Recently, my husband and I and our nine-year-old granddaughter, Skye, spent a week in Yellowstone National Park. We have been going to Yellowstone for decades and know many of the special and less-well-known places. However, this trip introduced me to some phenomena that I had only barely considered before. We often think of nature as “red in tooth and claw;” that is, we think about nature as a place where species compete for resources, where there is an endless battle between prey and predators, and where “survival of the fittest” is the general rule.
However, during this visit to the park, we attended several ranger talks where the ranger talked about “interspecies cooperation,” specifically, the cooperation between ravens and wolves. The more people observe the behavior of wolves and ravens, the more we learn about how these two apparently very different species interact. Ravens often lead wolves to food. A raven will fly around and find a carcass and then find a wolf pack and lead the pack to the carcass. What’s in it for the raven? A raven usually cannot cut through the tough skin of an elk or a bison, but a wolf, with 500 lbs of pressure in its jaws, can. The wolves open the carcass, but they leave certain bits of the meat for the raven or ravens. This is, in itself, a remarkable example of cooperation, but wolves and ravens connect in other ways, too.
Ravens will fly down to a wolf’s den when the young wolf pups are playing outside. The raven will engage the pups in play. They will toss sticks, they will allow the pups to pull at their feathers and they will tease the pups. What are the wolf pups learning in this exercise? We can’t know, but I am sure that part of what they are developing is an intimate relationship with the birds who will then become an important part of their world as they become adult wolves.
As remarkable as these activities are, what I began to think about what how much of this humans seem to have forgotten. We are almost blind and deaf to the other species around us. Of course we have domestic dogs and cats and we are attuned to their moods and wants, but those relationships are quite narrow. As I was walking around the campground where we were staying, one morning I heard several ravens screaming alarm calls. Had I not been thinking about ravens and wolves, I doubt I would have noticed. I would have “heard” loud birds and then moved on. I would not have wondered what the ravens were actually communicating. They were clearly agitated, and they were also clearly conversing; that is, engaging in an exchange of information.
We have, as our societies have become increasingly urban and technological, lost much of the connection to our fellow species that I suspect our hunting and gathering ancestors had. When they woke in the morning to the “dawn chorus” of birds, they knew which birds were talking and what they were talking about. How many of us even register that birds are communicating in the early morning, except perhaps to express annoyance that we have been awakened by the noise?
So, I am trying to imagine what it would be like to live in a world where I interacted with ravens or wolves or robins or mountain lions the way wolves and ravens interact. If we, as sense-numbed humans, could retrain our senses to the level of acuity that we see in ravens and wolves, how would our world change? What if we really could learn what that coyote roaming around New York City was thinking? What if we understood the raccoons who investigate our garbage cans at night? I wonder how this kind of understanding would change the way we build our houses, the way we design our highways, and the way we educate our children. We would clearly have a different attitude about the meat we eat and the animals we domesticate. We would have a very different sensibility about the creatures that surround us, even in our urban lives. Imagine what it would be like if, among our children’s teachers they could count on a raven and a wolf.