrator)

NHNE Animal Research & Intelligence News Stories

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