A Little Help from My Feathered Friends

November 10, 2021 Posted by: Sherrin Vanstrom
A Little Help from My Feathered Friends…
Vigilance, strategy and a few helpful birds might reduce bear confrontations when walking the Brooks Falls trail

It is my first day working the platforms as a volunteer in 2019 and while roving the Brooks Falls trail, I am alert for signs of bears.  Observing safety protocols, I talk to myself whenever I’m alone: “I am a human being on the trail” or sing the occasional tune, “Hey there, hi there, ho there bear; is there a bear anywhere?” I’m hoping, of course, that there will be no bears on or near the trail.

It is .5 miles from the trailhead to the gated entrance that leads to the Falls Platform.  Most of the landscape is flat, with occasional curves and, though trees abound, the light easily filters through the canopy.  A short distance from the gate, however, trees are closer to each other, and closer to the trail, allowing less light to penetrate their branches.  My heart rate picks up.  This part of the trail feels mysterious, full of the promise of BEARS.  Reduced visibility due to curves in the trail, increases the risk of encountering a bear before reaching the protection of the walkway, and my anticipation and vigilance are fully engaged while I scan the surrounding area for bears and escape routes.

A trail with trees and tall grass on either side
A short distance from the gate, the Brooks Falls Trail feels mysterious, with the promise of BEARS. Photo courtesy S. Vanstrom

As the gate comes into view, the sky appears again, because many of the spruce trees have lost branches to a beetle infestation. Here the ground rises to my left, and drops toward Brooks River on my right.   At this point I am greeted by Black-billed Magpies, Pica hudsonia.  Members of the corvid family, which includes jays, crows and ravens, these highly intelligent birds are recognizable by their ‘tuxedo’ appearance and their very long tail.  I greet them and they seem to answer back.  Our “conversation” is very friendly until, about 40 feet from the gate, their tone changes, sounding urgent, even frantic.  The magpies have also flown from the ground and joined others already perched in the trees, calling out loudly.  Continuing on, I begin to think something must be wrong to make the magpies behave this way, though I don’t think they are reacting to me.  I scan the top of the hill and, slightly behind me, I see fluffy blond ears descending through the vegetation.  I’m fairly certain the magpies are reacting to the bear I now see.

A magpie in a tree
Black-billed Magpie, pica hudsonia – NPS Photo/A. Willingham

A gate at the end of a trail

Bears and magpies can be found near the gate to the elevated walkway. Photo courtesy S. Vanstrom

I swiftly cover the last few yards to the gate and slide the latch, gaining entrance to an area bears cannot access, then quickly secure the gate behind me.  Separated from the bear, I take a few steps up the ramp before confirming it hasn’t executed a “Fosbury Flop” over the gate and joined me.  No, the bear (a subadult, I believe) has just reached the bottom of the hill and pauses, wearing a “Shucks, I just wanted to play” sort of look, before striding down through the vegetation on the other side of the trail.  It’s probably headed towards the river to seek out willing play partners or, more likely, a succulent salmon snack.

I call out a thank you to the magpies and continue up the walkway to the Treehouse for my first shift on the platforms, exhilarated by the encounter, and wiser for having experienced it.  I am learning to evaluate the totality of the circumstances I find myself in – including the behavior of other animals - to alert me to the presence of bears.

The incident also reinforces the need to have a backup plan in addition to vigilance in looking for approaching bears, anyone on the trail needs to be watching for an escape route.  Mine, fortunately, was the nearby enclosed walkway.

Watchfulness and strategy on the trail are easiest in groups, where everyone can be on the lookout but, when you’re walking alone, it’s nice to have a little help from some feathered friends.

Following this experience, I have a conversation with my friend Carl, a member of bear management at Brooks, and he agrees that considering bird behavior is a prudent safety precaution.  He and his wife have spent many years in Alaska and, drawing on their experiences there and other backcountry places, he shares how ravens, magpies, and other corvids, as well as vultures (most often found outside Alaska) may indicate a dangerous situation, like a bear guarding a carcass that you can’t see or smell.

Then Carl points out, “The difficulty here is that these birds often gather for reasons other than trying to steal from a kill guarded by a bear.  Vultures often roost in groups, and corvids are inherently social, curious, and playful birds that can gather for all kinds of reasons.  In terms of bear safety, the fundamental principle is that if you are at all in doubt about the meaning of such a gathering, stay away.”

I live in a semi-rural area in the Midwest and have many times watched crows circle above an animal that has met its end. Whatever is below the circling birds in my neighborhood was not killed by a brown bear, but I note Carl’s warning for when I return to bear country.  Complicating matters, bird behavior that seems chaotic might actually be a coordinated effort to harass and deter an animal or animals seen as a physical threat or a rival for a food source.  Known as ‘mobbing’ the behavior includes ‘swooping’ and chasing, accompanied by loud vocalizations, and even defecating – and may be directed at humans.

Because the magpies I met on the Falls Trail didn’t ‘swoop’ toward me or, worse, defecate on me, I again decide that they didn’t perceive me as a threat.  ‘My' bear was simply on its way to work and not sitting on a carcass in the bushes a few yards off the trail, so it seems the magpies’ heightened calls were simply a reaction to a change in their environment – an approaching bear – and, fortunately, not a call to dinner.

After my conversation with Carl, I realize again the importance of learning from my surroundings, including the animals found there.  Given their extensive knowledge and experience, I would most like to walk the Falls Trail with Carl and his wife.  But if that’s not possible, I will certainly follow Carl’s advice to be aware of bird behavior and vocalizations – “Whether birds are singing or making contact or warning calls, or simply being silent, is not a random thing.  They do these things for reasons, and it pays to try to figure those reasons out because it can immensely improve our experience of the outdoors, and even our personal safety.”

Last updated: November 10, 2021

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