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.
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.”
Photo by Frank Vassen