Thieves are lurking on Northern golf courses. They stalk the fairway and surveil the driving range, waiting for a chance to strike—snatching balls and irritating golfers, all at once. For what purpose? No one’s really sure. But one thing is clear: don’t mess with the ravens.
“They cause havoc on the golf course,” says Matthew Gray, general manager at the Yellowknife Golf Club. He may have a quiet chuckle when players arrive at the pro shop complaining of ravens scooping up their balls, but make no mistake, Gray thinks of these feathered bandits as a terror.
“We have a local rule here that if a raven steals your golf ball it’s a free drop because it’s actually a thing,” he says. “Probably on a daily basis golf balls get stolen by ravens. You could hit it straight down the middle of the fairway and never find your ball.”
For more than a decade the Yellowknife course has used bright yellow balls on its driving range in an effort to convince the ravens that the spheres are not actually delicious eggs ripe for the picking.
That’s the general working theory behind the thefts; ravens mistake the balls on the ground for stray eggs. They’re particularly fond of the driving range, as there are more balls and fewer pesky humans walking around.
“They’re probably our best worker when it comes to the driving range because they dig down into the sand and pick up golf balls. They’ll actually nuzzle down like 12 inches and pick up golf balls out of the sand,” says Gray.
Paul Robitaille, president of the Dawson Golf Association over in the Yukon, says they have to order thousands of new balls for their driving range every year.
They’ve talked about switching to coloured balls on the Dawson City Golf Course, but haven’t done it—yet. Dawson City does have the same rule as Yellowknife: if your ball gets pilfered you get a free drop from where it was taken. The rule came in particularly handy the last few summers, when a fox took up residence at hole six, darting out to snatch balls.
“I know one year in the club championships the leader on the back nine was on one of the last holes, and a raven swooped down and took his ball,” Robitaille says. In that case, having the rule clearly printed saved sending the leader off into the bush to locate his ball, wherever the raven had left it.
If the golfer had been sent to the bushes, he very well might have emerged thoroughly creeped out, after seeing some of the raven’s more Blair Witch inspired handiwork. If you go into the woods around the Dawson course, you just might stumble upon a pile of balls, the fruits of their perfidy.
“There are a few places at our course where you’ll go and find caches of balls,” he says. “It’s not like, ‘Oh, everyone’s hitting their balls there.’ It’s clearly almost like a pile of balls.”
He doesn’t have proof, but the ball-hordes may disprove the theory the birds are just discarding the balls, once they realize they’re not dinner. Ravens are known to be incredibly smart. Stories abound of them returning to the same spots and bringing presents for people they befriend. Ravens (and their corvidae cousins like crows, jays, and magpies) have been documented planning ahead and setting up stores of food. A Swedish study published in 2017 in the journal Science suggested ravens may have general planning abilities previously mostly seen in great apes and humans. Researchers found ravens could barter for what they needed, use tools, and would even pass up an immediate reward if they thought they could get a better prize later on.
Which leads us back to the piles of golf balls. At one point a stockpile of hundreds of balls was found on top of Yellowknife's Northwestel building, all stamped property of the Yellowknife Golf Club. For Robitaille, staring down his own creepy cairns in the woods, he thinks that’s a bit too much for such a smart bird just thinking they were eggs.
“You’d think they would figure it out, right? Maybe they don’t think it’s an egg. Maybe they just think that it’s funny to take it. Maybe they’re just jerks,” he says. “It just might be, ‘I’m going to mess with this guy and it’s going to be hilarious.’” Or, they could be storing them for future use.
“Maybe they’re messing with other animals with the balls,” Robitaille ponders. “Maybe they’re using them like ammunition.”
Either way, neither course is going to start a war with the ravens anytime soon. After all, at this point, the birds have all the balls.
“I think that for the most part it doesn’t bother our golfers. They probably like it. It’s a cool thing. That’s kind of a little point of pride for us,” says Robitaille. “I think that we’re happy they’re around; they add a little kind of Northern flair to our golf course.”