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Common raven with California desert tortoise hatching in its beak

Raven danger: The Desert Tortoise is Just the Beginning of an Ecosystem in Jeopardy

The common raven (Corvus corax) is one of the most intelligent birds — and even one of the most intelligent animals in the world. It is protected under the Migratory Bird Act of 1918, and it was once a traveling bird that flew from Canada to Mexico following the best of the weather throughout each year.

Regrettably, this once migratory bird has become a permanent resident in the California deserts, and it has led the desert ecosystem into a great imbalance. Some ask why an entire species of bird would no longer be migratory. It is a form of classic economics. There are possible risks involved in such great travels: unsafe locations, new predators, changes in water availability, less food, and harsh weather conditions; plus, flying is tiring.

When the desert was not filled with people, golf courses, restaurants, misters, shady trees, and all the other wonderful things we have added to create beautiful towns, the common raven had to brave migration. Today, they have residential and commercial trash cans, golf course waters, misters, shady trees, and all the amenities we love so much, making year-round living easy for ravens in the California deserts. As previously mentioned, this bird is no dummy, so why leave a good thing for a dangerous unknown?

Although it has been a slow progression toward ecosystem imbalance, we now have an overpopulation of ravens in the Mojave Desert. In fact, some locations in the Mojave have shown an increase of 1,500%! This means for every 1 raven we once had; we now have 1,500. That may seem ridiculous, but in the past decade, the raven population has exploded due to the benefits of human subsidies: most specifically, trash.

The most unfortunate result of the raven’s relatively recent lifestyle change is that they are now a formidable predator to animals who are ill-equipped to survive the powerful skills and strength of this bird. The California desert tortoise — already a threatened species — is one of several animals that reveal the trauma the Mojave and Sonoran deserts are facing due to the raven’s permanent occupancy.

California Desert Tortoise hatchling

The California desert tortoise is immensely vulnerable when it hatches from its egg. The young tortoise’s shell is quite soft, and the hatchling is little larger than a ping pong ball. Their shell remains soft for approximately five years before it is strong and sturdy enough to fend off sharp beaks. Until then, every tortoise hatchling is easy prey.

The common raven has figured this out, and now tortoise hatchlings are living perilously in an environment that already yields low survival rates. The California desert tortoise is a critical species in the desert and can also be considered an indicator for the overall health of the California desert ecosystem at large. Scientists have seen that not only are desert tortoises perishing at increased rates, but other small birds and reptiles native to these deserts are also in danger due to the raven overpopulation as well.

What can we do?

Most outdoor recreation enthusiasts want to be out in the wilderness because of the beauty and the chance to get away from the daily grind of life. The environment, in its pristine and beautiful state, is what we all love so much. We all must play a role in helping to keep our unique deserts healthy and balanced.

Ravens in dumpster

Ravens are attracted to shiny things, such as granola wrappers and soda cans. They can eat practically anything, so if you haven’t seen them already, then keep an eye out! They know that the presence of humans usually equals food and trash.

One of the best efforts we can make is to prevent excess litter. Less trash means less ravens, and that means more tortoise hatchlings that survive their first five years. Reducing and covering our trash is a key for protecting our state reptile, the California desert tortoise. It is time we all work together to help prevent the extinction of the California desert tortoise. Our state mammal, the California grizzly bear, went extinct years ago, but we can prevent our state reptile from following in those footsteps.

If we all work together to bring balance back to the desert ecosystem, then it is possible for us to improve that survival rate of the California desert tortoise. Be an active outdoor recreationist! You can help protect the desert tortoise simply by removing the trash from their native habitat.

Here are some things to remember when you are out enjoying a day in the desert:

  • Don’t feed the ravens
  • Cover your Trash
  • Remove your Trash
  • Stay on designated roads and trails

Go to www.CoverYourTrash.org to learn more. Or, please contact Allison Fedrick at the Living Desert Zoo & Gardens if you are interested in having a presentation at your chapter meeting or would like the zoo to help out at your clean up events. afedrick@livingdesert.org


The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens is a Public Zoo located in Palm Desert, CA. Its mission is desert conservation through preservation, education, and appreciation. Please visit the zoo’s website to learn more about our work or come to the zoo to Go wild and have the best day ever! www.livingdesert.org

desert tortoise

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