Sometimes in the context of human inspiration the little things matter.
There could be some important symbolism at play here. The ptarmigan is a pretty, white, smallish, dumbass bird that clucks around in willow thickets waiting to be eaten.
Raven, on the other hand, is the “trickster” of Pacific Coast Native mythology. It is the inspiration for a raven mythology that stretches from the edges of the Bering Sea east and south to beyond the banks of the Columbia River and for good reason.
Raven is smart. Ptarmigan is stupid.
Next to the porcupine, which a five-year-old can kill with a stick, the ptarmigan vies with the spruce grouse for the title of the north’s dumbest prey. But for its camouflage, this white-in-the-winter, brown-in-the-summer fool’s hen would probably be extinct by now.
The ptarmigan is the definition of “bird brain,” a term which is an insult to much of the rest of the species Aves. Many birds are now known to be a lot smarter than their tiny brain cages might indicate.
After a large-scale study in 2014, scientists concluded one of their species appeared to be as clever as the chimpanzee. That bird would be the raven, not the ptarmigan which is only a little smarter than a stone.
“In the tundra of Alaska and Canada, hunting ptarmigan is legendarily easy; they’re frequently killed with a well-placed rock,” writes Hank Shaw, a one-time political reporter who gave up the reportage in favor of writing about food, fishing, foraging and hunting.
He’s written several cookbooks. Cookbooks are among the books still selling well in a world gone digital.
Shaw is a raven, not a ptarmigan like his old journalism colleagues. Alaska could use some like him. In recent years, the state seems to have become less raven-like and more ptarmigan-like, which is not a good thing.
Among the predators that consume ptarmigan, the Animal Diverseity Web lists “hooded crows, ravens, magpies, red foxes, pine martens, mink, short-tailed weasels, least weasels, gulls, northern harriers, golden eagles, bald eagles, rough-legged hawks, gyrfalcons, peregrine falcons, northern goshawks, snowy owls, wolverine, wolves, Arctic foxes, lynx and polar bears.”
Somehow humans got left off the list. Add them and you can simply describe the ptarmigan as the universal dinner for predators in the north, the bottom of the food chain, the ultimate victim.
What the hell kind of state symbol is that?
Alaska would be better of making the mosquito the state bird. That little bloodsucker is tough and adaptable, which is what Alaskans once were.
They’ve gone a little soft in the permanent-fund-dividend (PFD) days. Now a lot of them can’t seem to get past the idea the permanent fund is going to save them either in the form of a direct handout to individual Alaskans or an indirect handout to state employees to help maintain an economy built on government jobs.
The time has come to start thinking about a post-PFD state where a healthy and growing Alaska economy, an economy that produces things, is what keeps Alaska alive.
Raven is a perfect symbol for that.
‘…Ravens can be as clever as chimpanzees despite having much smaller brains, indicating that rather than the size of the brain, the neuronal density and the structure of the birds’ brains play an important role in terms of their intelligence,” Science Daily reported in 2016.
Raven’s brain appears to be dense-packed with neurons. Think of raven as a role model. We could use more dense-pack brains in this state. We’ve got more than enough of the opposite.
Ravens are so smart that Mathias Osvath, a Lund University researcher working with the birds told National Geographic that they can solve problems monkeys can’t. That right there makes them smarter than some members of the Alaska Legislature.
“In the final experiments, the ravens could choose between an inferior immediate food reward (a smaller, less-tasty piece of kibble) and a token for their favorite kibble they could trade later—a concept called delayed gratification,” Geographic reporter Shaena Montanari added in a story all about ravens.
“‘Humans devalue things that take place in the future,'” Osvath told her, “emphasizing people typically go for instant rewards.
“Ravens seem to be a little more patient, selecting the tool or token that would get them the better food in the near future over 70 percent of the time.
“However, (behaviorist Alex) Taylor notes that the results are open to interpretation. Perhaps, he says, they’re outsmarting the experiment: ‘The ravens may not be thinking about the future at all, they may instead just be choosing the object the has been associated the most with food.'”
Either of choice would be new-found, forward-thinking for Alaska, and way more than you could expect from the alternative state symbol, a bird that wanders around aimlessly waiting to be eaten.
So here are the choices to represent Alaska:
The pretty, white, brainless, victim bird or the smart, adaptable, trouble-making black bird. Which should it be?