Winter foraging at carcasses by three sympatric corvids, with emphasis on recruitment by the raven, Corvus corax
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Large animal carcasses provide a highly clumped rich source of food for ravens that should be worth defending, yet in the forests of Maine and Vermont ravens commonly feed in groups. Ravens discover baits flying singly or in pairs, but after a bait is discovered they usually arrive in groups. In contrast, the maximum number of blue jays and crows eventually attending a bait is close to those discovering it. Unlike in crows and jays, two patterns of bait use are seen in ravens: baits are used by mated resident pairs or by large crowds (sometimes exceeding 40 individuals). This pattern is unrelated to bait size from at least 9 kg to 400 kg. Eightytwo of 91 individually marked ravens from 4 feeding crowds were juveniles and/or non-breeders. Observations of the marked ravens for parts of two winters indicate that the non-breeders are vagrant and/or they range over at least 1800 km2 in their foraging. Most of the over 135 baits (totalling nearly 8 t of meat) distributed over 50 km were discovered by ravens within a week, and most were consumed by crowds of ravens. The vagrants coming in crowds have (unlike the territorial adults) specific vocalizations in the bait vicinity that are a powerful recruitment stimulus in playback experiments. Vagrants sometimes feed alone, but in the presence of territorial adults they feed only in groups. Resident adults chase or attack vagrants, but mildly tolerate them (and even join them) when they come in large groups. I conclude from my observations that the feeding crowds of ravens consist primarily of juvenile non-breeding vagrants who (unlike some resident adults) roost communally and who vigorously recruit each other in part to neutralize the aggressiveness of resident adults defending prized food bonanzas. The ravens' recruitment results in a sharing that reduces the temporal patchiness of extremely rare food bonanzas, and it permits the non-territorial vagrants to specialize on carcasses in the winter.
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