Watching ravens is always wonderful.
Watching them play has an element of the magical.
I feel really lucky to have witnessed them playing in snow on several occasions. The lovely moment captured in the photo at the top of this post is a still from my 2019 video of ravens playing with snowballs in which one of them seems to be holding a perfectly heart-shaped snowball at about the 9 second mark.
While I’m usually out there to take photographic portraits, sometimes it seems as if moving pictures are needed to capture the moment — hence my rather amateur attempts at emergency videography. My focus is never quite 100% stable, there is often the sounds of blowing wind, or me breathing after holding my breath in order to stay still (no tripod.) Occasionally there will be a dramatic camera move. This is not an attempt at artistry on my part. It’s the dog, who is often attached to me, deciding that something elsewhere urgently needs his attention.
As we reach the end of the Snow Raven season for this spring, I thought I’d share some of my latest videos and also some of my (unscientific) theories about raven play.
First of all, sometimes people don’t really believe they’re playing at all. It’s true that part of the reason birds will roll in snow is to take a kind of bath, but I do think it’s clear that they’re also messing around and teasing each other in the process. Others have suggested that perhaps the ravens are digging around in the snow because they’re starving. In this context I know that can’t be the case, because they’re at a ski hill and if they were peckish, I know they’d be smart enough to just hop over to the nearest parking lot trash bin, or simply steal an unwary snowboarder’s sandwich.
Based on watching the ravens playing with snowballs in 2019 (see Raven Games) I can tell that the ravens in the latest video (below) are actually “mining” for suitably beak-sized ball of snow to play with. At the weather warms in March the clumping snow seams to create just the right conditions for these pre-made snowballs. Eventually one raven finds the perfect lump of snow and flies off with his buddy in hot pursuit.
The other magical thing — it’s foggy and kind of mysterious — and just listen to the other worldly raven calls coming from the forest behind the play zone.
I’ve noted that this kind of raven play often seems to happen later in the day, and mostly on days with really poor visibility. The early morning time is more about the serious business of finding food and holding motivational raven meetings. Sunny days seem to invite more soaring fun — chasing each other, eagles or hawks, high in the sky or performing lazy, breath-taking arial acrobatics on the thermal lift of warm air rising.
But the later hours of a snow-stormy or foggy day seem to invite fun on the ground — the equivalent of a cozy snow day at home doing puzzles, perhaps. I usually see several groups playing at once. While there are only one or two ravens in my videos, it’s because I’m only focussing on a single raven or pair of ravens — but there are usually other small gatherings and some solo ravens doing similarly goofy things in the area. And there is often a back-up band of ravens experimenting with making ethereal sound in the trees nearby.
The couple shown below are taking a break on the sidelines, with other playing ravens flying over.
One of them finally found a snowball (see top photo) and immediately flew off with it, hotly pursued by the other.
One last question I ask myself — why is watching ravens at play so darn enchanting?
At first I thought it might just be me, but the response every time I post a video of this kind is overwhelming. The snow-rolling ravens I filmed in February have been all around the world a few times by now. See below to for when they were weaving their spell on the home page of the Weather Network. The Weather Network!
How they got there I have no idea, but obviously they were popular.
So why is that? I think it’s partly because being goofy in the snow is, for people who don’t already know ravens well, very much out of character. Somehow you can’t imaging Poe’s dour raven visitor* mucking about with snowballs and doing face plants in the snow.
I think the other reason is that play on the part of any species — just they sheer reckless joy of it — is something that we could all watch a lot of these days. I know from comments on the video that many people wistfully tag friends, remarking that they look forward to similar carefree times together in a more relaxed, silly and sociable human future. It’s nice to see ravens as harbingers of joy rather than ill omen.
NOTE: If you feel pressing need to zone out of the endless zoom meetings and analysis of Covid curves and waves, I’ve put a collection of some of my favourite raven and crow videos all together on my hithero rarely used YouTube page and on my web site
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