KNAU and Arizona News
1:23 pm
Wed September 1, 2010

Search and Rescue Raven

Flagstaff, AZ – Emily Cory is standing with her pet raven, Shade, perched on her shoulder. Her pitch black hair perfectly matches the bird's sleek coat. She throws a pretzel across the room, and like a well trained lab, the raven quickly retrieves it.

The second Shade does what Emily wants, she makes a noise with a clicker and gives her a reward in this case a piece of turkey.

"It forms a bridge between the behavior that I want her to do and the reward, because I can't move quickly enough to give her the reward on time. But through past training she's learned to equate the clicker, with she just did something correctly."

A couple years ago Emily Cory had an epiphany. She worked with raptors and owls at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum. But she was fascinated by the one common raven there.

"She'd play horrible tricks on the volunteers, would get in so much trouble, never forgot a thing, never missed a thing, that really got my attention."

Cory began to realize just how smart this raven seemed to be. At the same time she thought about her childhood in Sedona, where she used to watch helicopters from her house, searching for lost hikers.

"I started thinking, well how come nobody's put these two together? Because clearly birds are easy to train, falconers have been training them for thousands of years? And ravens are super intelligent, have amazing eyesight, and terrain like we've got here, a bird would be perfect, and that started the whole thing."

So she bought a raven, named it Shade, and quickly she was playing difficult games of "hide and seek" with one of her favorite objects, a wooden blue star.

"And soon she was finding that blue star no matter where I hid it. She was looking in places I didn't even think of hiding it, that really were very good hiding spots."

Emily tries to demonstrate. She hides a tube of chapstick under a pillow. But Shade is distracted by my microphone. He cocks his head to the side to get a better look.

"I know, it's too scary," Emily says to Shade. "She thinks we're up to something."

Emily's plan was to bring Shade outside, and teach her to spot people in the backcountry. Then she would work with her to fly back and forth between the hiker and the trainer, with a GPS tracker attached to her foot. But despite the progress she was making training Shade she wrote her master's thesis on her project Emily Cory's plan hit a snag - no one would support her research.

"I actually got laughed out of a couple of professor offices, they would say that's nice but let me introduce you to reality, you cannot train ravens."

So Emily has had to put the training on hold. But her story was discovered by Diane Phelps Budden, a Sedona author who's just published her first children's book about Shade.

" I was taken with this concept of this interaction and connection between what basically is wildlife, when I met Shade and Emily, and saw this wonderful bond, this wonderful warmth between this bird and this human, it almost brought tears to your eyes."

And out of the training, and the bond she developed with her raven, Emily discovered something else. Shade could seemingly understand verbal commands. And Emily had never even tried to teach her any vocabulary.

"Sometimes she responds correctly even when my back is to her. For example, she loves chapstick "

The second Emily says the word "chapstick," Shade flies away, flips over the pillow, and retrieves the tube of chapstick.

"See she heard me say "chapstick," and she picks up a "chapstick," that's one of the things that makes me think that she's actually understanding."

Earlier this month Emily Cory started a phd program at the University of Arizona. She's going to start by studying ravens and language. But ultimately she wants to find a way to put Shade to practical use, searching out lost hikers in the backcountry.

The children's book "Shade: A Story about a very smart raven," by Diane Phelps Budden, is available in northern Arizona at Well Read Coyote and The Worm in Sedona, and at the Museum of Northern Arizona and Mountain Sports in Flagstaff.