Reading and Writing about Culture Everything is a text. Everything can be “read”—whether a short story, a poem, a government document, a journal entry, a photograph, a famous athlete, a celebrity, a franchise, a piece of music, a place or a space (like desert landscape), an event (such as an earthquake), a human body, a human life, wall art, the Beach Boys, a sound or series of sounds, a piece of music.
Objects and Artifacts
- What does the object/artifact reveal about the time and place (and culture)?
- What personal and social and political events or situations led to the production of this object/artifact?
- In what way(s) is this object/artifact the same or different from comparable objects/artifacts made in the past? How have objects/artifacts of this type changed over time? What makes this (image, lyric, drawing) distinctive?
- What formal qualities—textual, visual, aural, stylistic—account for the interest and/or value of this object/artifact?
- How might this object/artifact be assessed as significant or value (or not) given aesthetic or cultural standards of its time or across time, including the present?
- How many people and what kinds of people encounter(ed) this object/artifact? In what context or venue? Was this object/artifact popular or not? Is this object/artifact popular or not?
Music and Performance
- How do I classify this song? Genre, sub-genre (folk, rock, rap, punk). Ballad? Country and Western? Rock and Roll? Who composed the music? Are the lyrics written by the artist or performer or someone else? Is the music a mix or remake? What is the relationship between the lyrics and the melody?
- How do you (or others) experience the music? Is there a relationship between the composer/singer/performer of the song and the person or persons who are “characters” (like the speaker of a poem)? What happens when this piece of music is performed? Does listening to the song or following a performance change how one might listen or interpret the song?
- What is the situation of the song? The site or the scene? How is the piece of music put together? Narrative? What is the story? How is the story told? (A recollection, for example.) Refrain(s)? What is the voice or the mood of the piece of music? Anger, fear, sadness, confusion, outrage, upbeat or happy? A combination? Or are there shifts in tone or mood? How does the lyric structure unfold? Stanzas? Refrains(s)? rhyme or other sound patterns? How does the song/lyric use metaphor or other figurative speech? Metonymy (association)? Irony? How are images used in the song? Are the images sequential? Are there motifs or recurring images or symbols? Is there dissonance (perspective by incongruity)? Is the music poetic? Prosaic?
- What ideas, values, attitudes, or emotions expressed in the lyrics? Is the expression or saying obvious? Elusive? Mysterious? Multiple or conflicted? Does the lyric stake out a position? Does it protest or dissent against something or someone or some idea? Does it work in commonplace assumptions or values or does it complicate accepted assumptions or values? How does it take up social questions and/or identity questions? Consider the song in context: when was it written? When was it performed? By whom? What was the social and political context? How does the life of the artist affect the lyrics or the musical composition? What is it like to listen to the music? How does it affect you? How might it speak to your (or others’) situation, experience, beliefs?
Excerpts from piece I posted last week on S. Mitra Kalita, the LA Times’ managing editor for editorial strategy on her rethinking the types of stories the paper covers.
KALITA: California is a trend-setting place. It sets the agenda for the rest of the country, certainly in pop culture, but also in conversations around race. In many places, California is already majority-minority, so there’s comfort with a lot of the discussion around the [fact that the rest of the country is heading in that direction].
I can think of a number of topics that emanate out of California — race and immigration, health and wellness, technology, environment and coastal management, the drought and the future of water — that are not just national stories, but really pressing global issues. I see an opportunity for us in framing those broader stories through the California lens and achieving audience in our state and throughout the world.
KALITA: We need to open ourselves up to the community, and platforms are a great way of doing that and also engaging in conversations, especially during live events. During the Santa Barbara oil spill, a photographer Periscoped what an oil spill looks like and narrated what he was seeing as it was going on. That piece did really well.
KALITA: We’ve been experimenting with translations a lot. At Quartz, I learned that original content might have a better shot, but it’s an area that we’re experimenting with. For the new schools site we launched, several of the articles are translated into Spanish. Three-quarters of Los Angeles Public School students are Latino, so not having a product in the language of those children’s parents felt like a missed opportunity.
Week Eight: The Profligate Province
Fradkin : The Profligate Province LA River, Destruction and Creation, Earthquakes, Fire, Flood, Violence, Change, Hope/Despair, Segregation, Capricious violence, vigilante justice, “California Trinity of water, real estate, and race,” Carey McWilliams (writer), Mexican and Latino
Institute of American Cultures (UCLA) serves as the administrative hub for UCLA’s four ethnic studies centers: the Asian American Studies Center, the American Indian Studies Center, the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies, and the Chicano Studies Research Center.
UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Visiones Archival Project was a collaborative project with the CSRC, the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture (NALAC), and Hector Galan Productions. The CSRC Visiones Archival Project included (1) the acquisition and processing of NALAC’s document collection, (2) the acquisition of the Visiones documentary series archive, and (3) the solicitation of NALAC member organizations nationwide to participate in the Visiones archival project. NALAC’s holdings document the organization’s role in developing arts spaces and maintaining connections among established arts organizations.
Hector Galan’s documentary collection is stored at the UCLA Film and Television Archive. This raw footage includes hundreds of hours of interviews with Latino writers, musicians, arts scholars and artists.
The Post-WWII Generation of Mexican Americans in Los Angeles This three-year project (2012-2015) involved arranging, describing, digitizing, and providing access to five archival collections that provide invaluable materials related to the histories of the post–World War II generation of Mexican Americans in Los Angeles. These collections – the Edward R. Roybal Papers, the Grace Montañez Davis Papers, the Julian Nava Papers, the Dionicio Morales Papers, and the Ricardo Muñoz Papers – document three broad areas: (1) nearly a century of personal, familial and social life among Mexican Americans in Los Angeles, (2) the rise of Mexican American civic participation following World War II, and (3) the professional development and careers of exemplary civic leaders in local, national, and international contexts since the late 1940s. Common threads and historical connections run through the collections, making for a dynamic resource that goes beyond the documentation of individual biographies, providing evidence for the difficult entrance of a minority generational cohort into civic participation, first at a local level, then with respect to national politics and international relations. Each of the processed collections can be preliminarily researched through the Online Archive of California (OAC)
Anissa Girard : California and wine
There is actually a Vitaculture and Enology program at UC Davis, but I am not sure if that helps you find a question you have about California and its wine. A quick search turns up a History of Napa Valley Wine production but again I’m not sure yet what you find interesting.
History of Wine in America: from the Beginnings to Prohibition by Thomas Pinney.
The Volstead Act (Prohibition) is an interesting chapter in the history of grapes and wine in California. This is one piece in California’s history that would be interesting and would provide a particular historical and cultural focus.
Kate Witschonke : natural resources in California and how their use/extraction has effected California today, more specifically outdoor recreation
Kate Faulkner: National Parks and John Muir or something that correlates with nature and outdoor activities
Sarah Young: Three ideas, one is California Condor
Jessie Myers: Of Mice and Men (1937) The Grapes of Wrath (1939) East of Eden (1952)
Literature of California John Steinbeck
Steinbeck collection at Stanford is not digitized
Ball State University (Steinbeck materials, jounral)
Phil Cohen : The culture of California (architecture, museums, movies and music)
Zach Rollins : Sports
Justin Thibault : storms/natural disasters and weather in California
Maddie Ratcliffe : music about California or the beaches and water
Maryanne Tompkins Women, Gold Rush, 1850s
Topic to a Question
Eddie Dionne : Music : How does the music explain California? What influence does music have on the people of California? What are some examples of music that changed the music industry?
Secondary to Primary Materials (or Primary Materials to Topic/Questions)
California and Water (resources, drought, owens valley, water rights, los angeles, agriculture, central valley, Hetch Hetchy valley)
The Politics of California’s Water System By Will Parrish (July 31, 2015)
And at the heart of this extreme over-allocation problem is the state’s water-rights system, which was created more than 160 years ago. This outdated patchwork of rules and legal loopholes creates perverse incentives to pump scarce water supplies, especially if favored elements of the state’s powerful agribusiness sector are the ultimate beneficiary. Moreover, aspects of the system are so complex and counterintuitive that many Californians have no idea how it really works.
. . .
American westward expansion privileged the rights of the first arrivals to an area, including the promise that the first settler on public land had the right to buy a homestead for a low price. Similarly, the right to a gold claim went to the first person working it. “First in time, first in right” became a founding principle of California’s legal framework. Known as the doctrine of “prior appropriation,” it soon extended to the right to divert water to work a mining claim.
For irrigation needed for farming, shares were apportioned according to crude 19th-century notions of how much water was required to get forty acres of dry soil to produce a crop. In times of drought, those with the oldest, or most “senior,” rights to water would get it first; those with the newest rights would have to wait at the back of the line. “Prior appropriation” remains the dominant principle in Western water law to this day.
Until 1914, California water rights were obtained either by purchasing land next to a river or by posting a noticed claim at the site of an intended river diversion or dam, and then recording that claim within a specified time at the local county Recorder’s Office. Beginning on December 19, 1914 — the start date for California’s formal administrative system of water rights regulation that had been approved by voters — appropriative water rights came via an application with the state water rights board. Today, that authority is vested in the Division of Water Rights of the State Water Resources Control Board.
Calisphere Search for LA Aqueduct
Los Angeles Aqueduct Digital Platform (UCLA) The Los Angeles Aqueduct Digital Platform is a public resource for research and information. It provides access to primary sources that document the Aqueduct’s history, as well as scholarship that investigates the Aqueduct’s impact on the development of Southern California.
Correspondence from A. G. Barmore and J. D. Black of Big Pine Reparations Association to California State Senator Joseph M. Inman, Attorney P. G. West, and Attorney Jess Hession, stating dismissal of Inman, Hession, and West as their lawyers in the action of the Big Pine Reparations Association against the City of Los Angeles.
Creator: Big Pine Reparations Association
Date Created: November 17, 1927
Letter to J. S. Payne, General Manager of Winchester-Simmons Co.
Owens Valley water rights conflict: The Conquest of Inyo
Week Six: The Great Valley
How Things Work
To live. Five for a softball. Four for a book,
A handful of ones for coffee and two sweet rolls,
Bus fare, rosin for your mother’s violin.
We’re completing our task. The tip I left
For the waitress filters down
Like rain, wetting the new roots of a child
Perhaps, a belligerent cat that won’t let go
Of a balled sock until there’s chicken to eat.
As far as I can tell, daughter, it works like this:
You buy bread from a grocery, a bag of apples
From a fruit stand, and what coins
Are passed on helps others buy pencils, glue,
Tickets to a movie in which laughter
Is thrown into their faces.
If we buy a goldfish, someone tries on a hat.
If we buy crayons, someone walks home with a broom.
A tip, a small purchase here and there,
And things just keep going. I guess.
-Gary Soto, “How Things Work,” from Black Hair (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985).
What is going on?
People and places in Phillip Fradkin’s chapter “Land of Water” (167-211): “Land of Water” (North Coast) > Cape Mendocino, Coast Range, Eel River, Crescent City, Eureka, Chinese Exclusion Act (1862) > Humboldt Bay and the US Army Corps of Engineers > English Frances Drake (1579), Sebastian Rodriguez Cermeno (1595), Sebastian Vizcaino (1603) and Northern California maritime tradition between 1850-1920 > California Resources Agency > Fradkin’s point that California has gone from a resource-rich to a resource-dependent economy and “the myth of everlasting abundance” > James S. Hittel, The Resources of California (1862) Online Books of John S. (John Shertzer) Hittel (1825-1901) to John Ross Brown, Resources of the Pacific slope (1869) to William Bascom, Waves and Beaches: The Dynamics of the Ocean Surface (1964) > comment about “California’s Appalachia” (172) and question about economy of region > Daniel Cornford, Workers and Dissent in the Redwood Empire (1987) > Humboldt Times > Ray Raphael, Cash Crop (1985): Humboldt County and “Emerald Triangle”
This Week: from Secondary to Primary Sources
News Item Nevada Caucus on Saturday and story connection leading to Central Valley in California ad specifically the United Farm Workers (UFW) and founders Ceasar Chavez and Dolores Huerta
Secondary Source 1 UFW Web Site: Home > Search > Proposition 187
Secondary Source 2 Wikipedia Entry on California Proposition 187 (also known as the Save Our State (SOS) initiative) was a 1994 ballot initiative to establish a state-run citizenship screening system and prohibit illegal aliensfrom using non-emergency health care, public education, and other services in the State ofCalifornia. Voters passed the proposed law as a referendum in November 1994.
Secondary Source 3: Southern Poverty Law Center on Barbara Coe and California Coalition for Immigrant Reform
Week 5 Phillip Fradkin’s chapter “Land of Water” (167-211)
A project designed to explain the natural and/or cultural history of California: space and place, history, person or persons, social movement or group, representation(s), narrative(s)
A Place: Humboldt Bay Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation, and Conservation District
Artist Cynthia Hooper A Negotiable Utopia: The Humboldt Bay Project
This interdisciplinary media project features six short observational documentary videos and accompanying essays that examine and interpret the built environment of Humboldt Bay—California’s second largest estuary. This project investigates the bay’s natural resource economy and infrastructure (including timber, fishing, and
aquaculture), its transportation (including roads, rails, and ships), as well as the bay’s power infrastructure—including formerly nuclear, fossil fuel, and renewable
energy. The project also documents Humboldt Bay’s natural and municipal watersheds, as well as its varied conservation zones and complicated shoreline.
Each video features atypical and unexpectedly graceful views of the bay, and each accompanying essay includes evidence-based narratives that honor the diversity
of perspectives and experiences that index these compelling environments.
This project clearly advocates for some of Humboldt Bay’s more politically potent places, but it also attentively navigates the conflicts these sites can sometimes attract. This project also honors the many stakeholders and everyday place makers (including laborers, civil servants, journalists, activists, and researchers) that spend a great deal of time on Humboldt Bay and understand it deeply and experientially. With inclusive analysis and steady observational strategies, this project presents a both comforting and counterintuitive picture of this community’s beloved, contested, and globally interconnected environment, and also celebrates and complicates this shared and intimate experience of place.
The Project Examines and interprets the built environment of Humboldt Bay, California’s second largest estuary
- six short observational documentary videos
- accompanying essays
- natural resource economy and infrastructure (including timber, fishing, and
- transportation (including roads, rails, and ships)
- power infrastructure—including formerly nuclear, fossil fuel, and renewable
- natural and municipal watersheds
- conservation zones and complicated shoreline.
- stakeholders and everyday place makers (including laborers, civil servants, journalists, activists, and researchers) that spend a great deal of time on Humboldt Bay and understand it deeply and experientially
Presents both a comforting and counterintuitive picture of this community’s beloved, contested, and globally interconnected environment
Celebrates and complicates this shared and intimate experience of place
“Land of Water” (North Coast)
Cape Mendocino, Coast Range, Eel River, Crescent City, Eureka, Chinese Exclusion Act (1862)
Humboldt Bay and the US Army Corps of Engineers
English Frances Drake (1579), Sebastian Rodriguez Cermeno (1595), Sebastian Vizcaino (1603) and Northern California maritime tradition between 1850-1920
California has gone from a resource-rich to a resource-dependent economy and “the myth of everlasting abundance”
James S. Hittel, The Resources of California (1862) Online Books of John S. (John Shertzer) Hittel (1825-1901)
John Ross Brown, Resources of the Pacific slope (1869)
William Bascom, Waves and Beaches: The Dynamics of the Ocean Surface (1964)
“California’s Appalachia” (172)
Daniel Cornford, Workers and Dissent in the Redwood Empire (1987)
Ray Raphael, Cash Crop (1985): Humboldt County and “Emerald Triangle”
Week 4 Documentation Notes
Purpose The purpose of documentation is to bring readers into the conversation between writers and their sources.
Principles Citations will use consistent an logically sequenced elements, be useful a for a reader, be complete
Book or Article (print)
Fradkin, Philip L. The Seven States of California: A Natural and Human History. Berkeley: U of California P, 1995.
Article (accessed through a database)
Ueda, Marie. “1978 San Francisco Gay Day Parade.” Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society. 10 January 2016. San Francisco. http://www.glbthistory.org/.
Digital Materials Basic template [Item, if appropriate]. [collection name]. [portal or container] [date retrieved] [URL].
“Crate label, Orange County Valencias, Olive Hillside Groves, Olive, California.” Calisphere. Orange Public Library Local History Collection. 15 February 2016. https://calisphere.org/item/ark:/13030/kt9v19q5hg/.
Langley, Christopher, and Osceola Refetoff. High and Dry: dispatches from the land of little rain. 7 February 2016. www.desertdispatches.com/.
Collection database (no specific item)
“Lime Kiln Digital Collection.” North Bay Digital Collections. 11 April 2006. University Library. Sonoma State University. 1 December 2007. northbaydigital.sonoma.edu/.
Digitized correspondence or document
“Correspondence, 21 May 1994, from George Greeott” Gaye LeBaron Digital Collection. North Bay Digital Collections. 11 April 2006. University Library,Sonoma State University. 8 September 2007. northbaydigital.sonoma.edu/.
“Safeway – United Farm Worker’s Grape Boycott, National City.” Herman Baca Papers. MSS 0649. Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego. 15 December 2015. http://library.ucsd.edu/dc/object/bb0752097w/.
Week Three: The Mountains of California
Chiura Obata excerpt from Ken Burns Documentary, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea
The Owens Valley
In 1942, the United States ordered more than 110,000 men, women, and children to leave their homes and detained them in remote, military-style camps. Manzanar War Relocation Center was one of ten camps where Japanese American citizens and resident Japanese aliens were interned during World War II.
Ansel Adams Photographs of Manzanar, a Japanese Internment Camp on the floor of the Owens Valley
National Park Service Manzanar Historical Site
Japanese Relocation in World War II Materials in the National Archives include a brief Background, Resources, and Documents
National Park Service Exhibit on Death Valley National Park
Writing Workshop #1 Materials: The Writing Process
IH American Studies 140
Spring Semester 2016
Mono Lake and the Emergence of the California Raven
In his chapter “Deserts” Phillip Fradkin describes the natural and cultural history of a saline lake on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountains in one of the most active volcanic zones in the state of California. He provides a brief description of the geological history of the lake and then recounts the native people who lived near the lake and then the early explorations of the area by geologists in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, including William H. Brewer and Israel C. Russell. He also mentions the well-known writer Mark Twain, who lived in the nearby town of Aurora, and his story in the book Roughing It “of a dog that attained a running speed of 250 miles an hour after taking a swim in the lake” (qtd. In Fradkin 22).
Fradkin goes on to talk about the lake as a habitat for resident and migrating birds. In particular, he talks about the raven, who he calls “the world’s most efficient predators and scavengers” (22).
The raven is among the most adaptable birds and they have long been a central character in North American Indian myth. The raven is both a creator and a trickster who determines many of the conditions that sustain (and complicate) human lives. The presence of the raven in the California desert is intimately bound up with human presence. As people began to settle in the desert so too did the raven. “Between 1968 and 1988,” explains Fradkin, “there was a 1,528 percent increase in the number of ravens in the Mohave desert” alone” (24). As it happens, the population explosion in the desert is part of state-wide emergence of this amazing black bird.
According to the journalist Joe Eaton,
In Eaton’s “The Raven Returns: Evermore than Before,” moreover, he talks about how. . . .
Fradkin Source Notes 405
Joe Eaton. “California Ravens: A Unique and complex Species. The Berkeley Daily Planet. 28 February 2006.
Given all that, though, there may be something different about California ravens. Ravens occur all through the Northern Hemisphere, south to Nicaragua, India, and North Africa, and all the populations looks pretty much alike, with minor variations in size. But as it turns out, that uniform appearance masks a deep genetic faultline.
A few years ago, a group of biologists including William Boarman of the U.S. Geological Survey and John Marzluff at the University of Washington compared mitochondrial DNA samples from 72 ravens, collected throughout the species’ range. The specimens sorted into two lineages, or clades: a California clade and a Holarctic clade for the rest of North America, plus Eurasia, with a 5 percent genetic difference between them. “We have found that ravens from Minnesota, Maine, and Alaska are more similar to ravens from Asia and Europe than they are to ravens from California,” said Boarman. He speculated that the split may date back to two million years ago, when the ancestral California population was separated by glaciers from ravens in the rest of the continent. That scenario would be consistent with the evolutionary history of other North American birds, including the California-endemic yellow-billed magpie and the more widespread black-billed magpie.
Boarman and his colleagues weren’t ready to call the California raven a new species. There’s a wide zone of overlap between the two clades in the Great Basin, from Washington and Idaho down to northeastern California, and it’s not clear whether Holarctic-clade and California-clade ravens are interbreeding there. If so, the two clades may be dissolving into a common gene pool. But if they’re not, that would mean the two groups are acting like distinct species, with some kind of behavioral barrier as an isolating mechanism. Maybe it’s vocal (Holarctic-clade ravens just sound wrong to California-clade birds?), or a subtle difference in habitat preference.
So the jury is still out on the species issue, pending more research in the contact zone. It’s remarkable how much there still is to learn about this widespread and well-studied bird. Maybe someday science will even be able to account for that fear of carrots.
Joe Eaton. “The Raven Returns: Evermore than Before.” Bay Nature: An Exploration of Nature in the San Francisco Bay Area https://baynature.org/articles/the-raven-returns/. Web.
. . .
Not long ago, ravens would have been an exceptional find in the Berkeley flatlands where I live, or in San Francisco’s Financial District, where I’ve seen them negotiating the high-rise canyons. How did these spirits of the wilderness become urbanites, our everyday neighbors?
Corvus corax, the common raven, is a bird of superlatives and paradoxes. With its 2.5-pound bulk and 53-inch wingspan, it’s the biggest North American member of the orderPasseriformes, the perching birds. It’s also the world’s most widespread passerine species, ranging from the high Arctic to Nicaragua, North Africa, and India. Once rare over much of their California range, these adaptable birds are now abundant enough to be a relatively common sight throughout the Bay Area and even to pose a threat to the survival of some rarer species.
. . .
The modern raven is known to have been present in the North American Pleistocene (1.8 million to 10,000 years ago). Ravens are among the most common bird species in the Rancho La Brea fossil deposits in Southern California, which range from 40,000 to 10,000 years in age. They shadowed wolves, bears, and other predators and followed the bison herds. When human hunters made their first kill on North American soil, ravens were waiting for their share.
California’s ravens are enjoying prosperous times now, but they’ve had their ups and downs. During the Gold Rush era, ravens were a common sight along the coast road between San Francisco and San Mateo. But by the 1920s, W. Leon Dawson described them as “almost disappearing from the more thickly settled regions,” and Joseph Grinnell said they were rare in the Bay Area except for Point Reyes and the Sonoma coast. Lacking hard data, we can only speculate as to causes for this decline. Ravens may have been shot as vermin, as crows and jays were; and the decimation of Native Californian hunting cultures, the extinction of the California grizzly, and the overexploitation of marine mammals may have reduced the availability of carcasses for scavenging.
It’s a different story today. Using data from the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Counts, Charles Coston of the San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory in Alviso looked at population trends for ravens, crows, and jays from 1966 through 1997 in four Bay Area count circles: Oakland, Palo Alto, San Jose, and Crystal Springs Reservoir. While jay populations appeared stable, those of ravens and crows were different. “Since the early 1980s the raven population has exploded,” Coston concluded. “The most telling trend is for ravens in Oakland and Palo Alto. Rare before the middle 1970s, they are now routine. Something changed.”…
That jibes with my own review of Christmas Count results for a shorter period, with 1983—the year the San Francisco count was revived—as a baseline. Point Reyes and western Sonoma County, the raven’s historic strongholds, did not show major fluctuations. But San Francisco went from 14 ravens in 1983 to 239 in 1999, while Oakland went from 5 to 101. Areas reporting no ravens, or only one or two, at the beginning of the period had them in double digits toward the end.
Coston also reported a dramatic jump in Bay Area crow populations within the last decade, and the most recent Point Reyes count had record highs for both crows and ravens. If these close relatives are competing for the same resources, so far there seems to be enough to go around. Ornithologist William Boarman, who studies ravens in Southern California, says the raven boom there doesn’t appear to be adversely affecting either crows or hawks and other raptors.
The local ravens are not just passing through; they’ve become year-round residents. Nesting has been confirmed in all Bay Area counties, including San Francisco. Breeding Bird Survey data parallels Christmas Count trends, with increases of more than 10 percent per year for some roadside survey routes. Bay Area ravens use varied nest sites, from coastal cliffs and sea stacks to the NASA wind tunnel structure and the Shoreline Amphitheatre in the South Bay. Reporting on a 1999 survey, John P. Kelly, director of research and resource management at Audubon Canyon Ranch in Bolinas, concluded: “Concentrated raven use of coastal and agricultural areas is matched by their ability to exploit the most urbanized habitats surrounding San Francisco Bay.”
What’s fueling the boom? Garbage, in part. Ravens, with their taste for carrion, learned to take advantage of human-related food sources, from battlefields to slaughterhouses, in medieval Europe, becoming common urban scavengers. In North America, where urbanization occurred much later, ravens have recently made the adaptive shift from wilderness to a landscape transformed by human activity. Modern landfills have been a bonanza. Boarman says these cornucopias of garbage, along with roadside rest areas, farm fields, and sewage ponds, provide year-round food and water sources for desert ravens. In cities, they’ve discovered Dumpsters, open trash cans, and school yards.
“Ravens will go a long way for human foods,” ornithologist John Marzluff told me, “and I think this primarily increases their numbers by increasing the survival of young birds.” In Washington, he has documented survival rates that are higher close to towns and campsites than in wilderness areas. “Ravens can . . . pump out four to seven young per pair per year,” Marzluff continued. And young birds wander widely, pioneering new areas. Ravens banded by Bernd Heinrich in Maine were found later as far away as New Brunswick, New Jersey, and Buffalo, New York.
Garbage-fed ravens don’t abandon their predatory ways. They’re formidable birds, capable of killing seal pups, reindeer calves, and lambs (Sonoma County sheep ranchers once lobbied—unsuccessfully—to have the local ravens exterminated). And they’ll take a wide range of prey: mammals, reptiles, other birds. Kelly watched one raven tackle a running ground squirrel, and Robin Smith of the Sequoia Audubon Society saw a pair try to force a great horned owl off its nest to get at the owlets.
Where they’ve come to rely on landfills and similar sources, ravens are what ecologist Michael Soule calls “subsidized predators,” with populations far exceeding the normal carrying capacity of their habitat. This multiplies their pressure on the prey population base; and when the prey is an endangered species, the raven boom becomes a dilemma for wildlife managers.
Boarman’s Mojave ravens feed on juvenile desert tortoises and may be threatening that species’ survival. In the Pacific Northwest, raven predation on marbled murrelet chicks is a growing concern. Bay Area ravens have raided the sea cliff colonies of the common murre and the treetop egret nests at Audubon Canyon Ranch; and San Francisco birder Dan Murphy says they’ve been checking out the bank swallow colony at Fort Funston. Most vulnerable in our region, though, is the endangered western snowy plover, a small beach-nesting shorebird.
Raven predation on snowy plovers isn’t new, but the long-term increase in raven numbers in western Marin County—combined with the loss of snowy plover habitat in other locations—has put the shorebirds there at serious risk. At Point Reyes National Seashore, snowy plovers lost more than two-thirds of their eggs and nestlings to ravens in the 1995 season. Beginning the following year, Point Reyes Bird Observatory volunteers and National Park Service staff placed protective enclosures around plover nests, and the shorebirds began to rebound. PRBO then launched an intensive raven study.
In her Point Reyes study area, PRBO biologist Jennifer Roth has equipped 16 ravens with lightweight transmitters. Tracking their movements has revealed two discrete groups with different behavioral patterns. While breeding pairs stick to home ranges of a few square kilometers, flocks of younger nonbreeders patrol larger areas on both sides of Tomales Bay. Nonbreeders may pair off, but stay with the flock until a nesting territory opens up. Once the pair bond forms, it’s for life, although a lost partner is quickly replaced. Roth estimated the Point Reyes raven population to be about 285, including 13 nesting pairs. The distinction between territory-holding breeding pairs and roving nonbreeders has also been observed by Heinrich in the Maine wilderness and Murphy in San Francisco, where the nonbreeders hang out along Ocean Beach.
Social relationships among ravens are complex and imperfectly documented. In a recent summary of research, Heinrich and Boarman described our current understanding of ravens’ life history and behavior, including how they claim and defend territory, as “woefully inadequate.” Studies in Europe relate the size and spacing of territories to food resources. Interactions between holders of adjacent territories range from talon-grappling boundary clashes to cordial neighborly visits. Heinrich found in his Maine studies that nonbreeders ganged up to gain access to food in the territories of breeding pairs, with a dominant flock member recruiting other ravens to the effort via a distinctive “yell.”
Sharing a long-term communal roost near Drake’s Estero, the more numerous nonbreeders at Point Reyes also establish temporary bases near major food sources. In the National Seashore, that means dairy ranches. “They’ll get down in the trough and eat cracked corn with the cattle,” Roth said. The ranches also provide carrion: “Calving areas are really popular.”
Reducing raven impact on snowy plovers will be a tricky business, Roth conceded. The removal of individual predators would only be a temporary solution. To keep raven numbers in check in the National Seashore, ranchers will need to end or minimize the free lunch.
At the Audubon Canyon Ranch heronry on Bolinas Lagoon, John Kelly deals with a pair of known offenders. They moved in eight years ago, scavenging around the colony. “Then in 1998 we suffered heavy predation by the resident pair,” Kelly said. “All the great egret nests in the colony failed.” Although the last few years have not been as bad, there’s still concern that the egrets might abandon their nest sites. The ravens don’t go after eggs unless another predator—an eagle or raccoon—rousts the adult egrets off their nests. Instead, they kill chicks when, about three weeks after hatching, both parents leave them un-attended to forage. The great blue herons, “bigger and meaner,” are less vulnerable. Kelly also mentioned that ravens have taken adult snowy egrets at another heronry on the Marin Islands.
Both Roth and Kelly have learned to respect raven intelligence. “We have to bait for quite a while before we trap them,” Roth told me. “We go to great lengths: hiding the traps, hiding ourselves, starting before dawn. It’s difficult to outsmart them. They really key into the landscape.” That ability may explain their success in colonizing diverse habitats, including farmland and cities, and exploiting novel food sources.
Just how sophisticated is raven cognition? In a famous experiment with captives in Maine, Heinrich demonstrated that ravens can size up a problem—how to get at a tasty slice of salami suspended from a perch by a string—and solve it by apparent insight rather than trial and error. Heinrich’s crow subjects never got it. Ravens’ food-caching behavior shows an ability to anticipate the moves of other individuals. “Ravens hide food purposefully out of sight of others,” he explained. “They appear to know other ravens will raid their caches.”
When Heinrich spoke of ravens having local dialects and traditions, I asked if it would be a stretch to think of them as having culture, which can be broadly defined as a nongenetic way of instilling behavior. “I don’t think it’s a stretch at all,” he replied. Young ravens stay with their parents for up to three months, plenty of time to learn foraging techniques by observation. Innovations could be passed from one generation to the next. This may sound far-fetched, but then ravens are no ordinary birds.
Their huge vocabulary, from croaks and screams to a semimusical warble, suggests they have a great deal to say to each other. And they’re uncanny mimics (Heinrich trained one to say “Nevermore”). Play may also correlate with intelligence. It’s hard to watch a raven pair’s tandem aerobatics without sensing an exuberance, a delight in flying for flight’s sake. Ravens have been observed playing catch, tobogganing down snow-covered hills, and pulling the tails of wolves and dogs. As adolescents they’re insatiably curious, deconstructing anything that might conceal food, including parked cars and grounded aircraft.
It all adds up to a behavioral flexibility rare in birds. Ravens are what evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr calls “open-program” animals. Much of what they do is not hardwired; they learn it by exploring their environment and watching elders and peers. And an important part of that environment is social: the flock’s hierarchy, the pair next door, even the predators who lead them to food. Social complexity may drive the evolution of big brains; and as Heinrich writes in his book Mind of the Raven, “Social complexity increases inordinately when individual recognition becomes possible and the animal tracks not just others, but myriad specificothers.”
Is this beginning to sound familiar? “Several features of the raven’s life history and ecology are comparable to those of the hominids’,” Heinrich writes. To some degree the human mind and the mind of the raven may be convergent, shaped by similar selective forces. It may just be that ravens thrive in the world we’ve made because, cognitively speaking, they’re a bit like us. California’s ravens may have lost the first round in their encounter with modern civilization, but these intelligent, opportunistic birds are back—and it looks as if they’re here to stay, adding a touch of wildness to our urban lives.
William H. Brewer, Up and Down California
Mark Twain, Roughing it
Bernd Heinrich, Mind of the Raven
Barry Lopez, Desert Notes
Digital Desert http://digital-desert.com/wildlife/raven.html
Mohave Desert Land Trust (discussion of the “Rave Invasion” and the effect of human detritus on the population)
USGS Scientific essay “Scientists Estimate Risk of Raven Predation on Desert Tortoises in the Western Mojave Desert” http://www.usgs.gov/newsroom/article.asp?ID=160#.VqpcphgrJBw/
Raven as cultural presence (indigenous cultures, anthropology, appropriation of mythology, new age philosophy)
Music Jonathan Wilson Album: Gentle Spirit (2011) Song: Desert Raven. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sc29Qrx67fE
Film The Desert Raven (1965) also known as Fly, Raven, Fly. Director Alan S. Lee (Soundtrack/music by Richard La Salle)
Synopsis (http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/72838/The-Desert-Raven/full-synopsis.html) A gang of outlaws, among them Bert, the leader; trigger man Ed Crane; stripper Margo; and the youth Reggie, flees to the desert after robbing and killing a wealthy old woman. When Ed kills a gas station attendant, the gang takes cover in the shack of an alcoholic who has been killed by his Indian wife, Rena, for making advances toward his stepdaughter, Raven. Discovering the husband’s body, the thieves force the women to hide them. Having fallen in love, Reggie and Raven plan to expose the gang and return the stolen money. During a gun battle with the authorities, Bert is killed while trying to escape, and Raven loses her mother. Raven accepts a reward, which she will share with Reggie when he is released from prison.