A soar point for ravens

The Baltimore Sun

Daniel Walthers spends at least six hours a day with his two young prodigies, coaching them for the 2008 NFL season. Shows them video clips from last year's games, oversees a rigid conditioning program and works on their calls for game day.

Eventually, he will even tailor a diet designed to keep them at optimum game weight.

Football clearly is in the air.

These ravens - lowercase ravens - are in training. They're not football players, they are football birds and members of the Corvidae family.

And Walthers is no football coach - he admits he hasn't even been a fan, really - but a wildlife expert hired by the Ravens to coach their ravens.

These 3-pound ravens are a rare breed of African white nape ravens. Hatched in Alabama, trained at Walthers' 40-acre Winding Woods Ranch in Commerce, Ga., the 8-week-old birds are the brainstorm of Gabrielle Dow, the Ravens' vice president for marketing.

If all goes as planned, at least one of the birds will make an appearance at the team's Westminster training camp next month. And at least one will fly out of a smoky tunnel at M&T; Bank Stadium ahead of the players when the Ravens face the Cincinnati Bengals on Sept. 7, and at every home game thereafter.

The season opener will mark not just the dawning of the John Harbaugh coaching era, but a new Baltimore tradition.

That vision was planted in Dow's mind when she traveled with the team to Seattle for a game against the Seahawks last December. She was enthralled as she watched Tamia, a hawk sponsored by the team, fly from ground level to the 12th-man flag near the top of the stadium.

"The fans went nuts," she said.

It wasn't the first time Dow had been inspired by a team mascot. The Denver Broncos use a horse and the Atlanta Falcons a falcon in their pre-game routines.

Dow soon charged Heather Blocher, the team's marketing and promotions coordinator, "with finding me a raven."

Blocher contacted zoos here and in Washington but quickly learned it was illegal to keep or train migratory birds native to this country. She pressed the search to a crow and raven Web site. It ultimately led to Walthers, who brought one of his breeding ravens to Baltimore last March.

Posing atop a helmet and a football for team personnel, the bird was an instant hit. Afterward, Dow got approval from team president Dick Cass to pursue the project. Before long, Walthers arranged to purchase two babies, one of which would serve as insurance if the other got sick, for the team. The Ravens declined to disclose the cost of the two birds, but Blocher said it was a four-figure amount.

As fate would have it, the birds hatched April 26 - draft day in the NFL. While the Ravens celebrated the selection of quarterback Joe Flacco, Dow and Blocher rejoiced at the birth. In early June, Dow created a name-the-ravens contest on the team's Web site at baltimore ravens.com. The poll, down to a final four, ends today. A winner will be announced Monday.

Walthers, who has about 100 animals at his ranch, including camels and horses, said the raven is the most interesting bird he has worked with over 30 years.

"As far as working with a bird of the intelligence level of a raven, I don't think you can top it," he said. "There's nothing better. I've worked with almost everything."

What Walthers and his wife, Teresa, hope to accomplish with the two ravens in little more than four months can take years for other birds.

"We're taking a baby that has never flown before and we have to teach it to fly straight," Walthers said. "At first they had a hard time landing. We have to condition them to fly well [in all conditions]. If I don't set them up for success, they'll go backward."

Toward that end, Walthers shows them video clips, made by the team, of players coming onto the field, as well as cheerleaders and fans, on a 19-by-19-foot screen in his home, with the sound cranked up. The first time Walthers showed the video to the birds, they became agitated. After two viewings, they calmed down. Now, he says, they preen while they watch.

Walthers is even teaching the birds to speak, or mimic sounds. The goal is to get them to say three things:

Hello, how are you?


Go Ravens

The birds practice flying both indoors and out, attached to Walthers by a short line and a leather anklet.

Dow said she hopes the bird - or birds - will fly around the bowl of the stadium. She has plans to have the ravens meet fans at the Ravens Walk outside the stadium. As for risk to fans once the birds are in the air, Blocher said there is "none whatsoever" because of training methods Walthers has used.

The birds will stay with Walthers in Georgia and travel to Baltimore the day before a game.

"The reason we did this was it's another way we can connect with our fans," Dow said. "We're a young team, compared to teams like the Packers, Patriots or Redskins. So we're pushing the Ravens brand to the next generation and allowing the Ravens to become a lifestyle."



The finalists in the poll to name the raven mascots are Ray-Ray & J.O.; Rise & Conquer; Blitz & Rush; and Guntram & Bran. To vote for your choice, go to www.baltimoreravens.com.

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