Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Yellowstone Ravens Addicted to Diet Coke

It is no secret that I have a few Yellowstone Tourist pet peeves. Yes, I hate it when you toss your chewing gum under the boardwalk. I can’t believe you claim at the gate that you don’t need a map and then show up at Fishing Bridge wondering how you missed the road to Old Faithful. This morning, I rode with clenched jaws because I could see the tracks of a snowmobiler who was hot-dogging it all over the road, as if he were driving a bumper car in Disneyland, not a $10,000 machine in the world’s first national park.

It is also no secret that I despise the vending machines in the Fishing Bridge Warming Hut, and not just because I listen to their electric whine for several hours a day. Here I sit, between walls constructed from lodgepole pines which were placed here in a time when less than a thousand people visited Yellowstone every year. People enter the hut, chilled from traveling through the hushed winter landscape, seeing more bison and coyotes than people and vehicles, to be greeted by a cozy fire, a friendly ranger, and a neon banner for corporate America. No person spending eight hours in sub-zero temperatures truly NEEDS a cold soda. Dehydration and hypothermia aside, is there a better time to try out good nutrition than on a day when you are getting all this fresh air and exercise, and experiencing something you’ve never tried before? Not to mention that all that liquid and caffeine is going straight to your bladder and will lead to one very uncomfortable snowmobile ride. And then there’s the simple truth that electronics can be quite fussy in freezing temperatures, and more often than not you aren’t going to be able to get the treat you want out of the machine at all. I watched someone the other day key in every number on the touch pad—A1… A2…, A3…--until the very last slot finally coughed up a package of Juicy Fruit. When the machines don’t work, people get cranky with me, though I know nothing about how to help out (they are operated by the hotel company, who sends an employee over every Saturday to stock the machines). I spend much of that conversation discouraging people from shaking the machine until it spits out the Doritos which are dangling from E3.
But the very worst problem is that most people can’t drink 16 ounces of sugar-water during a twenty-minute rest stop at Fishing Bridge, so they savor the soda for a few moments and then leave 2/3 of the can for me to deal with. Actually, I wish they would just hand their unsipped sodas directly to me, and I would gladly walk over to the outhouse and drain the liquid down the vault, crush the can, and send it to recycling. That is the cleanest, most legal way to deal with the unwanted beverage. But in this case, they never ask the ranger. Instead, they might decide to toss the can into the recycling bin, soda and all. When I pulled the plastic liner from the bin to empty the recycling a few days ago, the bottom of the sack was weighed down by a gallon of “suicide” soda (remember when you used to go through the buffet line and empty one shot of every kind of soda from the machine into your glass? Mmm….) After double and triple bagging the whole thing, I bungeed it onto my snowmobile, and drove at 5 mph to the recycling receptacles in the housing area. I pulled on thin latex gloves and sorted every aluminum can and plastic bottle, until my hands were frozen and I was left with a plastic bag of flat soda.
But I would gladly sort through hundreds of sticky soda cans if it would keep people from making the very bad decision to dump their Diet Coke outside. Now I get that winter is an awkward time and the proper and polite solution of pouring your beverage in the toilet may not be obvious to civilized folks. And I get that when you pour that soda into the snow it truly seems to disappear into four feet of powder. In reality, however, pouring a can of soda into a snowbank is rather like pouring syrup on a snow cone or cola flavoring into a Slurpee machine: the liquid doesn’t disappear, it freezes, making sugar/saccharin ice cubes all around the warming hut. In the evening, when I’m not here to chase them away, the ravens swoop down and dig out these tasty bits of high fructose corn syrup for dinner.
Now, I’m no biologist, but I’m willing to wager that the last thing a bird which sleeps outside when it is ten degrees below zero needs to eat is a Slurpee. Beyond the issue of cold, that bird likely feels the sensation of being satiated—the same reason we drink Diet Coke when we’re counting calories—without actually receiving any caloric benefit. To survive the winter, the non-hibernating species in Yellowstone need to continuously ingest food dense with calories, fueling their efforts to stay warm. After all the talk we’ve heard about the empty calories of corn syrup, it is difficult to imagine what might happen to a bird accustomed to foraging off bison carcasses when it develops a taste for Coca-Cola. But can you blame it? We know that soda is bad for us, but can’t resist swinging by the drive-thru on the way home from work because it’s easier than cooking dinner. Given the option of free handouts at the warming hut or hunting for mice or bison, I’d certainly be tempted by the sugary stuff. And just like us, they’ll probably have no idea what it is doing to them until it is too late.
So every night as I pack up my snowmobile and pull away from the warming hut, I look up at the pair of black birds roosting just above the outhouse. I know they have their eye on the unguarded snow shack, ready to swoop in for a snow cone as soon as my back is turned. I try to resist personifying these intelligent birds, but part of me can’t help but imagine what goes on at the warming hut in the evenings as five-pound ravens get hopped up on Diet Coke. Do they get a little jittery and fly in frantic circles? Does it stimulate their productivity, helping them rip backpacks off snowmobiles with undiscovered strength? With a full belly and a caffeine buzz, who knows what a raven might be capable of? It’s likely my imagination, but as I glance up in the trees I’m certain I see a look so familiar to me after 10 years of graduate school: that crazed, wide-eyed expression which screams, “You’d better get out of my way, lady, because I haven’t had my caffeine today.”


  1. Ha! And Awww. I'll think twice before dumping soda in the snow ever again. Poor ravens. This was my first taste of the warming hut blog and I, like the ravens, am hooked.

  2. I would always expect a raven to first attempt to consume whatever artificial pretend non-food-stuff is available before moving on to anything that was or ever had been alive. In humans, they call this pica, or McDonaphelia.

    By the way, I am curious as to how ravens compare to mice on your "Dislike" scale, or if there was just the single incident with the film...

  3. :) I've (mostly) forgiven the ravens for the film incident, and because they generally stay out of my house, I'm much more tolerant of the birds. Actually, I find ravens quite intelligent and fascinating. The very fact that they know the best way to score a free meal in Yellowstone is to hang out around the sloppy humans speaks measures.