The white raven has left Anchorage, but its many fans remain hopeful

Thousands and thousands of photographs were taken, and yet the bird remains a mystery.

About the only signs of the rare white raven that entertained Anchorage last winter are pictures posted on a Facebook page, taken before it disappeared.

It’s a photo parade of the white raven’s greatest hits that captured its trickster nature – pictures of the bird as it relished pieces of toast and tater tots – or peered whimsically from a fence top.

Thousands and thousands of photographs were taken, and yet the bird remains a mystery.

Now, there’s a lingering lament, “Oh, White Raven, White Raven. Wherefore art thou sweet raven?”

And while a raven of any other color would be as full of mischief, somehow its white feathers and clear blue eyes stole the hearts of Spenard, the Anchorage neighborhood where this love story began.

The white raven arrived sometime in October last year and quickly attained celebrity status. Paparazzi soon documented its every move. The bird even seemed to play to the cameras and was quite vocal.

But come April, there was silence. The bird left town along with most of the ravens that winter in Anchorage. The departure coincided with the arrival of raucous seagulls.

Wildlife biologist Rick Sinnott has studied these comings and goings. He says it’s normal for the birds to switch out, almost like they’re changing shifts.


“I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it showed up again in mid to late October,” Sinnott said.

On the Anchorage White Raven Spottings Facebook page, many there are many posts from fans who hope this will happen. There’s already a countdown in anticipation of the bird’s return in October. But for now, that’s based on wishful thinking, not any scientific evidence.

The bird was last photographed in town on April 20. On the next day, a photo was posted of White Raven in a backyard in Soldotna, not far from where a white raven hatchling was spotted last summer.

Scientists say a white raven is produced by a genetic mutation that causes the loss of pigmentation. It has a one in 30,000 chance of being born.

Sinnott says given those odds, it’s likely the white raven that hatched on the Kenai Peninsula is the same one that wintered in Anchorage. He says it’s normal for ravens to return to their nesting grounds in the summer or go in search of a new place to rear their young.

Sinnott learned this from a radio tracking project in the 1990s. He says the ravens knew him well enough to recognize his truck. Although they flew away when he approached, Sinnott managed to tag enough ravens to learn that they are commuter birds in the winter.

A day in the life of a raven in Anchorage is spent in town, near their favorite dumpsters and fast-food parking lots. At night, they fly off to roost in tall trees on the Anchorage Hillside or places like Bicentennial Park.

“If you’re sitting on the east side of town a few hours before dusk in the wintertime,” Sinnott says, “you’ll see lots of ravens flying towards the mountains, hundreds.”

Sinnott says they fly back in the morning.

“They come in, and they’re hungry from the night. And it’s cold, so they eat for several hours,” Sinnott said. “And then they have most of the rest of the day to play. It’s a pretty good life.”

But come spring, ravens are ready to return to the wild. Sinnott says they can travel as far as the North Slope or Juneau in search of solitude. He says many summer on the Kenai Peninsula, and their behavior changes with the change in habitat.

Winter, in contrast, is a very social time for the birds — but for now, the only traces of White Raven in Spenard can be found in shops like the Frozen Flamingo Market. The owner, Yvette Corchaine, says interest has grown since the bird disappeared.


“People come here looking for White Raven items,” said Courchaine. “And we have beautiful photos of the White Raven, as well as jewelry, stickers, and plaques.

You can find other White Raven swag, such as coffee mugs, mouse pads and commemorative tea towels. But Courchaine says photographs taken by Michelle Hanson are among the favorites. One of the best-sellers is what she calls the yin and the yang photo of the white raven, soaring in tandem with a black one.

Hanson says her sale of White Raven photos helped get her new photography business, mhPhotoCo, off the ground this winter. It also gave her time to observe White Raven.

“I believe she’s female, just based on her body language and behavior,” Hanson said. “She just seems like she’s a boss, and she can hold her own.”

Initially people worried that the other ravens would pick on White Raven because she is different, but that didn’t appear to be the case.

Some of Hanson’s photographs of the bird and a black-feathered companion stirred up speculation that the two were romantically involved.


“I like to think so, because there are some tender moments there,” Hanson said. “But based off of the age, I don’t think they’re necessarily a love couple. You never know.”

If the two birds have paired up, it will likely be a long courtship, because ravens don’t mate until they’re 3 or 4 years old.

“I just hope she enjoys her life and stays alive, makes more friends and enjoys the scenery down on the (Kenai) Peninsula and has a good raven life,” said Hanson, who also hopes she benefits from a healthier wild foods diet.

That may or may not be the case. Gregory Messimer, a Kenai cab driver, took some of the first pictures of the bird last summer. He said it was seen mostly north of Kenai, learning to fly and find food and water.

Messimer says if you plotted all the sightings of the bird on a map, you would see a direct line to the Kenai Peninsula Borough landfill, which has plenty of restaurant and grocery store food waste to keep ravens fat and happy.

Messimer nicknamed the bird Wind Chime. He says he hasn’t seen it yet this summer. Last June, he saw it hopping around on a cleared lot with its siblings.


“Nest mates would be picking up things, trying to eat them,” he said. “You could tell, the parents, they were up on top, watching out for danger.”

Messimer says he saw the mother feed the white raven, and that the bird’s color didn’t stop her from giving her white hatchling a lot of attention. He witnessed her stroking the bird’s throat with her beak, which appeared to put the white raven in a trance-like state.

Messimer says more ground has been moved in the lot where he saw the hatchlings last summer. He wonders if that caused the raven family to move deeper into the woods, but says if the white raven is around, he’ll probably see it. As a cab driver, he covers a lot of territory.

Messimer also doesn’t believe this is the same white raven that wintered in Anchorage. He says they just look different.

Either way, White Raven’s departure from Anchorage has left a hole in the hearts of many, especially for Charlene Apok, an Alaska Native activist.

“We were able to realize and see something that had been foretold,” said Apok, who says there are many Alaska Native stories about how White Raven would suddenly appear as a messenger of hope and healing.

Last winter, Apok says, she saw the bird a lot from her office building on Arctic Boulevard, headquarters for the group Native Movement. She says White Raven would fly toward her second-story window at eye level, and its visits caused considerable excitement.

She said that someone would call out, “White Raven, out this window.” Then you would hear the “thump, thump, thump” of footsteps.


“Everyone would run across the building to see the raven,” she said.

But even though Apok misses White Raven, she also embraces the mystery of her departure. She believes the bird’s absence leaves time and space to reflect.

Aaron Towarak has a lot to reflect upon. He was one of the first people to photograph the bird.

“I couldn’t really believe it. It was kind of surreal in the moment,” says Towarak, who first encountered the white raven on Oct. 20 as he walked in Spenard.

At first, he thought it was a seagull.

“But then I looked a little closer and there’s another raven with it, and then it cawed,” Towarak said, “and I was like, is that a white raven?”

Towarak knows something about raven sounds. He spent his childhood in Unalakleet learning how to imitate them.

He said the sound of the bird stirred something within and marks an important turning point in his life.

At the time, he was living in a hotel, waiting to get into an alcohol and drug treatment program, but relapsed and was kicked out.

“It’s tough when you’re in your addiction to feel much outside of wanting that high,” Towarak said. “But in that moment, it kind of re-awoke something in me. I felt wonder.”

He also felt the joy of sharing his photo of the bird with others, before White Raven had made its presence known. It was also the first time in a long time that he shared anything with anyone. Addiction had closed him off from the world.

“There’s a lot of uncertainties in my life at that time, and just having that white raven kind of anchor it all,” he said. “OK. From here on, it’s a new day.”

Towarak eventually got into a treatment program, found sobriety, got a job and reunited with his children.

Towarak says that after that first encounter, he never went out on the streets to try and find the bird. The beauty of the experience, he says, is that White Raven found him.

In that moment, he never thought to try out the authentic raven call that he practiced throughout his childhood. He believes the bird heard what was in his heart, but should it return to Anchorage this winter, he hopes they meet again. And whether he makes his raven call or not, he believes the bird will see that his heart is full of gratitude.

This story was originally published by KNBA and is republished with permission.