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Crows and Ravens

Birds of Mystery and Intrigue


"My love, she's at my window, like a raven with a broken wing."

-Bob Dylan


"...the raven is big, black, and beautiful. Its highly glossed plumage shows iridescent greens, blues, and purples, shining like a black dewdrop in the light. And it dives and rolls like a black thunderbolt out of the sky or speeds along with liquid, gliding strokes. The raven is the paragon of the air, and more. It is assumed to be the brains of the bird world, so deep, sonorous, penetrating voice demands immediate attention and respect, even though we have little or no idea what it says. It has a greater variety of calls than perhaps any other animal in the world except human beings. It is an imposing bird."

-Bernd Heinrich

"If men had wings and bore black feathers, few of them would be clever enough to be crows."

-Rev.Henry Ward Beecher mid 1800's ("Bird Brains")

Welcome to "Crows and Ravens," or "Ode to the Underdogs." I say "underdogs" because crows and ravens have been under harsh scrutiny as long as anyone can remember, and the dominant perception has been that these animals deserved nothing close to sympathy, but rather various forms of persecution. Thus, they were freely shot at and poisioned , nests were destroyed, and yet somehow these animals have persevered nicely--crows are thriving in fact. Ironically, crows and ravens are probably much closer to the characterizations in the Heinrich quote above than to our traditional perceptions.

Ample press is given to charismatic animals such as dolphins, chimps and the like, but few when talking of intelligent beings think to mention the crow or raven. It is, however, easy to understand the natural aversions we have towards these birds: They're lacking in any type of floral-like beauty; they have a cacophonous and sometimes incessant caw, and are cunning thieves to boot. Here's a real-world example of our perceptions from the Baltimore Sun: "Dirty. Brooding. Noisy. Road-kill pecking." How this reputation became so engrained is many-faceted. An obvious reason is the birds propensity to be drawn toward carrion, sometimes in large numbers and usually with "commotion in the winds." But in the realm of death, one can't deny the impact of Old World literature in forming our associations of death with these pitch black birds. B.Heinrich, in Ravens in Winter, cites such examples. In the Old English poem, Judith, the raven is seen at times of battle with the wolves waiting for fresh kills: "...the wolf in the forest, and the dark raven, the slaughter-greedy bird. Both knew what the warriors intended to provide for them a feast of doomed warriors; and behind them flew the eagle eager for prey, and the dewy-feathered one, the dark-coated one; he sang a battle song, the horny-beaked one." And with much likeness are these lines from Beowulf, an eighth-century epic poem also from Old England: "...but the black raven, eager for the doomed ones, as he shall say much to the eagle of what success he had at feeding, when he, with the wolf, plundered the corpses." Due to such associations, the word "Ravenstone" became a term to refer to places of execution.

Besides the associations with death, crows, and particularly ravens, were also symbols of the ungodly and of ill repute. If there was a flaw in God's plan, it must be these birds. Shakespeare , in Macbeth, says the raven "croaks the evil entrance," and in Othello the raven flies "o'er the infected house," both screaming evil connotations. Heinrich says that generally ravens came to be synonymous with "sinner," despite biblical assertions of ravens feeding holy hermits during a time of turmoil and drought. In King 17:6 God's message was: "Depart from here and turn eastward, hide yourself by the brook Cherith, that is east of Jordon. You shall drink from the brook, and I have commanded ravens to feed you there."

However, contrasting the dominantly dark perceptions of the Old World, in the New World (particularly the northwest portion), Natives held the raven at least, in a position of reverence. Creator of the sun, moon, the earth and it's inhabitants their stories claim. Which in part, is why the raven thrives in the west-- they were not persecuted as with the eastern settlers. Especially in Alaska, killing a raven is an ultimate taboo that can yield nothing but harm to the assailant. On St. Lawrence Island during an archeological excavation, bones of 45 different bird types were found. Notably absent were raven bones, suggesting that this Eskimo civilization of 1100 years has long revered the raven. Apparently the ravens even seem somewhat tame in such areas.

The raven isn't always benign, although. It seems as one moves east, the more Natives acknowledge the raven's power as a trickster and rascal. It's believed that Raven had to alter the original creation of the world to a less-cush environment for humans, so life wouldn't be too easy. Watching humans struggle with the complexities, and sometimes arduous portions of life is a source of amusement for Raven. Apparently in the original creation, Raven had fat grow on trees, and rivers flowed in both directions, and humans were made of durable stone rather than dust.

Yet, this trickster reputation may also stem from the sense of humor and play that both crows and ravens seemingly possess. Stories are numerous citing examples of the birds playing catch with twigs, sliding down icy rocks on their backs, provoking much larger animals by antics such as tail-pulling and dive-bombs. (I on a few occasions have witnessed a pair of crows, possibly ravens, dive-bomb humans in what seemed as play tactics, or was in someway a manner to gauge our response to such provoction.)

But here are my two favorite trickster anecdotes: First, a man was doing some research on raven and was required by a superior to shot down a raven for some aspect of their research. The man, despite his reservations for shooting an animal he was fond of, reluctantly carried out his orders. Spotting a raven, he fixed it in his scope and fired. Just skimming the wing, he did not cause any serious harm, and the bird unwavering, continued to circle. It circled around and proceeded to drop a present, with keen percision on the man, consequently making quite an impression on the man-- he never shot/killed another animal unless he was intending to eat it. The second involves a man who really had it with crows; thought they were the reason why he couldn't snare cottontail rabbits. He and his buddies often shot at them with little success (crows have an elaborate team protection system). So, one day he came up with the plan to scare them by placing large mirrors on the ground, facing up, so that the crows would see their reflection, and thus be scared by their image. Well, the birds being curious checked out the mirror. Then peculiarly, one by one, made a pass over the mirrors dropping excretions, pratically covering the entire surfaces. They proceeded to go the near-by roost and crowed like mad, seemingly in mockery.

Understandably, I can see why one may be hesitant to hypothetically have a raven or crow as a friend. While they may be smart, ingenious, protective, adventurous, and full of engaging play; it seems that trust/fear issues could subvert the relationship. I, however, (embracing anthropormorhisms), prefer to see the birds as family/friend orientated. I see them as flexible, adaptive, and curious birds that incite intelligence. I like how they seem to have a thirst for knowledge, always testing out new things for advantages and efficiency. And I prefer to see the raven in the compassionate light as the Athapaskan people do, dropping good fortune when it is needed or deserved. As from the book Moose by Michio Hoshino: "Sometimes people call on the Raven for help. One of the things we say to Raven while we hunt is 'Tseek'aal, sits'a nohaaltee'ogh,' which means "Grandpa, drop a pack to me." Also from the book, a woman claims, "People also talk to Raven when they see it out in the woods, especially when they are alone. They talk to Raven the same way we pray to God."

While it's undeniable that crows and ravens are birds of mystery, surprisingly, scientific study of these creatures is limited at best, although recent interest has spurred. Ravens understandably are a tough research subject. They are witty, secretive, have large ranges, and are usually in mountainous terrain that is difficult to traverse. But crows? They're everywhere. Yet, subjected to obvious prejudices and most just don't find them to be a charismatic research subject. Scientists, however, are starting to ackknowledge the intrigue of crows, as well as their experimental potential. More and more studies and writings are surfacing from the scientific community on these Corvids. Yet, even though such studies can provide insights into the essence of these animals, often more questions become apparent rather than answers. Consider the words of Henry Miller: "No matter what you touch and you wish to know about, you end up in a sea of mystery. You see there's no beginning or end, you can go back as far as you want, forward as far as you want, but you never got to it..."(the essence.)

This Crows And Ravens site is owned by
Troy Karki.

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