Since October of last year, Anchorage has been visited by a rare, feathered celebrity — a white raven, which appears to have taken up residence in the Spenard neighborhood.
Last summer, the raven was spotted south of Anchorage on the Kenai Peninsula, where biologists confirmed the bird is not an albino but leucistic — which means it has a gene that causes a loss of pigmentation. It also has blue eyes. Biologists believe it’s most likely the same bird that has delighted Anchorage this winter.
Almost every day you can find new photos of the raven on Facebook on a page called Anchorage White Raven Spottings. There, you can see the bird aloft with its feathers, translucent through the light, or at play with another raven in the snow. Someone recently snapped a shot of the raven, as it strutted with a slice of pizza in its beak.
There’s also footage on Facebook of the raven loosening a bolt on a streetlamp and carrying it off in its beak, and a guy in conversation with the bird from its perch near McDonald’s.
Among the most recent posts, there are regal photos of the raven perched on a spruce bough as the moon rises in the backdrop. Many faces of the bird have been captured by a ravenous Anchorage paparazzi, who don’t seem to compete against one another but cooperate by sharing tips on how to photograph their quarry.
“It’s just so different. It is so out of the norm,” says Glen Klinkhart, a retired Anchorage police detective who has almost made tracking the raven a full-time job.
“We all know what a raven looks like. We all know the shape, how it’s supposed to look,” Klinkhart said. “And then when you see this, this white raven with this genetic difference, it just kind of stops you.”
Scientists say the white raven is very rare. But how rare? Rick Sinnott, a wildlife biologist, says he knows of only two other white raven sightings in Anchorage. The last one was 20 years ago in the Midtown area.
“It wasn’t as white as this one,” said Sinnott, who remembers that its feathers were tipped with a bronze hue. “It was shiny bronze. It was very beautiful.”
Sinnott says another white raven was spotted 20 years before that and believes three sightings over the course of four decades meets the definition of rare, especially when you consider the genetic odds. Sinnott says it would take both a male and a female with a recessive leucistic gene to mate — and even then, maybe one of four chicks would be white, if any at all.
Ravens are smart enough to know what they look like and can recognize themselves in mirrors, so Sinnott worried that other ravens would pick on the white raven because it’s different. But he’s glad that doesn’t appear to be the case.
“When it’s around other ravens, it doesn’t seem to raise feathers around the top of its head, which would suggest it’s not subordinate,” Sinnott says.
In fact, the white raven behaves more like an “alpha” bird. In a recent post, Klinkhart shared pictures of the raven in a spat with four black ravens over a discarded Häagen-Dazs carton of White Raspberry Chocolate Truffle ice cream. In the last photo in the series, the raven shows off its prize.
It’s one of more than 10,000 photos Klinkhart has taken of the raven since October. But there’s one that he’s especially proud of, taken on a day in which he found the bird completely alone. He laid down on the ground to watch, with camera in hand.
“It started getting closer and closer. And I just froze. I’m like, ’Don’t move. Don’t affect its behavior. Let it behave,’” said Klinkhart, who wondered if the bird was just curious.
“That white raven came (within) about two feet of me and looked in my camera lens,” he said. “Then it tilted its head. And then it waddled off.”
Klinkhart says he was so close to the bird that the photo showed his reflection in the bird’s blue eye, a magical moment. Since that first time, the raven has come close to Klinkhart’s lens a couple of times. In a video, the bird comes so close that Klinkhart is unable to focus his camera.
In many Alaska Native stories, the bird is a mystical being.
Meda DeWitt, a Lingít healer who works with medicinal plants, says she first heard about the white raven’s meaning years ago from another traditional healer, the late Rita Blumenstein, known as Grandma Rita — a Yup’ik from Southwest Alaska, trained by her elders from childhood to ease pain and suffering.
“This is one of the stories that she would tell that brought hope,” DeWitt said. “She would say, ‘We will see a white raven, and that’s when we’ll know that humanity as a whole is shifting towards one of peace.’”
DeWitt says it’s a prophecy Grandma Rita heard from her elders, an example of the white raven’s long history throughout the world as a messenger bird. Even the Greek god Apollo had one, which turned from white to black after displeasing him.
In Alaska Native stories, Raven also transforms. DeWitt says not to forget that Raven is a trickster who finds trouble. Her uncle tells a story about how Raven wanted to bring mankind fresh water to drink, so he tried to steal a bucket from a chieftain’s house. Soot blackened his feathers as he escaped through a smoke hole. In another version of the Lingit story, Raven turns black after he steals the moon, the sun and the stars to bring light into the world.
DeWitt believes Raven has transformed yet again and has returned to encourage mankind to save the planet, a message especially important to Alaska Natives.
“Our whole job is to steward the earth, and if the earth is sick, that means we’re sick,” DeWitt said. “When I see something like (the) white raven, it gives me a profound sense of hope. Even beyond hope, knowing that we’re going to be successful.”
Floyd Guthrie, another traditional healer who is Tsimshian, Lingít and Haida, says he has waited a long time for the white raven to appear.
“It makes our hearts feel good, because we connect to the truth of his existence,” said Guthrie, who believes the raven has always been around to watch over humans but not necessarily visible.
“It’s so wonderful to see (the) white raven with the blue eyes,” Guthrie said. “In his own way, he just has to tell us, ’I’m not very far away from you.’”
Guthrie and his wife, Dr. Marianne Rolland, specialize in treating trauma. Years ago, when Rolland was searching for a name for their counseling center in Anchorage, she says the words “White Raven” came to her, not in a voice, but from what she calls a place of knowing.
“(The) white raven is reminding us of our own spirituality and of what we’re here on earth to do,” Rolland said. “That we’re not just physical human beings, but we’re spiritual beings.”
Rolland says she’s not surprised by the hundreds of raven photographs that have been posted on Facebook, which include artwork the bird has inspired. From paintings to sculptures to beaded earrings, there’s almost a cottage industry of art featuring the raven, not to mention mugs, stickers and keychains.
“(The) white raven opens hearts, and opening up hearts opens up creativity,” said Rolland.
After seeing the photos, Jerrod Galanin felt the urge to fashion a Lingít-style, copper armband with the white raven in silver. Not long afterwards, it was as if the bird sought him out.
“The flight pattern was like sporadic and kind of crazy,” said Galanin. “And so, I looked closer, and it landed on a light post, right on top of us.”
Some Facebook followers have speculated about whether the white raven is male or female. Biologists say it’s hard to tell for sure. The males are a little larger and can have pouches with a bigger bulge under their throats. Rick Sinnott, the biologist, says males also like to show off during courtship.
“He’ll fly up in the air and drop sticks and fly down and pick them up, catch them as they fall. Or do all kinds of aerobatics, like you see them flipping on their back and doing all kinds of things,” Sinnott said. “When males are trying to impress females, they go into quite a frenzy of that kind of behavior.”
Sinnott says the mating season begins at the end of January and runs through March, so we may soon find out whether the raven is a him or a her. Or maybe not. Sinnott says sometimes ravens just like to entertain their buddies.
Sinnott says when ravens take up urban life, you can usually find them hanging out near busy intersections, where there are restaurants and grocery stores. And for the white raven, that means plenty of dumpster dining. Seems the bird has favored those at the Spenard Roadhouse. As one Facebook poster put it, “At least the white raven has good taste.”
From the progression of photos from October, the raven appears to have fattened up, but maybe it’s just the bird’s feathers fluffing up to survive the subzero temperatures.
Sinnott says it’s likely the raven will move on come spring and head out into the wilderness. Ravens are known to travel hundreds of miles away. Some birds tagged in Anchorage have been spotted as far away as Juneau, Fairbanks and the North Slope.
But for now, the white raven brings warmth and cheer into the heart of an Anchorage winter.
As Floyd Guthrie says, it is here to say, “I see you.”
Editor’s note: Audio of the white raven unscrewing a bolt on a street lamp was from a Jennifer Collin’s video. Sound of the bird preaching to the choir came from a Todd Billingslea video.