I recently participated in a regional Raven and Crow census for a local Audubon group.
The city of San Francisco was near the top of the survey areas in Raven density. The survey routes covered areas with more traditional Raven habitat, including undeveloped coastal areas with steep cliffs. There could be as many as thirty nesting pairs in this city with fewer than 48 square miles of area on the mainland. Certainly the Raven population in San Francisco now approaches 100 birds, putting them far behind tourists and Western Gulls, but plentiful and vocal enough to seem ubiquitous.
The Raven has become so much a part of outdoor San Francisco that they are now characters in a local newspaper cartoon strip called "Farley." For the record the cartoon Raven couple are far better parents and wiser than most of the humans in the cartoon strip, especially national park rangers. I have watched Ravens chase gulls from goodies on the beach, go dumpster diving, pick items from the shopping carts of homeless humans, patrol the pre-dawn streets on restaurant-rich streets, raid the nests of Rock Doves and generally become the Alpha creatures of the air. It is usual that the first sound I hear outside our house in the morning will be either wind or a Raven's croak.
Their most enjoyable pursuits are what I have called "wing-surfing." The gang of un-mated Ravens that roost in Golden Gate Park spend much of their time along Ocean Beach, like any group of healthy teenagers, right? In any season rain, sun or fog when the Pacific winds are blowing strong and steady, you can often find them doing flight tricks, rolls, swoops and other aerials games as the wind allows them to take off, careen and land without a single wing flap. They simply use their primary feathers, their broad tails and their inimitable flight skill to surf the strong winds. Looks like a lot more fun than we could ever have skiing or skateboarding.
The return of the Raven is a tribute to their adaptability and some human social evolution. A search of historical records shows Ravens were common in San Francisco in 1850. But persecution and shooting had driven them out of the city by the 20th Century. Neither Crow nor Raven was even mentioned in a 1930 book on birds of Golden Gate Park. Keep in mind that park had an official hunter until after World War II. That hunter's job was to shoot all hawks and corvids to protect smaller birds.
A 1927 book on San Francisco area birds called them "now rare." A 1944 book on California birds said more directly of the Raven, "now scarce or absent in all settled parts of the state. The humanly traditional feeling of hostility against 'crows' includes also ravens, but it is weathered by that sagacious bird in amazing degree; there is little chance of extinction, despite its large size and conspicuousness of behavior and general aspect."
The first Crows and Ravens began appearing in San Francisco Christmas Bird Counts* for the first time in 1946. Should I speculate that ammunition and urban hunting instincts had been channeled into the War? By the 1950s a few Ravens and Crows showed up on each CBC and by that time the persecuted Scrub Jay population had recovered to the point where most counts found 10 or more jays. The Scrub Jay number first topped 100 in the 1987 count. The Crows passed 100 in the 1994 count, one year after the CBC found 102 Ravens. The Raven count now approaches 200.
A final note: the long-absent Steller's Jay has returned to some of the denser park woods in San Francisco, giving us four breeding corvid species in the city limits. Local birders are watching with interest a small population of the California endemic Yellow-billed Magpie. They seem to have established a small colony in a totally suburban area of Daly City less than two miles from San Francisco's city limits. They, too, were once residents here. We would welcome their homecoming.
(* San Francisco CBC territory includes considerable land outside the city limits in San Mateo County. )
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