White raven draws some double takes
SIGHTINGS: Unusual bird shows up in Fairbanks for fourth winter of foraging.

By Tim Mowry
Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

(Published: November 4, 2002)

Fairbanks -- When people call the Alaska Bird Observatory to report that they just saw a white raven, they have a hard time believing it themselves.

"They usually start out by saying, 'Tell me I just saw a white raven,' " said ABO executive director Nancy DeWitt. "I think people are pretty surprised to see one, and they should be."

Judging from several recent sightings around town, it appears the white raven that has been seen in Fairbanks the past three winters has returned for another winter of foraging. Sevin Bullwinkle saw the bird Sunday outside her house on Lathrop Street and snapped a picture to prove it.

"I just came out of the house, and it was sitting on the ground," said Bullwinkle, who lives a block from a trash bin. "I'm a fanatic about ravens, and seeing a white one was pretty exciting. I had never heard of one."

While there is no way to prove it is the same bird, white ravens are so rare that the chances of its being a different one are slim. In past years the bird was frequently seen in the vicinity of Goldhill Road and Sheep Creek Road on the western edge of Fairbanks, while this year it has been spotted in several spots around town. It has been seen almost exclusively during winter. The bird acts like any other raven, scavenging from trash bins around town and feasting on anything it can find to eat, from french-fries in parking lots to dead animals on the side of the road. Art Purdy saw what was almost surely the same bird as Bullwinkle a few weeks earlier in the parking lot of Arctic Bowl on Cowles Street, just a few blocks from Bullwinkle's house.

"It was eating out of a McDonald's bag," reported Purdy, who raced to his mother's house to get her so she could see it.

The raven is more of a cream or ashy gray color than it is white, said Dan Gibson, bird collections manager for the University of Alaska Museum on campus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

"White is an exaggeration," said Gibson, who has seen the bird several times. But, he said, "next to a normal raven it's a strikingly different bird." The museum has just one white raven in its collection of more than 18,000 ravens collected from around the state. The lone bird was found in 1952 on Steele Creek Road in Fairbanks. The white raven in Fairbanks is not an albino but is referred to as a leucistic, which means it has less than normal pigmentation that results in a pale or washed-out appearance. Albino birds lack any kind of pigmentation and have red eyes.

Biologist John Wright at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Fairbanks said the bird first showed up in Fairbanks three years ago and has been seen in town every winter since. The agency gets several phone calls from white-raven observers each year, though the volume of calls isn't what it was when the bird first showed up.

"Most people who call in already know what it is," Wright said. Wright saw the raven fly over Creamer's Field just last week heading north with another raven. He described the bird as "dirty, dishwater gray."

"When you first see it, you don't think it's a raven, because being black is an important part of being a raven," Wright said. "Your first impression is that it's a strange-looking gyrfalcon. If you get to see it long enough, you figure it out."

Mark Ross, an avid bird watcher and education coordinator for Fish and Game, has seen the white raven three times.

"The first one I saw I thought was an adult goshawk," Ross said. "It was ashy gray like the underneath of a goshawk."

Wright has seen several photos of the white raven but none of the pictures have been very good, he said, in part because the bird blends in with its background, which is usually snow.

"I didn't have my good camera. I was so bummed," said Bullwinkle, who followed the bird in a pickup to get a better look at it. "I wish I had a better picture, because it would be hanging on the wall if I did."

Artist Sandy Jamieson attempted to get a photo of the raven two springs ago so he could paint a picture of it. The bird was a regular visitor to Jamieson's house in Ester, and the artist borrowed a camera from a friend to get a photo.

"When I didn't have a camera, the raven would land in the yard every day," he said. "As soon as I got the camera, the raven quit landing." Jamieson spent three days trying to get a picture of the bird, concealing himself more each day. The bird finally landed on the third day but took off before Jamieson could get a picture.

"That's the last time I saw it at my house," said Jamieson, who saw the bird again this spring near Spenard Builders Supply on Phillips Field Road.

Many of the people who call the bird observatory to report seeing the raven say it is being harassed by other ravens, though several other people have seen the bird in the friendly company of black ravens.

"The reports I get are always the same," DeWitt said. "Everyone always says it's getting picked on by other (ravens). "I'd be interested in finding out if he's able to find a mate," she said.