PUBLISHED: 9:28 AM on Wednesday, October 22, 2008
A Raven Named Blueberry
Juneau woman forms a special bond with a special bird
JUNEAU - Few animals are so prominent in the lives of Southeast Alaskans as ravens. But no human-raven relationship is as close as that between Sandy Harbanuk and Blueberry.

Blueberry can say "whatcha gonna do?" and will call the names of Harbanuk's children. He also prefers to walk instead of flying. Many Juneauites know him by name, as he makes around 25 public appearances a year.

Harbanuk, who has volunteered with the Juneau Raptor Center since 1994, calls Blueberry "an accidental educational bird." He was supposed to be rehabilitated and released in the wild but turned out to be too socialized.

She first met Blueberry at the Raptor Center 12 years ago, when he was less than a month old. He had been found with a broken leg, likely due to being knocked out of his nest by an eagle. At the time, his eyes were just the size and color of a ripe blueberry, so he was dubbed "Blueberry."

Katie Spielberger photos
  Blueberry, shown with his companion, Sandy Harbanuk, is a domesticated raven that can talk and prefers walking instead of flying. Blueberry participates in about two dozen educational programs each year in Southeast Alaska.
He missed his crucial period of learning to fly from his parents or other birds.

"He was walking everywhere instead of flying," Harbanuk said.

After a few botched release attempts Harbanuk gave up on trying to return him to the wild. One time Blueberry flew off but then walked home; another time a family on Douglas called the Raptor Center saying a raven was "terrorizing" their children by untying their shoes, one of Blueberry's favorite activities.

Eventually, Blueberry ended up as an educational bird. His home is a large enclosure next to Harbanuk's house.

For a bird to be considered an educational bird, its keeper must have a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, participate in at least 12 educational programs a year and submit a report on each educational program.

Blueberry is not a pet, but after twelve years of working with the bird Harbanuk said he feels like a "child or a buddy." And in Blueberry's mind, he's Harbanuk's mate.

Raven education

When Harbanuk takes Blueberry to visit school groups, she teaches kids that there are four S's that describe ravens: they're songbirds, they're smart, they're social and they're scavengers.

"If I'm in a Kindergarten or first grade class one kid inevitably says, 'There's one more! He's stinky!'" Harbanuk said.

Blueberry participates in 25 to 30 programs a year in classrooms, festivals and other event. He'll be traveling to Haines for the Bald Eagle Festival in early November for the third time.

He is unfazed by people, and since he grew up with Harbanuk's two dogs and three cats, these animals don't both him either. Although it took him a couple of years to become used to being on display, he can now sit still for hours at a time. But when it's time to go he always lets Harbanuk know.

"When we've been there long enough, he'll rip off my glasses and throw them on the floor," she said. "It's his signal that it's time to go."

When he's not on the road, Blueberry still receives plenty of visitors in his own home.

He has been "adopted" by the Juneau charter school. Students have worked with him for community service hours, and he has been the subject of a science fair experiment if which students tried to get him to learn the words "ball," "ribbon" and "bird." Harbanuk heard him say "ball" twice, but only after the observation period.

Harbanuk thinks that with more training Blueberry could have passed the test. Those wouldn't have been the first human words he spoke.

Babbling Blueberry

Blueberry started talking when he was about a year old. He picked up commonly heard human sounds, such as "hello" and "how are you?" Some of the sounds he heard most often were the names of Harbanuk's two sons, so he picked those up too.

"(My son) Lev was 10 when I got this bird and he was always out missing," Harbanuk said. "I was always yelling for him. The bird thinks 'Lev!' is my call."

Blueberry also took to the sound of her son Toby's name.

Katie Spielberger photo
  Blueberry the raven sits on his perch while waiting for a snack.
"He would yell, 'Toby, telephone!' and Toby would come running over from (the park)."

A lot of people don't realize that ravens are song birds, Harbanuk said. They can make more sounds than any animal other than humans.

"When they're young, they'll get up every morning and they'll make every sound they know for two hours straight," Harbanuk said. "When they get older they develop the accents of their social group. They reduce to 55 to 60 (different sounds)."

As he's aged, Blueberry has adopted some of the sounds of the neighborhood ravens and let go of some of his human sounds.

"Over time, Blueberry has dropped some of the human things he said, because we'd stop saying them," Harbanuk said. "We stopped calling Toby to the telephone."

But "Lev" is still one of Blueberry's sounds. After all, it's the call of his closet companion.

Blueberries and barbeque

Anyone who has observed wild ravens knows they will eat just about anything, and Blueberry is no different.

"He loves all berries except for strawberries," Harbanuk said. "Generally, he loves any out of season fruit. Every day he gets a hard-boiled egg. It's one of his favorite things."

Blueberry is served raw fish, raw beef and cooked chicken. Harbanuk's husband jokes that he gets Blueberry's leftovers, which isn't bad on the days Blueberry eats barbequed ribs or lasagna.

Since he doesn't always have a lot of other variety in his life, she makes sure to give him an assortment of foods, often in hard-to-reach places to provide some additional stimulation. He might get a baby shoe with a piece of cheese in the toe or a plastic Easter egg containing a grape.

"You have to do some enrichment for them because they are such smart animals," Harbanuk said.

Birds of a feather

Ravens in the neighborhood flock to Blueberry's house. Sometimes Blueberry shares his food with them, but more often he just eats it in front of them.

But Harbanuk is more generous.

A pair of ravens she calls Pooh and Piglet nest in the neighborhood and often stop by for handouts. They have even taught their young to visit Harbanuk for food.

"I'll feed you in a minute," Harbanuk called to one perched on a telephone wire overlooking her home. "That's one of the pair. They always wait for me on that wire."

Since getting involved with Blueberry, Harbanuk has helped rehabilitate around seventy other ravens. She always tries to make sure that young ravens are with adults if possible or at least juveniles so they can be properly socialized.

"If you just took a raven, raised it from a chick, and let it go it probably wouldn't last," she said.

As for the future, Blueberry could live another 18 years. Harbanuk would like to have someone else who could care for Blueberry but isn't sure if he could ever come to trust someone else as much as he trusts her.

"It would have to be someone with a lot of patience and a lot of time," she said. "He sees us as having a relationship, so it would be hard for him to have a relationship with someone else."