Today organizations, parks, businesses and universities joined in celebration of Charlotte’s Arts and Science Council (ASC) Connect with Culture Day, an annual event held to promote the intertwine of art, science and history throughout the Charlotte-Mecklenburg area. On this day, visitors and patrons get free admission to local experiences, such as salsa lessons, historic tours, and pop-up performances by Opera Carolina (1). It was on this day that I happened to be scheduled for a volunteer docent shift at the Carolina Raptor Center, which was also offering free admission to the public. According to a fellow volunteer, last year 950 patrons visited the Raptor Center, and we would expect no fewer than 1000 visitors this year. Excited to help share interesting facts and amazing messages of conservation, I took my place at the Owl Information Station. Here I spent my two-hour shift educating the public about owl anatomical structure and conservation tips, using wings and talons as talking-points.
A few minutes into the first hour my boss approached me, asking if I could stay late for a “special project” she had for me. Assuring her that I would be able to stay later, she explained that there would be a raven painting taking place at one o’clock, and that I would be assisting in speaking to the audience while the raven painted. Ecstatic, I started running-through the corvid information I had learned just a few weeks earlier. Additionally, I was excited for the opportunity to see the raven paint, as I had yet to experience it yet.
Ravens are members of the family Corvidae, which is composed of crows (this includes ravens, though there is a difference between the two species), jays and magpies, among other groups. It is thought that corvids originated in Australia and now populate every continent except Antarctica. Believed to be the smartest birds, the intelligence of corvids has been ranked by scientists as comparable to that of a gorilla or chimp. The birds are known to have developed great observation skills and foraging tactics. For example, if a corvid has a nut that is difficult to crack open, it will drop it at an intersection while the stoplight is red. After the cars have passed through a green light and the signal has again turned red, the corvid will return to retrieve the now-open nut. This method is just one example of the outstanding intelligence of corvids.
Trainers at the Raptor Center have taught both a raven and a vulture to paint, but in different ways. With birds, a trainer can only enhance the actions that a bird would normally do in the wild. Pertaining to painting, the raven specifically has been taught to use a paint brush as a tool, in a similar way that it would in the wild. If a raven were to come across a colony of ants that lived in a log’s crevasse just beyond the raven’s reach, the bird could use a stick as a tool with which it would scoop ants from the log. In the same way, the raven takes the paintbrush in its mouth, makes a stroke on the canvas, and turns to its trainer for the positive reinforcement accompanied by a treat.
In addition to teaching the raven to paint, trainers have also taught her to recycle, enhancing the raven’s natural tendency to cache food. In the wild, ravens will often store berries, nuts and other food items, hiding it from other predators and saving it for the winter season. Using their knowledge of this, trainers began teaching the raven to recycle items such as soda cans, cardboard and Styrofoam. This the raven learned in only two ten minute sessions.
Thankful for the opportunity to educate during this spectacular performance, I shared aforementioned facts about ravens and the family Corvidae. The training of these birds and other animals is essential to promoting the message of conservation, demonstrating the unique ways in which each contribute to the ecosystem. The Carolina Raptor Center is an amazing organization, and I am thrilled to be a part of it.
1 Thess. 2:2
"...but with the help of our God we dared to tell His gospel in the face of strong opposition."