Common ravens, known in Sweden as the “ghosts of murdered people,” are flourishing in the United States desert — a landscape where Christians believe the devil tempted Christ. Science has yet to address the raven-demon connection, but American conservationists are in the process of figuring out what to do with a problem like too many damn ravens.
A recent article in Audubon revealed that the American West is the epicenter of a massive raven population boom. While there’s a steady presence of ravens throughout the Northern Hemisphere, it’s most pronounced in the west — especially in the southwest’s Mojave Desert. According to the Breeding Bird Survey, over the past 40 years, populations of ravens in the arid, 47,877-square-mile region have grown by over 700 percent.
“Historically ravens were rare, but humans have made it very easy for them to survive,” Tim Shields, a tortoise biologist, told The Guardian in 2016. Shields is invested in the fight against ravens because they can decimate desert tortoise populations: The reptile’s numbers have decreased by 90 percent since the 1980s because the ravens consider them to be a great, tasty snack.
Tortoise murder inspired Shields to found his company, Hardshell Labs, which provides some creative methods to combat ravens. One strategy is to use the TALI TR3 Counter-Privacy laser gun, a non-lethal weapon that shoots out a 532-nanometer green light, which annoys the hell out of ravens. (Whether or not it can send ravens back to hell, is another question.)
Laser guns are now one of the topics of raven-population disruption currently being discussed by conservationists rallied by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who convene in workshops to figure out how to stop the swelling numbers of birds. One simple method, conservationists believe, is for humans to get smarter about dealing with their trash.
Kristen Berry, a U.S. Geological Survey research scientist and board member of the Desert Tortoise Preserve Committee, tells Audubon that the huge numbers of ravens camping out in the desert are “all due to human subsidies.” Standing water at cattle farms, man-made structures to perch on, and piles of garbage and road kill are all invitations for the winged monsters, and the availability of these natural shelters and natural resources has helped these intelligent, scavenging birds increase their numbers since the 1960s.
If tortoise conservationists have their way, ravens won’t keep their hold over America’s west for long. That doesn’t mean that raven domination will stop anytime soon: While their numbers were once small globally, ravens are now seen in far-flung places, like the Mediterranean and the Arctic.