Rare blue-eyed, white raven fights for survival in Vancouver Island wildlife recovery centre
Oceanside area has a history of white raven sightings, but few seem to survive a year
A rare juvenile white raven with blue eyes found on the ground near Errington, B.C., about three weeks ago is now being treated in a local wildlife recovery centre.
The starved young raven couldn't fly and needed antibiotics for infected wounds on its feet, according to caregivers.
"It was pretty emaciated," said Derek Downes, the animal care supervisor at the North Island Wildlife Recovery Centre in Errington, located near Parksville on the east coast of Vancouver Island.
These mysterious pale birds have appeared occasionally in the rural area for decades, but nobody is sure why they show up and disappear.
The nameless raven, which has not yet been identified as male or female, was tube-fed as its condition improved. After a 10-day course of antibiotics, Downes said the bird began eating on its own. But then another sore appeared.
"We are pulling out all the stops to try to get this raven well — but you do the same thing for a black raven," said Downes.
With the guidance of veterinarian Dr. Malcolm McAdie, the raven is getting another round of antibiotics in the hope that the bird can overcome its setbacks.
The birds have been spotted in the Oceanside area on the east coast of Vancouver Island, including Coombs, Qualicum and Parksville, since the 1990s. Some have dubbed them sacred Oceanside white ravens.
They are an odd sight, given that crows and ravens are generally defined — and admired — for their blackness. Typically the Oceanside ravens are pure white, but not albino.
They have reduced levels of melanin — a pigment that gives colour to skin, eyes, hair, feathers and scales — and are categorized as leucistic. In contrast, albino ravens are melanin-free so their eyes appear pink or red.
"Most of the sacred Oceanside ravens that have been documented are stark, stark white — whereas this one has a little bit of grey," said Downes. "We are hoping that might be beneficial," he said.
Downes said leucistic ravens do not seem to thrive, yet it's not clear exactly why. He suspects the lack of melanin plays a role since it colours the plumage and protects the animal from ultraviolet, or UV, rays from the sun, he said.
Downes said the white raven's feathers feel more "brittle" and less "sound" when compared to a black raven and the white ravens seem to have a weaker immune system. Once a raven is seen to be struggling, other birds in the group will turn on it, harass it and drive it away. Often the animal dies.
"It sounds harsh but you have to understand that the wild is an excessively harsh place," said Downes.
Wildlife photographer Mike Yip took interest in the white ravens after he first heard of them from patrons of the Morningstar Golf Club who sighted the rare corvids in the past. Then in 2007, Yip got a call from a farmer who reported a pair of the white birds — and he saw the fascinating "oddities" himself.
Yip suspects the birds can't survive winters because they are usually only sighted until October or November — then vanish. He suspects it's related to their weaker, less robust plumage — perhaps making it more difficult for them to keep warm.
"Most don't seem to survive past the first year or we'd have a bunch of mature white ravens around and we don't," said Yip who has only seen one mature bird survive a winter, and that bird also seemed to vanish.
Yip says he gets requests for his images of the rare pink-beaked ravens from all over the world.
For now the ailing raven is being kept in an enclosed area to limit exposure to bacteria and stress from visitors.
Animal care technician Megan Buemann said the "breathtaking" bird has an inquisitive personality — that is emerging despite efforts to keep the corvid calm as it regains strength.
The centre has started a fundraising campaign for care of the bird, which may have a better chance of survival if it is kept in captivity and protected from the sun, according to Downes.
"They are stunning to look at, but that comes at a cost ultimately."