Sam Cook column: A public display of affection in the land of ice

You don't have to be human to do your mate a favor.

Two ravens briefly clasp beaks during a break in the scavenging action along an Alberta highway in late September. (Photo by Sam Cook)

NORTH OF BANFF, ALBERTA — We pulled off the Icefields Parkway highway for the usual reason. We figured there was a biffy at the modest pull-out along this stunning byway in the Canadian Rockies.

We were right.

We had driven north from Banff a couple of weeks ago to get a look at the glaciers hanging in mountain valleys between Banff and Jasper national parks. We had been dealt a day that wasn’t ideal for glacier-gawking. It was gray and oozing drizzle. The mountains wore wreaths of dense clouds that swallowed peaks and allowed us to glimpse just the terminal portions of most glaciers.

This is the nature of travel: Your experience in any destination depends entirely upon a combination of factors that coalesce on a single day of your life. You show up. You take what you get. You go with it.

Still, it was a spectacular day. The cottonwoods on the mountain sides glowed gold. Every curve in the highway revealed sweeping panoramas flecked with these lanterns in the mist.


At the modest roadside pull-out, vehicles came and went. It was midday. Under the flipped-up hatchback, I made us peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. We ate them in the car with dried mangoes.

We noticed the ravens right away. Unlike most ravens in the wild, these two were habituated to humans. They scanned the parking lot from their vantage point atop a green dumpster. If one of them eyed a tumbling cracker crumb, a morsel of meat, a crumble of granola bar, the bird swooped down and snatched it up.

They were pros. They missed nothing. When I was spreading jam on our sandwiches at the opened hatchback, one of the brazen birds hopped to within a few feet of me. I don’t think I’d ever been quite that close to a raven. They are much larger than you think.

The two birds foraged independently for some time before returning to perch on the edge of the dumpster. They sat so close together their bodies must have been touching. They seemed to be taking a break.

One raven uses its beak to preen its partner in the mountains north of Banff, Alberta, in late September. (Photo by Sam Cook)

That’s when the cool stuff started to happen. One of the birds would tilt its head forward and down, until its beak was almost touching its feet. And the other, perhaps sensing a request, began pecking among its partner’s head feathers. It appeared to be plucking tiny bits of something from among the feathers. Tiny insects? Dirt? Potato chip bits? It was impossible to know.

My ornithologist friends in Duluth, Laura Erickson and Mark “Sparky” Stensaas, attributed the interaction between the ravens to pair-bonding activity — little acts that cement a relationship between two birds.


When the grooming and pecking and plucking was apparently finished, the pluckee turned to face its partner. In a fleeting movement, the two birds opened their mouths and appeared to briefly clasp each other’s beaks. The moment was over almost before it began.

You can make of it what you want. Perhaps that, too, is common behavior between raven partners.

“Thanks for the preening, hon.”

“Anytime, babe.”

I’m no ornithologist, but I think I recognize a good relationship when I see one. I just didn’t think I’d see it atop a dumpster along the Icefields Parkway.

Sam Cook is a freelance writer for the News Tribune. Reach him at or find his Facebook page at .

sam cook mug.jpg
Sam Cook

Sam Cook is a freelance writer for the News Tribune. Reach him at or find his Facebook page at
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