Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Only this, and nothing more

There are few birds that have piqued my interest like the raven. I like Blue Jays and Cardinals. They're OK to look at. I like the bird that on spring mornings would sit outside my window in Maitland, ON, and make the most calming 'dee-doo' sound. That bird song always made me happy. I still don't know what kind of bird it was...maybe a chickadee? Regardless, those pretty, colourful songbirds are nice, but as of late, I've become a little obsessed with ravens. And not just because I've recently become reacquainted with Edgar Allan Poe's famous poem.
I remember my first winter in the Yukon back in 1999. It had just snowed and I was standing at the window of my basement suite looking in the backyard at my landlord's German Shepherds fighting with some ravens over meat scraps. I was amazed at, first of all, how big the ravens were, and secondly, how very brazen they were being with a pair of dogs that outweighed them by over a hundred pounds. They say ravens are the smartest birds. They are associated with many myths and much folklore and are an integral part of First Nations culture. Around here, many perceive ravens as simply scavengers and nuisances. You can't drive through Fairbanks on a winter day without seeing someone's garbage strewn about with a heap of ravens digging in, searching for tasty morsels. By the way, a group of ravens is called 'a murder'. A group of common ravens is called 'an unkindness'.
See? See what I mean? It's all just so interesting. They're elusive and oh, so misunderstood.
They play, they ponder and they remember. There are always ravens around my dogyard. They peck away at frozen bowls while the dogs watch them. Hazel will bark, bark, bark at one or two ravens that get too close to her circle but then another flies in and another, and inevitably, Hazel retreats into her house and the ravens have won. They pick over the snow where she has spilled her kibble-and-meat supper and they steal her caribou bones. At least once a day, I'm hoofing it through the woods looking for bowls that the ravens have carried off.
A few weeks ago, I watched a nature show on PBS about ravens. It said that they help wolves by flying over the forest, looking for weak or young moose. When they find one, they fly back to the wolf pack and signal that an easy meal awaits and the wolves gear up for a hunt. Since the ravens don't actually do the killing, they need the wolves. They fly overhead, showing the carnivores where the prey is. Once the wolves kill said prey, they have their fill and leave the rest for the ravens to pick over. It's teamwork, of a most interesting sort.
When I was running dogs on the Denali Highway, a raven followed us for several miles. It's common for them to key in on dog mushers because they know that eventually the team will stop and get fed and they'll be spilled food to feast on. But the longer the raven followed, I started to get nervous. What if I was the slow, weak prey that the raven was scoping out to go back and tell the wolves? It got dark and I couldn't see the bird anymore. I could hear the telltale squawk and coo, however, and I forced myself to think about something else.
Ravens: They are associated with death. With life. They are macabre. They are animated. They are intelligent beyond comparison in the ornithological world. Next time you see one, stop and look. There is more to the raven than meets the beady eye.

Sure enough, after writing this, I looked out in the dog yard and saw ravens. Here are some photos I took, in my PJs and parka, of ravens at our house. I made them black and white because the light was so blue and crappy.

Ravens are also used in symbols and logos across the north. These are from Midnight Sun Coffee Roasters in Whitehorse.


Anonymous said...

I feel that this is one of your best posting's to date... Growing up we had a raven that lived in the neighborhood. We called him "Black Joe". Joe would swoop down and land on our bicycle handlebars and try to unscrew all the shiny bolts. One day Joe just disappeared. The homeowners of the home Joe frequented found all sorts of shiny objects in their gutter, coins, beer tabs and a watch among other things...

dogsled_stacie said...

Ravens, such interesting and entertaining creatures. I love how mellow they are around the dogs. I have one who will bark and run after them and they'll wait till he's inches from him, slowly gear up to fly off and only go just high enough so he can't reach them - as if they're saying "oh piss off..."

I also love watching how different dogs react to them. Some of mine could care less if they're right next to them trying to eat their food. I have one who absolutely HATES Ravens! He's got the "raven bark" and I know when those buggers are getting into something around the cabin. They don't bother going into his pen too much since he's mr. food-obsessed, but they won't hesitate to steal my garbage, fish, etc.

Coldfoot said...

If ravens are so smart, why don't they fly south for the winter?

AKbushbaby said...

For the same reason we're all here. This is their home. There's food, fun and an abundance of alcohol.

Anonymous said...

Suggest you go to the bookstore and buy "MIND OF THE RAVEN" by Bernd Heinrich, a professor of ornithology at Yale or U of Maine, someplace like that. Animal behaviorist PhD who happens to be a captivating writer.
It will give you an increased appreciation for the complexity and individuality of the animal.