By David Cronenwett
Most of us can easily recall our encounters with rare or uncommon birds. Species that are especially striking or that show up in unusual circumstances are memorable. I can think of neat experiences over the years with Godwits, Ferruginous Hawks and others as if they occurred yesterday. But the more prosaic species, the ones that regularly accompany our lives, become difficult to recall in the same way. When we think of birds that are not only common but often the target of our derision, then likely we have no attention to spare and little capacity for their remembrance at all.
The Common Raven (Corvus corax) certainly falls into this category. In Montana, they are generally considered vermin; a big, black, carrion-eating monster. Like its cousin, the magpie, ravens are rarely praised by anyone but the most thoughtful of birders. However, this one-dimensional view of raven-as pest is a fairly recent cultural phenomena; if we look more broadly, the human opinion of them is far more nuanced and complex. The raven is one of the largest passerines (songbirds) on earth and probably the most widespread bird species that exists. It thrives in diverse habitats across enormous swaths of Eurasia and North America. In the West, it is rarely mistaken for anything but its close relative, the American Crow. Ravens are generally larger than crows, have a noticeable “ruff” about the neck and are less gregarious. The most certain way to differentiate the species is by observing them in flight; Common Ravens have a diamond-shaped tail whereas crow’s are fanned. They can be found in almost any habitat in our state.
Corvids are famously omnivorous, taking advantage of any foods, in any condition, wherever found. People often judge wild animals by their eating habits and hold a special prejudice, at least in modern culture, towards opportunistic scavengers like ravens. As with magpies, some of this distain was probably established in feudal Europe when ravens eagerly showed up to the seemingly endless battlefield banquets on offer. As society urbanized, ravens took full advantage of roadkill, garbage dumps, grain fields, dog spoor and any other waste material with caloric value. In wilder habitats, they will likewise eat anything and when necessary, use other creatures to their own advantage. Because ravens lack an ability to access the flesh of thick skinned carcasses like elk, the birds will follow predators such as wolves in the hope of benefitting from their hunting activities. They are also known to “call in” bears and coyotes toward found carcasses for the same purpose.
Ravens are capable of complex vocalizations, from croaks, caws and gurgling pops to sounds so weird, it is difficult to believe they emerged from a living animal. If you hear a freakish, unexplainable sound while walking through the woods, there is a good chance it was produced by a raven. Captive birds have to be taught to imitate human speech. What is more remarkable is the species’ ability to use its vocal prowess to engage in what linguists call “displacement”; that is, the intentional communication about objects or events distant in time and space. This idea, that ravens have an understanding of past, present and future and an ability to communicate it to others, brings into question our own intellectual uniqueness. Study birds have been presented with increasingly difficult problems to solve. In some cases, ravens were able to creatively identify solutions with no trial or error-type experimenting. This suggests reasoning, insight and creativity. It is becoming clear that ravens not only think, but they seem to think like we do.
The association between our kind and the Common Raven is very long indeed. Their intelligence and complex personality, which has been described as playful, devious, selfish, demonic, and tender, is universally recognized and described in many cultural narratives. They were the first animals to be released into the post-flood world from the Ark of the Old Testament. Used extensively as a literary symbol of foreboding and dread, the bird can be found in the works of William Shakespeare, J.R.R. Tolkien, and of course, in the immortal eponymous poem by Edgar Allen Poe. But our deep entanglement with Raven goes further.
During the Pleistocene epoch, when much of our evolutionary development as a species occurred, we were frequently in the presence of the birds. A mutualistic relationship probably existed, with ravens and men sometimes leading each other to living or scavenge-worthy prey. It was during this long arc of time that our full understanding of Raven’s personality emerged. Archetypal qualities of cunning, playfulness, intelligence and occasional treachery were observed by countless generations of humans. In addition, the bird is considered by many traditional peoples today as something of an intermediary between the living and the realm of the dead, as evidenced by its joyful scavenging.
Among the Koyukon people in Alaska, Raven is the “trickster-creator” of the world. Many animist-hunting cultures of the North share a similar view. While acknowledging the bird’s spiritual power on the one hand, there is a recognition of its unpredictable and sometimes unsavory nature on the other. Anthropologist Richard K. Nelson describes it this way; “While the Koyukon give deference to ravens, they also use them as the measure of impudence and trickery. The raven is a magical clown whose great power is mediated through an affable scoundrel.” Across a large swath of the North, people understand the many sacred and profane energies of the world incarnated as Raven.
Once I was walking in an unfamiliar area of woods and came across a large black wing, suspended from a wire turning slowly in the breeze. I’d stumbled upon a decommissioned bobcat trap, of which the raven wing was a visual attractant. I rarely get freaked out by finding animal parts in the woods, but something about this sent a chill up my spine. I’d never seen a dead raven before or been this close to its feathers. The dismembered wing sucked up my attention and breath in a way I’ve never experienced. I turned to leave quickly, and heard an unmistakable croaking in the distance. Never far and always watching it seems.