Flock of Trouble
The explosion of ravens in the Mojave
is upsetting the balance of the desert habitat.

By TJ Sullivan

Published: 04/05/2005
Los Angeles Times

Biologist William Boarman peered through a night-vision scope at power transmission lines that appeared thick and laden with unidentified objects. Squinting into the twilight, he spied about 2,200 ravens perched shoulder to shoulder across a quarter-mile of wires near Twentynine Palms, roosting after a day of scavenging across the desert.

If the scene seems ominously reminiscent of an Alfred Hitchcock film, that's because the big black birds portend a profound ecological change in the Mojave Desert and beyond. As more humans inhabit the West, ravens multiply exponentially as do their detractors, and the birds are blamed for a host of problems.

"When I grew up back in the '70s, ravens were pretty uncommon," says Boarman, a researcher for the U.S. Geological Survey's Western Ecological Research Center in San Diego who has studied ravens for 14 years. "Crows were in flocks and ravens were alone or in pairs or in threes, but now ravens are everywhere."

The birds interfere with radar-absorbing material used for research at the Naval Weapons Center at China Lake. Military pilots landing planes near the Marine base at Twentynine Palms say flocks are growing so large they may affect flights. Pecan farmers in the Mojave and almond farmers in the Central Valley say ravens eat their crops.

And the birds exact a heavy toll on the desert tortoise, the state reptile and a threatened species. Ravens peck through the soft shells of young tortoises and eat them. A U.S. Geological Survey and University of Redlands study of more than 600 raven nests in the Mojave last year showed tortoises were part of the menu at 6% of the nests.

Amy Fesnock, a wildlife ecologist at Joshua Tree National Park, says cursory inspection beneath some raven nests shows "literally hundreds of baby tortoise shells found under them."

The number of Mojave ravens has grown by more than 1,500% in 30 years, government surveys show. Other studies show burgeoning populations in Southern California and the Central Valley.

Following the trash trail, ravens near Edwards Air Force Base in the developing west Mojave thrive on a diet consisting mainly of rubbish, and smaller populations of birds inhabit cleaner, more remote desert areas, a recent Geological Survey study shows.

"They are very adaptable and social birds," says Glenn Olson, executive director of the Audubon Society's California office. "They're omnivorous and can take advantage of waste products in a garbage can outside McDonald's or pick off a young tortoise or eat chicks in a nest or eat at a landfill. They are out of balance with nature and we need an active management program."

One of the smartest birds in nature, ravens belong to a big-brained family of birds that includes magpies and jays. Ravens trail troops into battle, follow wolves to prey and may even guide predators to the next meal. Bigger than crows, they make a deep croaking sound rather than a caw-caw, and they use crude tools to get food.

Ravens soar over much of the nation, but they thrive in the California desert, sustained by open spaces and abundant trash from rapidly growing towns.

To control the birds, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering a nevermore option: poisoning or shooting ravens in the Mojave and portions of Nevada.

Bernd Heinrich, professor emeritus of zoology at the University of Vermont and author of "Mind of the Raven," says people hate ravens because they have long been associated with death.

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TJ Sullivan is a literary author, investigative journalist, photographer and college instructor whose work has been published in a myriad of newspapers and magazines, including the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and The Detroit News, the latter of which he delivered while working as a paperboy during his childhood in the City of Detroit. Sullivan's writing has received many top national honors, including the Sigma Delta Chi Award, the second oldest journalism award in the United States after the Pulitzer Prize. Other state and national accolades include first-place awards from Best of the West, the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors, the Associated Press News Executive Council and the Los Angeles Press Club. In 2006, Sullivan was commissioned a Kentucky Colonel, the highest title of honor bestowed by the Commonwealth of Kentucky, the home of his alma mater, the University of Kentucky. Sullivan's years as a full-time newspaper reporter were spent at several esteemed publications, including the Santa Fe New Mexican, The Albuquerque Tribune, and the Ventura County (CA) Star. Sullivan has also written for NBC Universal, The Dallas Morning News and the preeminent public affairs website LA Observed. Sullivan is frequently sought as an informative and entertaining speaker on the craft of writing, the art of investigative reporting, and the intricacies of state, county and municipal government. His presentations have been featured at professional development conferences conducted by both The Poynter Institute and the national Society of Professional Journalists. Sullivan has taught journalism courses and coached writers at UCLA's award-winning student newspaper, The Daily Bruin. He has also taught as a part-time faculty member in the Journalism Department at California State University, Northridge. And, in 2006, he was an adviser to SPJ's The Working Press, an internship program for college-level student journalists. Sullivan is currently at work on his third novel, [working title "Howard is Home from The Loop"]. He lives in Chicago, Il.