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Animal Natural Learning Tendencies: Through the Eyes of a Raven Part II

July 24th, 2017 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

By Jenny O’Toole, graduate student in the Institute’s 16th cohort. Read Part I – The Birth of Curiosity: Through the Eyes of a Raven here

Like human babies, ravens are highly curious of all objects upon first leaving the nest. Fearless, they get into everything that’s in front of them and, accompanied by parents who help steer them away from true danger, they are free to explore and learn. As an integral part of exploration, play is a big part of ravens’ lives. Though admittedly difficult to define, Heinrich states that according to most definitions of nonhuman play, it is a behavior that “seems purposeless but possibly just because the observer hasn’t figured out what the benefit is.” Ravens play to have fun, not deliberately to educate themselves. Education is the side effect for which the strong drive to play came about. They play with a full range of skills that are crucial to their long-term survival and wellbeing, which Heinrich talks about in multiple chapters of his book:


Raven tug-of-war. Photo courtesy of North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences

Through physical play ravens develop strong bodies and graceful movement, such as: hanging upside-down, digging in the dirt, playing tug-of-war, chasing each other, snow-bathing and sliding. Much of this physical play also involves some danger, referred to as “risky play.”

Through risky play ravens learn to manage fear and develop courage, such as pulling other animals’ tails and approaching carcasses that might be equally as appealing to stronger, more threatening animals. In risky play animals also must develop effective communication. Amotz Zahavi, an Israeli biologist, describes effective communication in what he calls the “handicap principle.” Animals must learn first to have reliable signals between the communicators. In order for the receiver to know they’re reliable, they must be costly to make–attracting predators, for example. Heinrich relates two anecdotes of ravens effectively “warning” people of predators lurking, attracting attention to themselves, but also potentially providing themselves a meal if said predator attacks and kills! Through risky play, ravens have even learned to trick animals out of their food—one raven will distract the other animal, for example, and the other will steal its food.

» Continue reading Animal Natural Learning Tendencies: Through the Eyes of a Raven Part II

The Birth of Curiosity: Through the Eyes of a Raven Part I

July 19th, 2017 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

By Jennifer O’Toole, graduate student in the Institute’s 16th cohort. 

Curiosity is born from one of the most unlikely of places: boredom. I used to fight the feeling of boredom, as I had been trained to do by the media with its constant barrage of entertainment, the internet with its never-ending information and by my own relentless drive to be productive. But one day I decided to try something different. I was trying to write a lesson plan for my 3rd grade science class the following day and found myself feeling bored with the work. I stopped typing and decided to let the feeling of boredom wash over me, accepting that I was bored instead of rejecting it. I decided to trust that, if I stewed long enough within my boredom, a flicker of curiosity would ignite and reinvigorate my brain to continue its productivity. A few minutes later I heard the pitter-patter of rain starting on my roof and my mind wandered to water as I noted the feeling of comfort that crept over me as I listened. I thought of splashing in the puddles, racing homemade boats down drainage ditches and allowing myself to become soaked. I had a strong desire suddenly to relive the feeling of joy and freedom created in that memory and—curious, now—looked to see what weather was predicted for the following day. More rain! It was decided: my students and I were going outside to play and explore water physics tomorrow.

I have felt, during my 10 years as an educator, the forceful squashing of curiosity. Instead of allowing the space my students need to get used to the boredom necessary to discover their own interests and then pursue them, the curriculum I must strictly shove down the often disinterested throats of my students is so jam packed I haven’t the time to get through half of what I’m expected to. My students must be able to regurgitate the correct answers to the specific questions they must know to pass the tests that will determine the level of stress they will endure for the remainder of the school year. The students who fail to “perform well on” the state and national exams (selecting one too many incorrect multiple choice answers while staring at a computer screen for hours is now considered a form of “performing”) face years of potential medicating, tutoring, extra homework and ridicule from other students. It’s no wonder under such stressed conditions that a child’s ability to perform creatively, focused on topics that interest them, is significantly diminished. I found myself searching for ways to nurture curiosity in my mentoring (I no longer use the word teaching, as it implies something being done to the student as opposed to with them), which I found meant significantly less control on my part and much more on that of the students.

Photo of raven stealing food. Image courtesy of Pixabay

» Continue reading The Birth of Curiosity: Through the Eyes of a Raven Part I

Tony Angell is for the Birds: Celebrating life of the Puget Sound

June 17th, 2012 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

As part of our “Nature of Writing” series, John Marzluff & Tony Angell present Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans June 18 at 7pm in the Readings Gallery at Village Books in Bellingham; Free!

A soaring bald eagle and playful river otters at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center on Diablo Lake. Watchful ravens standing sentinel at the entrance to the Mt. Baker Ski Area.  A parliament of owls gathered on the Whatcom Community College campus.

Whatcom County is fortunate to have Tony Angell’s inspired avian sculptures adding beauty and grace to our local land- and cityscapes. These iconic pieces join noteworthy installations at the Seattle Aquarium, Woodland Park Zoo, Tacoma Art Museum, the Sleeping Lady Resort, and countless public libraries and schools throughout Washington—not to mention Cornell University and the renowned Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson, Wyo.

Under the influence of his powerful hands—Angell is a former University of Washington shot-putter, discus-thrower and arm-wrestling champ—blocks of granite, onyx, marble, chlorite, limestone and serpentine reveal sinuous shapes of Pacific Northwest wildlife, often birds, but also orcas, turtles, salmon, salamanders and other denizens of our region.

“(While) I do address matters of detail and I am generally sensitive to accuracy of my detail, I don’t put a lot of it into my work,” Angell once explained in a radio interview. “What I am trying to do is emphasize the spiritual side of the subject.”

Angell is also a gifted wildlife illustrator, and has just published Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans, a follow-up to 2005’s In the Company of Crows and Ravens. Both volumes are a collaboration with John Marzluff, professor at the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences at the University of Washington, bringing together the artistry and field naturalist skills of Angell with the scientific expertise of Marzluff to examine the fascinating, uncanny world of corvid behavior.

» Continue reading Tony Angell is for the Birds: Celebrating life of the Puget Sound

In the Company of Corvids: John Marzluff in the North Cascades

June 15th, 2012 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

As part of our “Nature of Writing” series, John Marzluff & Tony Angell present Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans June 18 at 7pm in the Readings Gallery at Village Books in Bellingham; Free!

This summer, the Environmental Learning Center will be buzzing with adult seminars – from weekend intensives on wild edibles to workshops in watercolor and wildlife tracking, the warmer weather invites opportunities for field learning. From June 1st through June 3rd North Cascades Institute hosted Professor John Marzloff from the University of Washington to share his knowledge and work on corvids, arguably the smartest of the bird families. Marzluff, who has been teaching for the Institute for over five years, continually fills courses to the brim and this year his “In the Company of Corvids” adult seminar was expanded to nineteen eager participants, all excited to spend time in the field searching for ravens, crows, jays, magpies, and nutcrackers.

The weekend began on Friday with introductions and an evening lecture by Marzluff on his work studying crow behavior and information sharing. This evening lecture provided a basis for the weekend’s main focus, field observation and study of corvids in the wild. Both Marzluff and Jack DeLap, a graduate student of John’s also studying ornithology, shared anecdotes about fascinating corvid behavior and highlighted the particularities of the family known to recognize human faces and outwit traps and mazes in order to find food.

Marzloff attracted gray jays and Clark’s nutcrackers to the group at Washington Pass. Photo by Kiira Heymann.

» Continue reading In the Company of Corvids: John Marzluff in the North Cascades

Gifts of the Crow: A Conversation with John Marzluff and Tony Angell

June 13th, 2012 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

As part of our “Nature of Writing” series, John Marzluff & Tony Angell present Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans June 18 at 7pm in the Readings Gallery at Village Books in Bellingham; Free!

Q: How did you initially become interested in studying crows and other members of he corvid family?

John: For me it was luck. My plan in graduate school was to study the feeding behavior of white-breasted nuthatches. When I first presented this research idea to my major professor, Russ Balda, he listened, but was quick to suggest that I forget about nuthatches and join his long-standing study of the pinyon jay. Russ always liked to have at least one student on the jay project, and currently he had none. As he told me about the jays and what was already known about them, I was hooked. Through his past efforts and those of his former students, the flock I would study was nearly entirely banded, allowing me to follow individual birds and relate their past experience and lineage to their current behavior. A detailed, yet mysterious world was open. So, I spent 7 years tracking jays, finding their nests, watching them rear their young, testing their communication skills, catching and banding them. I learned how to think like a corvid, to interpret their actions, and to see their world. Once you get to that point with another blood, you can’t go back. And I never have. I enjoy studying other types of birds and even other animals, but none engage me like the corvids.

Tony: My contact with corvids first came as a kid of ten years or so who also had kestrels, western screech owls and loggerhead shrikes that my mother tolerated as part of my live-in zoo. Scrub jays were abundant in the San Fernando Valley of my youth and they were quick to assemble whenever I would fly my small falcons.  It got me to wondering about these inquisitive birds that were quick to mob my feathered menagerie.  I soon was feeding young jays and it wasn’t long before I discovered their relatives, the common raven that nested in the nearby Santa Monica Mountains. We forged a kinship and I was soon drawing and painting these species as well as taking mental notes on their behavior that set them apart from other birds. I was hooked and soon I was keeping company with yellow-billed magpies and Steller’s jays, as well. While I would pursue an academic career different from science, once I finished grad school I found myself living with a raven and this eloquent bird set my course to study these species and interpret them artistically throughout my life.

Q: How did you come to write Gifts of the Crow?

John: It seems everyone has a crow story.  So, whenever I talk about our research and ideas I am told something new about crows. The volume of stories was so compelling and opened up such a rich and varied life that we were compelled to synthesize and interpret what so many had told us. We did not just want to catalog the crows that others knew; we wanted to use these insights to better compare the world of the crow with our own world. The recent flurry of discoveries concerning how the bird brain works allowed us to use neurobiology to interpret what we were told. Grasping the complex field of neurobiology was a challenge for us, but it certainly gave us a solid foundation upon which to better understand and contextualize what we learned crows were capable of.

Tony: As John says, after finishing our last book, In the Company of Crows and Ravens, we were inundated with new information related to corvid behavior. It seemed reasonable that we would want to share this and arguing earlier about the coevolution humans shared with corvids, we looked to the possibility of organizing this information from laboratory and field around the common traits/characteristics we have in common with these species. As an author who is particularly fond of interpreting the corvid form in illustration, I found that the book became another opportunity to convey or elaborate information in a manner that the narrative might miss. To me it is the marriage of art and science.

» Continue reading Gifts of the Crow: A Conversation with John Marzluff and Tony Angell