Rare white raven spreads wings

Unusual in Saskatchewan | Most sightings are on Vancouver Island

Long hours on the tractor and too many early mornings during seeding time can do funny things to a person’s eyesight.

But not every oddity witnessed from the seat of a tractor is the result of a foggy head and blurred vision.

This spring, a white raven was reported in various parts of northeastern and east-central Saskatchewan.

White ravens are extremely rare in Canada.

A small population is known to exist on Vancouver Island, and sightings there have been reported from time to time in West Coast newspapers.

However, there have been few if any documented sightings in Sask-atchewan.

Gabriel Foley, a bird expert with Nature Saskatchewan, said he has not heard reports of a white raven in the province.

However, genetic mutations are possible.

“I have not heard any reports of this specific bird, but albinism or leucism is not unheard of,” Foley said.

“Albinism prevents the formation of melanin, while leucism prevents melanin from being deposited properly on the feathers: sometimes evenly over the whole bird, sometimes only in certain areas, patches.

“Although these genetic mutations are rare, these birds are less capable of surviving — for example, it is more difficult to hide from predators — and less likely to pass their genes on as a result, so it is even less common to see one.”

A white raven symbolizes purity in Indian folklore.

According to legend, all ravens were white at the beginning of time, but a white raven flew through a smoke hole in an Indian long house and became black.

The bird sacrificed its whiteness and purity to benefit humanity and bring eternal light to the world. Since then, the raven’s typical colour is black.

White ravens are sometimes known as spirit ravens.

David Bird, a professor of wildlife biology at McGill University, also said white raven sightings are rare.

“It would be hard to put an exact probability on it, but indeed they are rare birds,” he said.

He said the number of white ravens hatched is extremely low. The likelihood of a white bird surviving is also greatly reduced.

“Ravens are black for a reason. White ones are generally selected against,” he said.

“Ravens are pretty formidable creatures, but they do have their enemies. Golden eagles don’t like them and large falcons … don’t like them. If there are any that are weakened in any way, I suspect that they would probably get killed, and I would imagine that a white guy would certainly get selected against.”

Some animals will prey on ravens, but losses due to predation are low because of the bird’s size, strength and intelligence.

Bird, a leading Canadian bird expert and past-president of the Society of Canadian Ornithologists, said ravens, crows, jays and magpies are among the most intelligent birds in the world.

It is possible that a white raven could mate with a black raven, passing on a recessive gene to its offspring, he added. However, the likelihood of that is also low.

Birds are generally less likely to mate with others that have unusual markings.

“Whether this guy would actually mate with a black one, it’s not impossible. It could happen if all the behaviours are right, but it depends on how important that black colour is to a normal raven,” he said.

“I would have to say that that bird in Saskatchewan is quite rare, but whether it’s a forerunner of more to come is hard to say.”

Ravens can live as long as 15 to 20 years. They are also territorial. A breeding pair will try to keep other ravens out of its area.

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