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A Naturalist's Notebook

article spread
by John Schmitt
Illustrations by John Schmitt

Learning to fly

June 2009 Wofford Heights, Kern River Valley Kern County, California

This has been the ninth spring that a pair of Common Ravens has fledged a new crop of young from a nest high in a large gray pine across the canyon from us. The onset of the three young ravens’ fledging this year was heralded by nervous croakings from the generally quiet parents, as they fussed over the usual mishaps that befall the youngsters in their first efforts at flight.

Once they fledge, we are treated to ten to fourteen days of the trials and triumphs of the young ravens as they gain strength and flying skills, using wing and tail feathers that are still growing. I am always impressed by how quickly they improve during the first few days. Even before their underwing coverts have grown in and covered their bare skin and the bases of their wing feathers, the young birds engage in short bouts of soaring on their stubby wings and tails. But as in generations of ravens before them, their landing skills lag well behind their flying skills, and are often rather desperate-looking affairs.

On one occasion, after flying confidently for a time over the canyon, a young raven targeted one of our gray pines for a landing. It crashed through the foliage into the interior of the tree, where it thrashed, tumbled, bumped, and bounced fifteen feet down through the tangle of branches to the slope below, like a steel ball-bearing bouncing in an old pinball machine. Far from being hurt by the fall, the youngster simply resumed flying after glancing off the slanting duff, as if it had all been part of its plan!

Another time, a young raven came thrashing in for a landing on a branch six feet above us, and again came flailing and tumbling down through the foliage and branches, plopping to the ground between us. In the instant before it launched away in frantic flight, the young raven’s look of confusion was replaced by a sharp and anxious awareness of its near proximity to us.

After a week or so, all the young ravens are making much more controlled landings. But even after they mature enough to be difficult to distinguish from their parents by silhouette or flight skills, an awkward landing on a poorly chosen perch often betrays a young raven’s “in-training” status.

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Living Bird Magazine

Winter 2010

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More Artwork

See more of John Schmitt's Naturalist Notebook artwork in these columns: