By Joseph Robertia
Ravens are known for being clever and extremely versatile birds, so it should come as no surprise that they have figured out a way to make a seasonal home out of a defunct home-improvement store in Kenai.
“At dusk, you can see hundreds of birds streaming into, not out of town,” said Toby Burke, of the Keen Eye Birders club.
The ravens began using the canopied roofs of the building that formerly housed Lowe’s, which closed in August 2011. There they huddle — black wing to black wing to stay warm on winter nights — at the west entrance, and overflow into the roofed but open air gardening section on the east end.
“In summer they pair up to disperse and build nests, but in winter they’ll roost. Naturally, ravens would find a sheltered hillside, the leeside of a slope, warm, out of the wind and usually heavily treed, to roost for the night. This can happen from October to April,” Burke said.
However, ravens — like crows, magpies, gulls and a handful of other species — have figured out how to make a living by staying close to human activity, foraging on the leavings of our society.
Burke explained that it is not uncommon to see them at the landfill or hanging out in the parking lots of grocery stores or fast-food joints looking for an occasional handout. And as anyone who has left out garbage for too long can attest, they will often rip apart the bags looking for anything edible.
“They’re smart, adaptive and good scavengers, and as omnivores they basically eat anything, so they have figured out to come into urban areas to eat, especially on cold days. The colder it is, the more you see. Groups of 500 are not uncommon. So it makes sense they would roost close to their food source, and they use things like this defunct store, or pole barns, or sheds to roost,” Burke said.
This bird behavior isn’t exclusive to the Kenai area, Burke said. He is aware of studies from around the state on banded ravens making trips of hundreds of miles to overwinter close to urban areas.
“In Fairbanks they get birds that come all the way from the North Slope to spend the winter,” he said.
Ravens are also not the only species to make use of a non-natural area, according to fellow Keen Eye Birder, Ken Tarbox.
“Whenever you build something, some species lose and some species gain. Even in a place as urban as New York City, they had peregrine falcons — endangered in that state — breeding on several manmade structures,” he said.
From skyscraper window ledges to cathedrals and suspension bridge towers, the falcons have made a comeback by breeding in these urban areas and feeding on other human-habituated species, like pigeons.
The Kenai ravens don’t appear to be eating as naturally as the East Coast raptors, though. In the fecal debris that has accumulated from the store not having employees to sweep or hose down the walkways under the roost areas, there is as much plastic and trash as natural debris.
“That’s one of the detriments of them living in an urban area — they’re going to eat more garbage and non-natural things,” Tarbox said.
As the weather continues to progress toward winter, Burke said that it likely won’t be long until the ravens are using their old winter roost sites again, and in large numbers, but he said that as quick as the birds were to find and use this Kenai roost site, they will just as quickly abandon it should the building be sold and a new store open.
“It’s mostly a night thing, and they’ll pile in there by the hundreds, but they’re not really causing any harm,” he said, “and I’d expect that as soon as people start using the store again, the birds will relocate.”