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Redeeming the Raven, Evermore

December 9, 2013

Common Raven

Credit: George Hodan
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So I hear you’re looking for a life coach. You know, somebody to straighten you out, get you back on track.

Somebody who won’t mince words when you need a tongue-lashing. And not just a talker, either, but a problem-solver, a doer, a daredevil, the sort who’s got the gumption to put himself out on a limb and the brains to get down again. Smart, sociable, funny, somebody you can look up to?

I propose the raven.


Common Raven
Photograph by Cliff Otto

Hold on a second—the raven? “Once upon a midnight dreary” and all that? That raven?

Not a comforter, not a companion, but a “fiend,” as the poet Poe calls it, a harbinger of doom, a messenger from “night’s Plutonian shore.” For Poe, as for many others before him, the apparition of this dark bird, with its shaggy throat and massive head, would be laughable if not for the abysmal foreboding it seems to inspire.

Literature, historically, has not been kind to the raven. In Mother Goose rhymes the bird is a mischievous villain (“A raven cried croak! and they all tumbled down, / Bumpety, bumpety, bump!”). In anonymous Scots balladry two ravens discuss, with obvious enjoyment, a gruesome feast of human flesh (“Ye’ll sit on his white hause-bane [breastbone] / And I’ll pike out his bonny blue een [eyes]…”). The playwright Christopher Marlowe calls the raven “sad-presaging,” heralding death. In fact, the executioner’s block was commonly called the “raven-stone.” Is it any wonder the collective term for a group of these birds is “an unkindness of ravens”?


An "Unkindness" of Ravens, Feeding with Wolf
Photo by Jim Peaco

Looks and habits are partly to blame for the bird’s reputation.  The raven is physically huge, nearly two feet long and with an average wingspan of over four feet, making it as large or larger than most red-tailed hawks. All black, with a cruel curve to its enormous bill, it has a taste for carrion, and even catches small mammals occasionally. Seeing such a shadow pass overhead, you could be forgiven for thinking that this bird is related to the vultures. (Sheep-farmers have long persecuted the raven, mistakenly imagining that it preyed on lambs).

Yet if you climb up the raven’s family tree, you’ll find that it’s actually a passerine, or songbird—a kind of monstrous, overgrown sparrow. Its more nuclear family are the corvids, or crows, a group which also includes jays, magpies, and nutcrackers, comprising well over a dozen species in North America. While the raven’s distinctive croaking is not much of a song, its other vocalizations can be downright beautiful, especially the sweet, bell-like notes that could be mistaken for a marimba’s. What’s more, it’s capable of mimicking any number of sounds, including human speech. (To hear clips of raven music, visit the Macaulay Library.)


Immature Red-shouldered Hawk & Common Raven
Photograph by Cliff Otto

A fascinating thing about all corvids, and the raven in particular, is their obvious intelligence. Whether secreting away food in caches, fashioning “digging sticks” to extract grubs from holes, or solving problems like the crow in Aesop’s fable, the curiosity and resourcefulness of this avian family is second to none. Crows in California have been observed setting down whole walnuts on the crosswalk of busy intersections. When the light turns green, passing cars crack open the nuts; when the light turns red, down come the crows to their easy feast.

A quick survey of YouTube will bring up hours of footage: corvids making fish-hooks, corvids playing in the snow, corvids stealing lunch out of picnic baskets, corvids caring for an orphaned kitten, corvids pulling a fox’s tail, corvids sledding down roofs on pieces of plastic, corvids stashing leftover breadsticks in people’s slippers, corvids lifting up people’s pant-legs in order to untie their shoelaces…

Ornithologist Stewart Janes, sneaking up on a raven’s nest in Oregon with a colleague, was startled by a golf-ball-sized rock falling out of the sky, as he said, “in front of my face.” A raven had positioned itself on a ledge about thirty feet above, and was prying loose more stones to drop on the intruder. Janes and his companion took shelter, but not before one rock hit Janes in the leg. (He survived the injury.)

Curious and playful, ravens have as much personality as you are likely to find. Bernd Heinrich, a well-known naturalist and student of ravens who has also kept them temporarily as pets (an experience not for the faint of heart), writes that ravens “fly to play.” And few other birds seem to show such evident delight on the wing, riding air currents off mountaintops and cliff edges, barrel-rolling, chasing or shadowing a companion in synchronized aerial dance, graceful as Astaire and Rogers in their prime.

I once saw two ravens playing “Stick,” a game in which one dropped a twig from a great height while the other stooped down to snatch it out of midair, a few feet above the treetops. Then the roles would switch. Again and again they pulled off the stunt. This happened directly over the heads of a crowd of people. Each time a raven snagged the twig, spontaneous applause broke out from the audience. “Boy oh boy,” said the woman next to me, “what I would give to do that, even once.”


Raven Calling
Photo by Frank Vassen

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Henry Walters is a naturalist, a teacher, and a falconer. He lives and writes in a cabin in southern New Hampshire on a 1,700-acre tract of conservation land, of which he acts as steward. His poems, essays, and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in a number of print publications, including The Old Farmer's Almanac. He is the co-founder of the Harriers, a club for young birders throughout New Hampshire (nhyoungbirders.org), and as a seasonal naturalist for the New Hampshire Audubon during the fall hawk migration, his writing appears on the blog (www.hawkcount.org) for Pack Monadnock Raptor Migration Observatory. A book of poems, Field Guide A Tempo, will be published in the fall of 2014.

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Comments

Pearblossom, CA some ravens

By Joseph Wildhagen

Pearblossom, CA some ravens get walnuts from local trees and fly to a rock outcroping in adjacent desert, empty shells are perfectly cleaved where they were braced against shards. Almonds seemed to be easier for them to to open, shells left under the trees.Red Rock Canyon State Park rangers have had to put screens over Joshua Trees to save some seeds to plant, as ravens left none.

I know I will have a good day

By missguineapig

I know I will have a good day when I see crows. They bring good luck.

I love crows and ravens.

By Sue Minckler

I love crows and ravens. There is one particularly bold crow that has trained me to feed him (or her) outside my office window when he calls. He recognizes my car and sometimes follows me to my office in the morning, waiting for a treat. When I toss a handful of nuts or whatever, he calls his friends and they come and eat. I have many more stories about crows/ravens, but I'll stop. Thank you so much for the article.

Mt. Walters, What a

By Dawn Coyde

Mt. Walters,

What a wonderful read. I must say I will now look the Raven differently from now on and hope to see them play some games with one another:)

Henry, What insightful and

By Ron Schaffner

Henry,

What insightful and illuminating reflections concerning a bird with which I had no background. I hope all is well with you in the cabin and your wildlife escapades. It was fun to get your Dad's Christmas letter and poem, though it always takes me multiple reads to glean his hidden gems. You seem to have his gift of stringing words together to do more than convey, but to enrich. Merry Christmas to you and your Family!

When I lived in Oregon I was

By Linda Hastings

When I lived in Oregon I was caretaker for a large nature park. We have a very large flock of ravens. When someone was doing something to them or their nesting or roosting area they would come in a large flock and circle the house screaming up a storm. When I got in the gator and start out they would lead me to where they wanted me to be. To protect them. They became my personal totem. Whenever I went patrolling in the gator I would see them somewhere. There intelligence is phenomenal. They are a delight to be around. Hand feed one until fledged and set him free.

What a wonderful animal to

By Henry Walters

What a wonderful animal to have as your close "familiar," as the ancients used to call any animal with whom one was close in spirit. There are many stories like yours of people being "led" or "guarded" by ravens, and, as you suggest, the relationship may well work the other way round, too. Have you looked at Bernd Heinrich's book Mind of the Raven: Investigations & Adventures With Wolf-Birds? It's a wonderful study of this species from a man who has spent a good part of his life living with and around them.

Mr. Walters, Thank you .. for

By VARFious

Mr. Walters,
Thank you ..
for the interesting read.
Regards,
Jason

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