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Someday, This Raven May Fly To The Rescue

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Someday, This Raven May Fly To The Rescue

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Someday, This Raven May Fly To The Rescue

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The common raven may not be so common. At least that's what one researcher in Arizona is discovering. She's training her pet raven to find things.

Eventually, she hopes to use it to help rescue tourists lost in the Grand Canyon or in the Arizona desert.

Daniel Kraker of member station KNAU has this profile.

(Soundbite of raven)

DANIEL KRAKER: A couple years ago, Emily Cory had an epiphany. She worked with raptors and owls at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum. But she was fascinated by the one common raven there.

Ms. EMILY CORY: She'd play horrible tricks on the volunteers. She's get into so much trouble. She never forgot a thing. She never missed a thing. So that really got my attention.

KRAKER: Cory began to realize just how smart this raven seemed to be. At the same time, she thought about her childhood in Sedona, where she used to watch helicopters from her house, searching for lost hikers.

Ms. CORY: And I started thinking, well, how come nobody's put these two together because clearly birds are easy to train? Falconers have been training them for, gosh, thousands of years. And ravens are super-intelligent.

KRAKER: So she bought a raven, named it Shade, and quickly she was playing difficult games of hide and seek with one of her favorite objects, a wooden blue star.

Ms. CORY: And soon she was finding that blue star no matter where I hid it. She was looking in places I didn't even think of hiding it that really were very good hiding spots.

KRAKER: Emily tries to demonstrate. She hides a tube of Chapstick under a pillow. But Shade is distracted by my microphone. She cocks her head to the side to get a better look.

Ms. CORY: I know, it's too scary.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CORY: She thinks that we're up to something.

(Soundbite of raven)

KRAKER: Emily's plan was to bring Shade outside and teach her to spot people in the backcountry. Then she would work with her to fly back and forth between the hiker and the trainer with a GPS tracker attached to her foot.

But despite the progress she was making training Shade - she wrote her master's thesis on her project - Emily Cory's plan hit a snag: No one would support her research.

Ms. CORY: I actually got laughed out of a couple of professor offices. They would say, that's nice but let me introduce you to reality. You cannot train ravens.

KRAKER: But out of the training, Emily discovered something else. Shade could seemingly understand verbal commands.

Ms. CORY: Sometimes she responds correctly even when my back is to her. For example, she loves Chapstick. She always steals Chapstick.

KRAKER: The second Emily says the word Chapstick, Shade flies away, flips over the pillow, and retrieves the tube of Chapstick.

Ms. CORY: See, she heard me say Chapstick, and she picks up the Chapstick.

KRAKER: Earlier this month, Emily Cory finally started a PhD program at the University of Arizona. She's going to start by studying ravens and language and ultimately find a way to put the bird to practical use, searching out lost hikers in the back country.

(Soundbite of raven)

KRAKER: For NPR News, I'm Daniel Kraker.

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