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WITH FANS, THESE RAVENS RULE ROOST

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Ravens cheerleaders are dabbing on makeup and curling their hair in a changing room at M&T; Bank Stadium. Poe, the team's overstuffed mascot, is pulling on his costume. And just a locker or two down, Rise and Conquer's personal assistants are trying to coax Baltimore's newest and most fussy football stars into their game-day uniforms.

Conquer lays one gray beady eye on his outfit and lets loose a warning squawk. When Sandy Ziolkowski, an animal technician from the Maryland Zoo, nevertheless tries to work the black satin suit over the bird's twitching head and past its fearsome beak, the feathered one starts wildly flapping, banging a locker and knocking over a stack of Gatorade cups.

But come showtime, also known as kickoff, the Ravens' authentic avian sidekicks are settled, centered and gamely outfitted, ready to reign majestically over the end zone, appear on national television, pose for photographs and stoke fans' team pride.

"When we take the birds out, it's so great to see how excited the community is about it," says Margaret Rose-Innes, animal embassy operations manager at the zoo, where Rise and Conquer live and train. "It's good for the zoo, it's good for the city and it's good for the football team."

On a recent Sunday morning, Rise and Conquer are holding court on Ravens Walk, each calm, unbelievably calm, really, on the arm of a zoo trainer.

Unruffled as thousands of fans herd past. Unruffled in the face of a beer and barbeque-scented breeze, blaring rock music, small children's sticky extended fingers. Unruffled with cell phone cameras held inches from their beaks.

Everyone wants a picture with the birds. "Oooh, that's the one you wanted to see," Annapolis mom Lisa Robertazzi says to her 9-year-old daughter, Caroline, leaning in to Conquer. As the two admire the bird's stillness and poise and marvel at how its seemingly black feathers glint a metallic purple in the sun, Robertazzi adds: "We all agreed though we love Poe, having the actual raven was a step up - it makes you proud."

Oscar Lynch, a 7-year-old from Chantilly, Va., leans in to get a better look at Rise. When the bird suddenly fluffs himself, the startled boy scoots to hide behind his dad.

The birds weigh just a pound and a half, but their powerful wings stretch to nearly four feet. A flap snaps the air, sounding almost like a crisp bedsheet being whipped into place.

Rise and Conquer aren't the Ravens' first live birds. But they're the only ones that have set down roots in Baltimore.

The team had an arrangement before with ravens that commuted in for games from Atlanta. Rise and Conquer live at the Baltimore zoo, so they're becoming more of a hometown fixture, greeting visitors on Purple Fridays this season and visiting area schools.

Though they've only appeared at three home games, they've already managed to peck and preen their way into the city's culture of quirk.

And because they're just 6 months old, mere youngsters, with a life span that could last 20 years, serene Rise and spirited Conquer could be Baltimore's hometown pets for a long time.

The brothers Corvus ruficolis hatched April 16 at the home of a breeder in Alabama. In June, the babies were boxed up and flown, top secret cargo, to Baltimore, where the public had no idea mascots were a possibility.

Trainer Amy Eveleth's heart skipped up a beat when she went to pick them up at the airport and the staff had no package for the zoo. Unable to tell the airport - or anyone - that this was the Ravens' little buddies, the zoo's embassy collection manager nervously told them to just look around for crows in a crate. They turned up.

Eveleth, very pregnant at the time, brought the baby Rise and Conquer home to Catonsville and set them up in her garage. She'd check on them hourly, feeding them bits of wet puppy chow and releasing them with the door down so they could feel their new wings, take awkward flight and practice landing heavily on her garbage can or son's bike.

She, Rose-Innes and other zoo trainers first taught the birds the "perch" command, luring them to hop onto a branch, and eventually their arms, with little bits of food. It took only days for Rise and Conquer to master that, and then they were on to "kennel," the command to get them to go willingly back into their crates.

Because Ravens are considered birds with an intellect almost as sharp as their beaks, this, too, was a breeze.

In fact, the only thing the birds seem to kick about is putting on their game-day uniforms. Perhaps that's because they know the little black outfits, euphemistically called "flight suits," are really for another purpose entirely.

Ordered from a company called Avian Fashions, the suits keep Rise and Conquer's prolific droppings from soiling the stadium. They're essentially diapers.

As for the birds' tranquillity, they learned that from all of the time spent with the trainers. Plus, when Rise and Conquer were big enough to move to the zoo, in a building with the "zoomobile" animals, separate from those on exhibition, their neighbor across the aisle was Jamilla, a wary-eyed serval, a wildcat with a taste for birds. The neighbors to the left and the right were Louie, a noisy macaw, and Martin the porcupine. Rise and Conquer learned to expect the unexpected.

Their living quarters at the zoo have been, as Rose-Innes puts it, "raven-proofed." Workers installed extra screens on the eaves where an enterprising bird might give his trainer the slip; they reinforced the wood trim along the floor boards against pecking and filled it with potential playthings.

Almost like house cats, Rise and Conquer love to shred, particularly toilet paper and telephone directories. They like to hide tidbits of food under paper towels. They enjoy fishing plastic toys from a big tub of water.

On game days, however, the young ravens are all business.

They take the field through the same tunnel that Joe Flacco and Ray Lewis run through, but without the fireworks. While the team wrangled recently with the Cincinnati Bengals, Rise and Conquer perched near a goal post on the arms of Eveleth and Ziolkowski. When the Ravens scored, the women pumped their arms a bit, causing the birds to flap, seemingly in appreciation.

The duo made live TV for a few seconds and patiently posed as NFL Films shot their own, extra footage. Conquer pecked at his flight suit every chance he got.

When a fan seated just above the birds cheered, she shook loose a few violet feathers from her boa that floated down to field, close enough for Conquer to grab one in his beak, perhaps thinking it was from a long-lost friend.

At some point, Gabrielle Dow, the Ravens' vice president of marketing, hopes the birds can become part of the official pre-game show - coming out of that tunnel with the players and the requisite team pyrotechnics.

But Poe, the less authentically avian mascot, would prefer it if Rise and Conquer took a few more days off.

"They're putting me out of a job," the mascot says with a wink. "Everyone loves them."

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