My title sounds a bit ominous, like Edgar Allen Poe’s doleful visitor tapping on a window, but have no fear. In my world, when the raven knocks, you should always answer!
As winter drags on down here in the city, only letterbox shaped views of the mountains are available most days, peeking out between the gunmetal clouds.
Those glimpses do serve to remind me that the mountains and the ravens are out there — and that I might get up to see them once a week or so. Many people head south for this gloomy part of the winter, but I’m always drawn to the snow rather than the sand.
Often we get up on the mountain and there’s only a matching letterbox view back out at the city through the same clouds …
… but every time it’s wonderful in some different way.
To hear a raven calling in the snow-hushed forest — that knock, knock, knock call, something between a tapping on hollow bamboo and water dropping into a still pool — that sound alone is worth getting out of bed early and stepping into long johns and winter woollies.
You can see the raven’s chilly morning breath in this video and, if you listen closely, hear a stream merrily running in the background.
We met this suave raven below in the forest on our last trip. I like to think I “called” him or her. I have been practicing my raven calling, with mixed results. Usually they ignore me, but occasionally they do a U-turn in mid-flight, possibly to come see if something down below is dying and available for lunch.
But, back to the raven and the beautiful call.
Like a trained opera singer, the raven pours all kinds of skill and stamina into that effortless sounding “clock clock clock.”
Head thrown back for best possible vocal projection.
Nictitating membrane of the eye deployed, giving the impression that our performer is blocking out all distraction in order to produce the purest sound.
Throat expanded, presumably to make a hollow space from which to draw that echoing call. Magnificent feathery “cravat” sticking out in all directions.
Wings held out to the side and tail spread out — that horizontal line behind the raven is the tail, held out like a fan.
Well, maybe another time, as it’s a very long list.
This time I just want to talk about the the specific ways in which raven couples remind me of me and my husband.
The first time the similarity struck me was a few years ago. A raven pair walked along together, chatting quietly, before one of them (this would be me, in the analogy) got distracted by a piece of foliage and started skipping off in an entirely different direction. I actually made a small print of this image for my husband for Valentines Day that year and it sits in a frame in our bedroom.
It’s a reminder of the time when I was first becoming obsessed with crows and ravens and we were walking together along a wind-lashed beach in Washington. We were strolling along, talking about something or other when I was drawn, like iron filings to a magnet, by a crow playing in the surf. Phillip walked on, continuing our interesting conversation for quite a while before realizing he was yelling over the wind at himself.
Luckily he is very understanding about moments like these (which are ongoing.) Also about the waiting in freezing temperatures while I take “one more photograph.”
The more I watch raven couples the more they remind me of the small and very practical things that go into a long term relationship.
I would submit that the strongest building blocks of all personal relationships, romantic or otherwise, are not so much grand gestures, roses and chocolates, as countless little acts of kindness, rambling ongoing conversations, comfortable silences, silly recurring jokes, finishing each others’ sentences, pointless squabbles … followed by more jokes and more acts of small kindness.
Ravens chat to each other a lot when things are quiet. They also groom each others’ feathers. This is known as allo-preening and is important in two ways:
physically, it keeps their feathers in good conditions and controls parasites;
bird-anthropologically (birdthropologically?) it builds trust between the two birds, strengthening love and family ties. As ravens (and crows) generally mate for life, this is an important and long term process.
I’ve noticed ravens often play “beak games” which look like a combination of kissing and food stealing. It mostly seems to be the female putting her beak inside the male’s, as if looking for food, even when no food is in play.
I wonder if it’s partly the female reminding the male that there are times of the year when he will need to feed her. During nesting season, when she’s stuck on the nest incubating the eggs, she’ll have to rely on him to remember to keep her fed.
I haven’t seen crows play these beak games, but their equivalent seems to be that, at the beginning of nesting season, female crows mimic the begging calls and postures of a fledgling in order to get the males into Nest Dash mode.
Anyway, like most of the raven couple behaviour, it looks like fun — but with a practical component.
When I take photographs of raven pairs, I’m always thinking of them being in a big family album.
A mix of formal portraits …
… and those candid snapshots that make up a lifetime together.
So, as we approach another Valentine’s Day, I’m not saying don’t buy your loved one roses and/or chocolates … but just think how surprised they’d be if you thoughtfully offered to check their hair for parasites as well!