The largest birdcage at the Randall museum held just two birds as of last week: a yellow-billed magpie with a broken wing, and another bird, a smallish crow, that hopped nervously from the dried eucalyptus branch at the top of the cage to the floor and back again. Both birds seemed bereft, and the cage felt empty of avian life. Usually a raucous chorus of croaks and caws greet visitors to the Randall Museum, but not that day. A funereal silence filled the air.
Two ravens had died within weeks of one another: Edgar and his venerable raven friend Grok, the oldest corvid inhabitant of the Randall Museum, and perhaps the Mission itself. Edgar died in the first week of March and Grok followed him on Friday, March 25th.
“We knew the end was coming,” said Dominik Mosur, the Randall Museum’s animal care assistant, a week after Grok’s death.
Ravens are famed for their intelligence and sophisticated social knowledge. Grok was no exception.
“He had an excellent memory,” Mosur said. “He would hide pieces of mouse all around his cage, and find them later, when he wanted a snack. Also, he recognized his handler by voice.”
Grok’s memory wasn’t the only large thing about him; his beak, like that of most corvids, was formidable as well, measuring between two and three inches in length.
“Yeah. He’d bite you on the calf. That was his little trick,” said Mosur fondly. “I had quite a few welts on my calves. But that’s nothing. You should see what he did to the mice.”
Common Ravens, if such a term can be applied to Grok, have a life expectancy of 18 to 21 years in the wild. Grok, who was 28 or 29 — ravens are born in the spring, which allowed the staff of the Randall to roughly estimate his age — never knew the wild life of an untamed raven, which allowed him to beat the odds. He had fallen out of, or had been taken out of, the nest and brought up as a family pet, “imprinting” on humans and learning from them. Throughout his life, he spoke his name in the voice of a child. Unlike many parrots, Grok’s vocabulary did not extend to expletives – Mosur said “I only ever heard him say ‘Hi, Grok’ in a high-pitched voice.”
Ravens, with their large brains, gregarious social behavior and problem-solving abilities, are known to bond in groups. Edgar and Grok solved the problem of solitude that comes with captivity by forming a close and enduring partnership.
“They were really bonded. They’d been together for almost 2 decades—18 years. Grok and Edgar would sit together and hold bills for hours. Sometimes the magpie would sit in between them. They were like a little family.”
This closeness became even more evident after Edgar died.
“Edgar had been suffering seizures. As soon as he died, things changed. I would feed Grok pieces of mice, but he wasn’t into it. Usually, he’d go looking for mice. You didn’t have to feed him.”
The end came on a Friday morning.
“One of my co-workers was holding him in her arms when he stopped breathing.”
Grok, who was blind, was seen by at least 100,000 people over his long life who viewed the ancient bird perhaps less as a living exhibit and more as an aged and well-respected ambassador from the Corvidae family.
As news of Grok’s death spread, reaction on the Randall Museum’s Facebook site was sorrowful.
“Big love for those beautiful birds – I will remember them ‘forever more’,” wrote a fan, acknowledging Grok’s literary birthright. “Grok was blind, but he taught us to see,” said Mosur, reflecting on Grok’s popularity with San Franciscan schoolchildren who grew up visiting the Randall Museum.
Grok is survived by a hawk, a raccoon and the other animals at the Museum. He will be missed by museum staff and volunteers and by his many fans. Friends and children are encouraged to pay their respects to Grok at the museum at its temporary location, 745 Treat Avenue (between 20th Street and 21st Street), open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday to Saturday.
The Randall Museum continues to offer animal exhibits and many activities, like Saturday family drop-in science and art classes.