JACKSON — Eco Tour Adventures wildlife safari guide Josh Metten spotted a common raven with a metallic band clamped onto its right foot while wildlife watching north of Blacktail Butte.
Knowing that such bands contain clues to a bird’s life history, he snapped a picture Aug. 11 of the perched black corvid.
Then Metten passed the image to Teton Raptor Center Research Director Bryan Bedrosian. The avian biologist didn’t even need to make out the band number to know that it belonged to an animal that’s long in the tooth, er, beak.
The style of band dated to Bedrosian’s graduate studies in the early 2000s, and it was a type that he stopped using more than 14 years ago. The bird, therefore, had to be at least that old, which would make it the second-oldest wild raven on record, according to the U.S. Geological Survey Bird Banding Laboratory’s longevity records.
Although seeing the former research subject still alive and looking well was unexpected, it’s actually just the latest of several reports that have trickled in to Bedrosian this summer. Another sighting turned up what’s now considered the third-oldest wild raven on record.
Remarkably, Bedrosian trapped and banded approximately 1,200 Jackson Hole ravens between 2002 and 2014, but what became of almost all those birds has remained a mystery until now.
“I’ve only had maybe a half a dozen returns of all the birds,” Bedrosian said. “Interestingly enough, I’ve had four returns just this summer.
“I never thought I would have to wait 15 years or so to start getting readings.”
Although the second- and third-oldest known wild ravens are now technically onetime Jackson Hole residents, it’s highly doubtful that they’re actually anywhere near the oldest wild ravens to fly this Earth. In captivity, the intelligent larger cousin of the crow can surpass 30 years of age, Bedrosian said.
There are likely two factors that explain why there haven’t been older wild ravens documented. One, not a lot have been banded by researchers, he said. Second, ravens wear down and pick off their bands, a product of how much they walk around on abrasive surfaces like crusted snow and talus. This wear, combined with their penchant for picking up shiny things — including jewelry that adorns their own legs — equates to bye bye bird bands.
Those factors make it hard to document the oldest wild ravens around. Given those limitations, the bird banding lab lists the oldest known wild raven as a 22-year-old bird found dead in Nova Scotia some 18 years ago.
The third-oldest wild raven, according to that list, was the Bedrosian research bird whose band was reported this summer. The band was called in by a Washington state biologist who has been working with ravens in Yellowstone National Park.
“It turns out that one of the birds they just tagged is breeding with one of my birds from 13 years ago,” Bedrosian said.
Bedrosian couldn’t say with certainly which bird it was, because the band number was faded, but he was “pretty sure” that it was a raven he picked up as a juvenile back in 2006 at the Teton County Fairgrounds. Like the raven Metten spotted, it was aged based on when he stopped using the style of band.
The local raven dispersing and making its home around 100 straight-line miles away in Yellowstone’s Northern Range wasn’t exactly expected.
“Kind of nuts,” Bedrosian said.