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Raven Nation: Avian Superstar both Athlete & Egghead

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by Jim Robertson, who is a nature writer and ethical wildlife photographer. Empathy and respect are at the heart of his photos of animals in their wild habitats. Visit: http://www.animalsinthewild.org

Faster than a speeding bullet (wings tucked in, rocketing earthward); more powerful than the average passerine; able to scale tall mountains in a single updraft: It's a bird! It's a god! It's Super crow!

Weighing in at four times the bulk of their familiar urban-dwelling cousins and sporting a four foot wingspan, ravens are the colossus of the crow family. But it's their brains, not their brawn, that's their claim to fame. In terms of intellect, the raven is the Steven Hawking of the feathered kingdom. Chances are no more intelligent an animal has ever emerged from an egg. Tool users with a rich culture, ravens have an extensive vocabulary unmatched by any other species in the animal kingdom, aside from the primates natural historian David Attenborough calls "the compulsive communicators," homo sapiens. Their scientific name, Corvus corax, sounds suspiciously like raven vernacular--the kind of thing you might hear them say as they fly by.

Another fitting metaphor for their overall character is the James Bond of the avian world. Like agent 007, ravens are sometimes secretive and mysterious; but often articulate, clever, resourceful, opportunistic, playful, and always young at heart. Smooth operators with a sly sense of humor, they also enjoy frequent and fulfilling sex. The true founders of the mile high club, raven copulations consist of airborne acrobatics which can only be described as a dangerous and dramatic dance of devotion. But in contrast to the profusely promiscuous Bond, mated pairs of ravens are dedicated to their chosen partners for life.

As scavengers they must ascribe to the credo, "live and let die" (apologies to Paul and Linda McCartney). Yet ravens are caring parents, working in cooperation to build and repair their nests and sharing in the raising and feeding of their hatchlings. Until they pair off and claim territories of their own, juvenile ravens travel in large social bands in a wholesome, co-ed rendition of "Lord of the Flies," returning each evening to sleep at communal night roosts where they trade information about the locations of food sources they discovered that day.

The raven is a superstar among songbirds (passerines) and the head of the Corvidae family, a line of gifted birds that includes common crows, jays, nutcrackers and magpies. Bernd Heinrich, author of "Ravens in Winter" observes, "The corvid line of birds all share the capacity of curiosity. It is their trademark. One wonders if it is the key that has allowed them to flourish and diversify." But while most corvids have become specialists in their preferred habitats--gray jays and Clark's nutcrackers choosing the high country; blue and Steller's jays, dense woodlands; scrub and pinion jays, the desert and open pine forests--ravens have learned to adapt to all these environs and more. Circumpolar, they are one of the only birds found in the arctic during the long winter, or scaling the summits of the Himalayas; yet they are equally at home in the sweltering depths of Death Valley.

Wherever they're found, ravens are infamous. People throughout history have drawn their own unique conclusions regarding ravens and what they symbolize. Raven is a god and humans are the product of his handiwork, according to the creation myths of several tribes along the Pacific Northwest coast. Sometimes called the Owner of Daylight, Raven brought forth the sun, stars, and Earth, and even tempted the first humans out of a clam shell. Featured on many a totem pole, this deity also has a devilish side: the sly, conniving Trickster who has been known to pull pranks such as stealing the sun from the sky.

Authors of the Old Testament would roll over in their graves at the notion that their creator resembled any species of animal besides their own, but they too saw ravens as a kind of merry prankster. As the story goes, the pair on board Noah's Ark defied the rule against love-making (you wouldn't expect James Bond to abstain during an extended sea cruise). Even worse, they failed to return to the ark as instructed when Noah sent them to look for land.

Babylonians, Romans, Vikings and other ancient mariners also used them as scouts, surmising that if the birds did not return to the ship, land must be nearby. Technically, it was the ravens sent out on a reconnaissance mission, not the Vikings themselves, who first discovered Iceland, and for that they are revered on the island to this day. A pair of ravens--one representing thought, the other memory--perched on either shoulder of the Viking god, Odin. Each morning they flew to the ends of the Earth and brought back news of the day. (This was, of course, before the age of FOX and CNN, or Odin would surely have forsaken the sacred birds and turned to these modern sources for fair and balanced reporting.)

During the Middle Ages, a close encounter with a raven was thought a bad omen, on par with the dreaded black cat crossing your path. But the early Irish also believed the future could be foretold by interpreting a raven's call, which lead to the phrase "raven's knowledge"--meaning to see and know all. And for centuries, since they first took up residence in the Tower of London, ravens have been credited with keeping the kingdom of England safe from invasion. Nowadays, at least six ravens are kept on the tower grounds at all times--their wings clipped to ensure loyalty. Others are bred to replace aging sentinels when their time on Earth is up, which, considering raven longevity, could be matter of decades. Jim Crow, the longest living raven to serve time at the tower, lasted 44 years.

News-bearing ravens are characters in stories by J.R.R. Tolkien and George Orwell, while destructive ravens appear in the works of William Shakespeare. The speaker in Edgar Allen Poe's classic poem, simply titled, "The Raven," had a haunting vision of the all-knowing bird as he pondered, "...What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt and ominous bird of yore Meant in croaking 'Nevermore'." But his graven, unflattering, gloomy depiction reflects Poe's own tragic life and says more about the speaker's troubled state of mind than the personality of the poem's title character.

Poe's era, the mid-nineteenth century, was, however, a grim time for wildlife in this country, and the raven also became the target of much misguided derision. By 1848, the year Poe penned his poem, ravens were scarcely more than phantoms east of the Rocky Mountains. Their disappearance followed on the heels of the bison's demise. Like grizzly bears, wolves, and coyotes, they were systematically shot, trapped, snared, and poisoned. Thanks to their currently protected status, ravens are now reclaiming some of their old turf in parts of California, the Appalachians, and the Northeast.

If any single phrase sums up their own outlook, it is the French expression, "joie de vivre." Ravens transform the utilitarian act of flying into a pursuit of purest pleasure. Shameless show-offs--unsatisfied with simply soaring from place to place--ravens will suddenly drop into a breathtaking free-fall, glide upside down for hundreds of yards, or perform a spectacular series of forward barrel rolls. Call it anthropomorphism, but ravens take delight in entertaining their audience. They get their jollies whenever possible--genuinely enjoying life.

 

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