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A bird for all seasons: the case for the raven as an Alaska symbol

  • Author: Anchorage Daily News editorial board
    | Opinion
  • Updated: January 12
  • Published January 12

After enduring uncountable thousands of dark Alaska winters, it’s time for the raven’s day in the sun.

A group of Fairbanks businessmen is pushing to make the jet-black songbird (scientific name Corvus corax) Alaska’s state bird, which raises the question: Why did we ever choose otherwise?

Ravens are, after all, emblematic of Alaska and the way we see ourselves: Shrewd. Seemingly unconcerned by even the bitterest cold. Fun-loving. Social. Loyal. Adaptable to all circumstances.

Given the raven’s abundance of solid character traits, it’s natural to wonder what led to the designation of Alaska’s current state bird, the willow ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus alascensis). The historical record proves illustrative. The ptarmigan, whose most interesting characteristic may be that it can trip up unwary students participating in spelling bees, was selected by those students in 1955, four years before Alaska became a state. At the time, the decision was well received. “The Willow Ptarmigan has a number of qualities which recommend it for this signal honor," wrote territorial Gov. B. Frank Heintzleman. "It is found in all parts of Alaska and is widely known and easily recognized. It does not fly south in the fall as do most of the ducks, geese, swans and song birds, but spends its entire life in the Territory.”

The raven, of course, is also found in virtually all parts of Alaska, is widely known and easily recognized. It does not fly south in the fall. And it is far, far smarter than the willow ptarmigan. Alaska hunters can attest that ptarmigans will sometimes sit still until you’re close enough to step on them, even when their plumage doesn’t offer them any camouflage against the tundra. Ravens, on the other hand, can time down to the tenth of a second how much time they have to continue eating a roadkill moose before they should take off to avoid an oncoming car. And that’s yet another similarity between ravens and Alaskans: They will unashamedly recover roadkill and not let it go to waste.

And ravens aren’t just smart, they’re wicked smart. In one study, they were better than monkeys and human children at tasks related to memory and tool use. They use gestures in signaling to other ravens. And, like Alaskans, they love to play in the snow.

There’s another way resemble residents of the Last Frontier: Many have a daily commute. Like many Southcentral residents, they wake up in their “bedroom communities” to the east of the city, flying in from the front range of the Chugach to do their business in Eagle River and Anchorage. Biologists estimate some have round-trip flights of as much as 40 miles per day.

The best argument for the raven as a symbol of our state, however, is the recognition of its importance by Alaska’s first people. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, “the Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, Bella Bella, and Kwakiutl viewed raven as the creator of the world and the bringer of daylight, as well as an incurable trickster.” Ravens figure largely in the mythology of Alaska Native people across the state, in many instances being responsible for bringing about many of the fixtures of life, such as the sun, moon and stars.

Those who would oppose the raven’s rightful status as state bird have a familiar refrain: “But ravens eat trash.” Well, the fact is that ravens eat whatever is available to them, shrewdly calculating where they can most easily up their calorie count for the day. If they eat trash, it’s because we produce trash — and not only trash, but trash with a good deal of wasted sustenance included. Where there is no trash, there still are ravens.

The easiest path to changing our state bird to the raven is through a bill in the Legislature, and lawmakers should see their way clear to drafting such a bill and passing it early in this year’s session. Unsurprisingly, some legislators have already poured cold water on the idea, saying that they have more important topics that deserve their attention — the state budget, a solution to bridge the deficit, combating crime, the opioid epidemic and others. To that, we posit that a group of 60 ravens (which, fittingly, were once referred to as a “conspiracy”) could likely manage to pass such a piece of uncontroversial legislation while also making significant progress on its weightier priorities. And if the ravens can do it, why can’t we?

The views expressed here are those of the Anchorage Daily News, as expressed by its editorial board, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. Current editorial board members are Ryan Binkley, Andy Pennington, Julia O’Malley, Tom Hewitt and Andrew Jensen. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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