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Lessons learned from a Covington raven
By Carly Vester
Suk is unaware that he is a raven. His five thousand iridescent black feathers look similar to an oil slick, with hues of deep blue and purple caught in the overcast light.
These feathers repel the drizzle, sending the droplets rolling. He is larger than a crow, smaller than a barn owl. And yet — he doesn’t know.
“I’m pretty sure he thinks I’m his mate.” Michael Cunningham said as Suk rifled through his shirt pocket for mealworms. Suk trusts only a few humans, and Cunningham is one of them.
Suk is an educational raven. He arrived in his new Covington home a little over six months ago and has taught multiple small groups about wildlife conservation, the intricacies of ravens and Pacific Northwest native culture.
When he was a baby, Suk imprinted on humans. In this critical, post-hatching period, birds acquire behavioral characteristics from their parent and surroundings.
“Just like in the cartoons, first thing they see, it’s, ‘Mama!’ If it’s a dog, they think they’re a dog for the rest of their lives.” Cunningham said.
Ravens come out of the egg blind and rely solely on sound. If that sound is a human voice, the raven thinks it should sound like a human. Once its eyes open, the raven begins to imprint on whatever — or whoever — it sees. And once a bird has imprinted, it’s impossible to reverse. This is likely the reason Suk doesn’t know the quintessential ork raven call.
Suk happens to be friends with two resident wild ravens who are teaching the teacher. Cunningham’s expression saddened as he recalled the first time these ravens visited. “Suk… he didn’t know. He was like, ‘What are you birds doing here? I’m a person.’ Sometimes he can sound like a raven, but a lot of the time he sounds more (like a crow.) I think I actually cried when he couldn’t respond to their calls. If I ever had doubts that he had imprinted on people, those are gone now.”
They now visit Suk almost every day. Because of this, Cunningham said Suk is beginning to sound more raven-like, and learning the language.
For both Suk and Cunningham, getting to this point has been a lengthy journey. “The law says if a bird has been imprinted (on humans), you either have to euthanize it, or go through the process to get an educational permit.” Cunningham said. “(About) 99 times out of 100 they euthanize it, just because they have a limited number of educational places.”
And so, the fight to save Suk began. Cunningham was one of the volunteers at Sarvey Wildlife Care Center in Arlington who first received Suk. The center received a phone call from Tacoma reporting a starving, lost baby bird in their backyard. When volunteers brought baby Suk in, it turned out he was fearless around people — a sure-sign he illegally imprinted on humans.
Cunningham and several volunteers insisted Suk could easily educate the public about conservation and wildlife. After all, Cunningham argued, ravens are smarter than a chimpanzee. For a short period of time, Suk became part of the educational program at Sarvey. During this time, the Tulalip Tribe ceremoniously named him “Sak’alus,” Lushootseed for “flying colors.” Though he goes by his nickname, Cunningham hung the naming ribbons outside his Covington aviary.
As Suk grew, he showed preference to certain volunteers, and was severely unkind to just about everyone else. His trust was not easily earned, and he used his beak and talons to show it.
Educational permit at stake, Michael drove to Cascade Raptor Center in Eugene to get a second opinion. Since Suk was physically healthy, it was suggested he become part of a free-flight educational program. Suk traveled again, this time all the way to World Bird Sanctuary in St. Louis, Missouri.
Suk’s preferential personality ended up being his downfall in St. Louis, too. When Cunningham found out the situation, he knew Suk was down to his last chance. “No one’s going to want a bird that’s been passed around from place to place.” He said.
Cunningham decided to apply for the state and federal educational permits necessary to bring Suk home. The process was extensive. In addition to a built, inspected and approved facility, Cunningham needed plans in place. “You have to have your training plan, presentation plan and essentially what you’re going to do to make the world a better place with this educational animal.”
The aviary Cunningham built is massive. Several quail skulls line the outside edge — the remnants of Suk’s meals. Ravens create pellets, similar to owls. Their natural diet includes traces of fur, feathers and bones, and often the raven will cache meal scraps for later. Suk utilizes some large bark pieces for this, leaving a smaller wood chip on top as his marker.
Natural wood branches hang from the mesh top of the aviary and the wood covered shelter in the back provides Suk protection from the elements and the many critters that wander the backyard. Positioned on the back edge of nearly two acres of wooded forest, Cunningham’s “trail cam” has shown footage of bobcats and deer cruising through the yard. Suk also has a small pool in this covered area, which Cunningham plans to turn into a running water feature.
However, Cunningham’s future hopes are much bigger than a water feature for Suk.
“My dream is to start my own facility.” Cunningham expressed. “Someday I’d like to have a joint facility that is wildlife rescue rehab and PTSD treatment.”
Suk’s story has a happy ending, but many wild animals don’t get the same chance, Cunningham said. Not only is it illegal to take wildlife in, but further harm could also be done. The best thing someone can do when they find an injured animal is to call a wildlife responder. And after rehabilitation, rehabilitation centers often can release the animal near where it was found.
More than anything, Cunningham hopes Suk teaches people that wildlife needs to stay wild.
Published January 26, 2017