I think I’ve admired ravens my entire life. I remember family camping trips when I was a child and being enthralled by the sound of ravens in the deep coastal forests where we’d set up our tent. Bigger than crows, intelligent, with an extensive vocabulary, they inhabit our geographical places as well as our imaginations. They are pretty much monogamous. They have elaborate social structures. (Read Bernd Heinrich’s books to learn more about this.) We’re lucky enough to have many of them around us most of the time. One of our regular walks takes us up past a winter roost. We watch them and listen to them gossip and argue. There’s always something interesting happening up in the roost and listening to them discuss stuff is fascinating. And we talk to them, though our command of their language is limited. Still, you can stop them in mid-flight by doing the sound that is sort of like knocking on a hollow drum — click your tongue against your palate with your mouth open. If there are ravens around, they’ll almost certainly check you out. They’ve learned to use highways as food paths, flying quite low to the road to take advantage of road kill. And if you see one huddled over a dead squirrel or robin, it will quickly turn and walk away, looking very casually in the opposite direction, as though to direct your attention away from its food source. They’re opportunists. They’re clever. They work out how to feed themselves and their network. Some calls — I have to say I don’t know which ones — are directed at letting others in the roost know about potential food sources.
It was interesting to read this piece this morning on recent research into their “abstract thinking”. An experiment indicates that ravens know when they’re being spied on and protect their food caches accordingly. There’s a section at the end of the paper in which the authors wonder if their experiment proves that ravens have a Theory of Mind. It’s always kind of funny when science uses human proposistions to talk about animals, as though, with a bit of work, ravens or wolves or chimpanzees can somehow aspire to be more like us. I think ravens are astonishing birds. They’ve fascinated us and beguiled us and instructed us for as long as we’ve shared the same territory.
A few summers ago, we were driving through Manning Park with a friend and we stopped for a picnic. This raven spent time with us, close enough that we could see it had a deformed beak. (I believe this is an example of “avian keratin disorder”, caused in many cases by environmental contaminants. This bird was quite far from potential sources of such contaminants, though.) You can see that it’s pretty close to where we were sitting and managed to beg food from us quite successfully. It’s messy — this beak condition sometimes means that the birds can’t preen efficiently.
Long before Europeans were contaminating the air and water of the coast, there were crooked-beaked ravens around. In the winter ceremonials of the Kwakwaka’wakw, in the Hamatsa secret society dances, Galuxwadzuwus, or Crooked-Beak-of-Heaven, cracked open men’s skulls and ate their brains. A Theory of Mind in the making? Or pragmatism? Does it matter?
My old friend, the late Charles Lillard, spoke fluent raven and wrote of them so memorably that I only got his last book out to check the punctuation. The poem was as vivid to me as it was when I heard him read it twenty years ago.
Out westward the surf washes across the Lord Luckies.
At Sitka the cathedral bells call out their prophecies.
Above these flames, above this crimson beach,
a shadow rises with the updraft: croanq, croanq, croanq —
the black sanctus rising into the morning sky.
(from “Closing Down Kah Shakes Creek”)