A Documentary Follows Biologists Fighting Ravens with Lasers and Decoys to Save Desert Tortoises — Colossal



November 13, 2023

Grace Ebert

In 1990, the desert tortoise landed on the federal endangered species list following decades of decline. Expanding human populations in the western U.S. encroached on wild habitats and brought more ravens to the Mojave Desert—the large, black birds are known to scavenge for food and have a particular taste for young reptiles. Coupled with the effects of the climate crisis, these changes rapidly propelled the species toward extinction.

Conservation biologist Tim Shields has studied desert tortoises for decades and recently decided to intervene in this lopsided predator-prey relationship. In a short documentary for The New Yorker titled “Eco-Hack!,” Shields explains the innovative and non-lethal tactics his team uses for “educating” ravens and deterring them from attacking the reptiles. Green lasers, 3D-printed decoy shells, and explosive sprays all come into play in an effort to train the birds to find alternative food sources.

The strategies are more irritating than harmful to the ravens but already have had significant payoffs: more babies are now roaming the arid landscape, meaning their intervention is working to protect the slow-moving creatures that are particularly vulnerable in the first three years of life. “If we don’t want a really lonely planet that’s just us and ravens and rats and cockroaches, we have a whole ton of work to do,” he adds.

Josh Izenberg and Brett Marty produced “Eco-Hack!,” and you can find the full story behind the film in The New Yorker.


Tim holds a dead tortoise

a decoy shell sprays a raven

a tortoise in the desert



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