In his poem “The Raven”, Edgar Allan Poe portrays this magnificent bird as a bearer of bad tidings from the Underworld about his girlfriend Lenore. The raven’s black color, less-than-handsome looks, and large size make him a natural for spookiness. But despite his bleak appearance and some bad press he’s gotten over the centuries, I’m a raven maven.
Two types of ravens are native to the Southwest, where I live. Corvus corax, the common raven, is the world’s largest perching bird at up to 27″ in length. His call sounds like krruuuk or tok tok tok. Corvus cryptoleucus-the Chihuahuan or white-necked raven-is crow size at about 20″. He has a higher-pitched call (kraak) and a small patch of white at the base of the neck. Although the white-necked raven is more gregarious, both types are highly social and nest communally, often in flocks of hundreds. I remember once driving down an isolated dirt road when I suddenly came upon a startling scene: a huge colony of ravens noisily nesting in the junipers.
Like the other members of the corvid family (jays, magpies and crows), ravens are ecological generalists. One of the secrets of their success is that ravens are omnivorous. They’ll devour carrion, insects, fruits, nuts, seeds, eggs, young birds, fish, frogs, mice, and dog kibble with equal gusto. Urban ravens are accomplished Dumpster divers. Wilderness ravens often follow grizzlies and wolves to their kills to eat the leftover meat. They also act as hunting guides for polar bears and humans. Ravens have been known to kill small animals such as young seals, using their formidable beaks as hammers.
Ravens can adapt to virtually any climate. They are found in North America up to the foothills of the Rockies, and in Mexico and Central America. They can survive the Arctic winter as far north as the Queen Elizabeth Islands, where temperatures drop to -70 degrees Fahrenheit. Their stocky bodies are designed for extremes of weather, retaining heat in the cold and cooling off quickly in the heat. The soles of northern ravens are six times thicker than their southern cousins to protect them from ice and snow.
The raven courtship ritual, like much of what these birds do, is exuberant. The male, with his pointed wings and fingered wingtips, displays his aerial virtuosity to his intended, who joins him if he catches her fancy. Then they indulge in a mutual preening ritual and together weave a large, loose nest using whatever is at hand-string, wire, wool, sticks-in a tree, on a ledge, or atop a telephone pole. Ravens are monogamous; they mate for life. They’re also practical and reuse their nests every year.
Ravens are among the most intelligent of birds. Among other mental feats, they’ve learned that if they drop shellfish from a height onto a hard surface, the shells will crack open. Sometimes they’ll try to do the same thing with golf balls, which probably resemble eggs to them. They’ll swoop down on a golf course to pick up the balls, eventually dropping them, either to try to open them or to dump them when they discover they’re not edible. I have quite a collection of raven-rejected golf balls retrieved from the arroyo south of our house.
An Indian myth of Eastern North America describes how the trickster Raven brought fire to the world. He, Robin and Mole saw smoke rising from the village of the Fire People and accompanied them to steal the fire. But Robin’s feathers were scorched, so Mole burrowed down into the village chief’s house, whereupon Raven stole the chief’s baby. As ransom he asked for fire. The chief acquiesced, also giving him two sticks to strike together for sparks.
The trickster Raven for the Northwest tribes helped the creator complete the world. He turned himself into a pine needle that was swallowed by Sky Chief’s daughter. She gave birth to a son, who was given a box with the sun inside by Sky Chief. The son then morphed back into a raven and flew across the sky, opening his box at regular intervals to produce daylight.
Yet another North American myth describes the raven helping create the earth by dropping pebbles into the sea to make islands.
In Chinese, Japanese and Persian mythology the raven is a messenger of the gods and the sun symbol. In Norse legend, two ravens accompany the god Odin.
But Poe was influenced by the gloomy Christian view of ravens. To him ravens represented bad omens, evil, death, and war. My dogs and I enjoy our daily interactions with the local ravens, who are far from gloomy. I slather peanut butter on the branches of juniper trees every morning and then whistle for them. More often than not, they’re already waiting in neighboring trees for the treat, but sometimes they’ll fly in from other adventures, performing aerobatics with each other along the way to show off. The ravens clearly enjoy teasing my dogs, who like to bark at them and chase them in a totally fruitless attempt to catch one. And therein lies the paradox of the raven; despite his funereal demeanor and grim reputation, he appears to enjoy life immensely. Whether he’s investigating the culinary offerings around our house, perching on a cottonwood watching the clouds drift by, or swooshing through the air with the greatest of ease as he calls to his companions, my eyes are drawn again and again to the vivacious raven.