Symbiosis: Ravens and Dogs

A symbiotic relationship is one that benefits members of two different species or groups.

Last summer I wrote about the symbiotic relationship between ravens and wolves. While I wish I could personally observe that relationship in action, wolves are too elusive (as they should be) so it’s only the ravens I’m privileged to see up close.

A month later I wrote about how my dog Finn takes umbrage when two resident ravens fly over the yard and house. Being an Australian shepherd, he does his best to herd them away, barking and running across the yard, stopped only by the fence. In his mind, he always succeeds because the ravens depart, continuing on their way, landing in tall trees some distance away.

Recently I’ve observed the two resident ravens coming closer, landing in my field a few yards beyond the dogs’ fence, walking around on the snow and occasionally pecking at something.

This was new.

On December 20th, while the dogs and I were inside the house, I watched both ravens standing in the snowy field. The snow wasn’t very deep, so I was finally able to put two-and-two together: these ravens had discovered the bone yard.

Let me explain. As a treat, about once a week I give the boys marrow bones. They’re marrow-rich beef femur bones cut by the store butcher into sections of one to three inches. It takes the boys 20-30 minutes to lick all of the marrow out, leaving the bone clean. The bone is uninteresting to them, too hard to gnaw.

dogs, bones, snow
Conall and Finn with marrow bones. December 18, 2020.

When I lived in the suburbs I would toss the “clean” marrow bones in the garbage, but here in the country with a large lot it’s easier – and much less smelly – to hurl them over the fence into my field. Most of the year I don’t see the bones, hidden in the tall field grass or disappearing under the snow. Only during mud season – that short time after all the snow has melted but the new field grass has yet to grow – do I see all of the marrow bones I’ve tossed. A lot, over fifteen years! Thus my nickname for that section of my field: the bone yard.

What I saw on December 20th was one raven standing on and pecking at a marrow bone, the other pecking away at a different bone, probably the two I had tossed out there two days earlier.

I guess this is an example of a three-part symbiotic relationship: I purchase the marrow bones; the dogs eat their favorite part; I toss the “clean” bones over the fence where the ravens can make them truly clean. Sometimes the bones are cut so long that the boys can’t remove all of the marrow. I think the ravens have learned it’s worth checking them, just in case there’s any marrow left.

Finn is irritated by this new habit of the ravens. If he sees them through a window, he crashes out through the dog door, barking as he rushes the fence, causing the ravens to fly away.

Conall’s quiet woof alerted me to the presence of a raven in the field. When I opened the sliding door to get clear video Finn ran out and herded the raven away. December 21, 2020.

Conall’s reaction to the ravens has been more subdued than Finn’s. Maybe his ancient wolf DNA tells him they’re friends, not foes. Yet the longer Finn reacts to ravens – or more precisely, over-reacts – the more inclined Conall is to join him, although more quietly and less urgently. Which is the reverse of what happens when they spy a fox in the field: Conall goes ballistic, while Finn might offer a bark or two but mostly ignores it.

If Finn is inside with me and Conall is alone in the yard, the ravens go about their business without harassment. Even when Conall challenges their presence, they ignore him.

Marrow bones are not the only reason the ravens are hanging about.

Conall is an excellent vole hunter. I knew this within days of bringing him home as an eight-week-old puppy and he caught one in the yard. Not liking the damage voles do to the grass in my yard, I praised him lavishly. Maybe too much, because until he was at least year old he would bring voles into the house through the dog door to show me, often still alive, seeking praise and validation for his hunting skills. I often wondered if Conall was part cat. If I tried to rescue the still-alive vole, Conall would quickly crunch and swallow it. Ugh!

Conall has continued to find and kill voles in the yard, although now – thankfully – he simply leaves them dead in the yard for me to find later when I’m pitching dog poop over the fence into the field. I’ve always hoped that the voles he kills and I toss into the field end up feeding some other animal, whether fox, coyote, turkey vulture or red-tailed hawk.

I hadn’t thought about ravens as part of that calculus.

I do now.

For whatever reason – population explosion in voles or prime conditions in snow on the ground or both – Conall has been finding more than the usual number of voles. I toss them all over the fence.

Conall with a vole in the yard. December 21, 2020.

A few days ago, Conall found and killed two voles. I tossed them into the field. Because the snow had frozen hard over several cold, clear days, the voles remained on the surface where I could see them.

A day later, Conall caught another vole. It was early afternoon and I was inside. Through the window I saw the dead vole between Conall’s front paws as he rested on the snow in the yard. I called him inside to get both dogs ready for a walk down in the valley. From that same window I watched one of the ravens fly low over the field toward the house, eventually flying right over that part of the yard and the vole.

I wonder if the vole will still be in the yard when we get home?

It wasn’t.

Because we were only gone an hour or so, during daylight hours, the only creature I can imagine would access the yard to take the vole is a raven. Or maybe a red-tailed hawk.

I’m betting on the raven.

The two voles I’d tossed onto the snow in the field the day before were also gone.

I believe this is another example of our three-way symbiotic relationship – human, dog, raven – although I suppose I’m the least necessary part of the equation since it appears the ravens are willing to risk coming into the yard for a vole if they know we’ve left and the dogs won’t harass them. But I bet they appreciate that I toss them over the fence and into the field for easier access.

I also bet that the ravens wait and watch to see when my vehicle heads down my driveway, knowing from experience that the dogs are almost always with me, making the field and yard safe for their exploration.

Feature image: common raven; Pixabay.

21 thoughts on “Symbiosis: Ravens and Dogs”

  1. Interesting story. I had a Corgi dog that would dig voles out of the ground. She would play with them. I generally threw them in the field across the fence. I am not sure if the crows would get them or not.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I bet a Corgi would be an excellent hunter of rodents. I’m so glad Conall outgrew playing with them; that was not fun to witness. Now he pinches them with his front teeth so they die quickly but remain intact, then leaves them on the snow/ground for me or the ravens to remove.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I hope so! That would be fun.

      You remind me that one spring, not long after I moved here, I was sitting inside, near the sliding glass window. The dogs I had then were also inside. Winter’s snow was fast disappearing but not completely gone. Suddenly something large and dark swooshed past the window. I got to the window just in time to see a red-tailed hawk take off with a vole in its talons.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I am so glad I found this blog. The last cpl years we have had a pair of ravens hanging around. This year I started to notice them for the magnificent birds they are. I filmed one playing in the snow…rolling like a dog. A few weeks ago I found painted rock in my yard. I live far from one could have put that rock there…no human that is. I toss food out for them in the drive way and my yours..bark like crazy trying to chase them away. But the dogs are fenced and the raven just watches them. I talk to the ravens as if they are as smart..or smarter..than I am. Cuz…Nevermore!

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    1. Aren’t they wonderful? I miss my Idaho pair! I’m in Vermont now. There’s a family of crows who consider my yard part of their territory, and apparently there are ravens in VT, but I haven’t seen any where I live. Enjoy building that trusting relationship with your ravens. Maybe your dogs will eventually get used to the ravens 🙂

      Your comment came at a perfect time, so thank you for taking the time to write. I’m working on a book, and for the past couple of days I’ve been reworking some of those old blog posts about the Idaho ravens into a section about wolf-raven symbiosis, and how that led me to pay closer attention to, and develop a symbiotic relationship with the raven pair near my Idaho home. Of course, that relationship took place thanks largely to my Malamute’s great skill at finding voles. The ravens also liked the marrow bones I tossed into my field after my dogs were done with them. (I had to be careful what food I offered them, to keep the skunks, raccoons, fox, and coyotes at a distance.) It’s nice to learn that ravens a topic of interest to others, encouraging me to give it a place in my book.


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