This spring I received a phone call from a friend of mine up here, whose growing interest in birds I’ve been nurturing. “I just saw some kind of duck fly by, it was being chased by Ravens” was what he told me.
It was unusual that there’d be any sort of duck around, given that there was still 3 or 4 feet of ice on the ocean, and all the lakes were still solid. The nearest open water was up at the floe edge, probably about a hundred kilometres north of us. My friend thought it was a mitiq, which generally applies to one of the eiders. They have their own names, but in the vernacular it works fine for either.
It was coffee break time anyway, so I jumped in the truck to see if I could find it. Longer story shorter (which I wrote about here), I found it and was startled to find out that the Ravens (Corvus corax) had not only chased it, but they had caught it, killed it, and were in the process of eating the adult King Eider (Somateria spectabilis) when I came along.
So some Ravens here hunt and kill at least some of their food. How common is it? And is it just a subset of the rather substantial population here? Consider this. Last fall three Ravens chased, knocked to the ground and pinned an adult Gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus). They were pecking at it while pinning it to the ground when it was rescued. The Gyrfalcon was rehabilitated and released after a short period of time. It appears, at least on the face of it, that this was more than mobbing of a substantial predator.
The day of the predation of the King Eider I happened to have an elder in my office. When I related the story of it to him, he told me that a group of Ravens had recently started hunting Arctic Hares (Lepus arcticus) in the vicinity of our dump. He had witnessed them cooperatively hunting, cornering and killing hare, which they consumed.
That same day a friend of mine told me of a pair of Raven attempt to catch a Rock Ptarmigan (Lagopus mutus) while he was hunting. They were unsuccessful, but to him they were clearly trying to hunt it.
Now I realize that these incidents do not amount to anything more than anecdotal evidence, but after a few days ago I’ve been less likely to dismiss it. Over in Victor Bay more friends of mine observed Ravens chase down another Raven, drive it to the ground where they killed it and ate it. The day before it was an Arctic Hare they saw killed an eaten.
So what has gotten into our, rather large, songbirds? Well Ravens have long been opportunistic. Though widely viewed as scavengers (an important niche in life, and one that they fill very well), they are more than that. I’ve watched them glean insects (crane flies) from the Tundra, and they are known to rob nests of eggs and nestlings. This is a tough place for a year round resident to find food. Ravens are intelligent and problem solvers, it doesn’t take a huge leap to think that at least some of them have figured out that there is a living to be made hunting other animals.