It’s a busy Easter weekend with not much time for blog posting, so I’m going to let the ravens do most of the work.
Even as it’s starting to look ever so slightly spring-like down here in Vancouver, it’s still a winter wonderland up on the nearby mountains. As it’s a winter wonderland that sometimes contains ravens, so we try to get out there at least once a week.
The Raven Soap Opera is a short video I filmed when we were up on Seymour a couple of weeks ago. It was Spring Break, a sunny day, and the ski hill was packed when we got back to the ski lift area/parking lot from our early morning expedition.
You can hear the excited buzz of human voices in the background, and that high pitch of human energy was mirrored in a large group of ravens socializing nearby.
A raven pair — first just strolling casually along as one of them (Walking Raven Right) makes a quiet but emphatic call — then hopping along with increasing urgency as they near a bigger group of birds congregating on a snow pile ahead …
Now this is where the action really begins. You may need to pause and rewind a few times to catch every little bit of the action.
Our couple reaches the larger group and you can see Walking Raven Right has already decided to make an impressive entrance.
Raven at bottom right with a ball of ice in beak (Ice Ball Raven) can see which way the wind blows and makes a tactful retreat with prize.
WRR gives a haughty head toss upon arrival, immediately singling out one of the group for a thorough verbal dressing down. This raven takes a respectful step back, but not without getting the last word in (Last Word Raven.)
Things calm down momentarily until yet another raven who’d been minding their own business in the background decides it’s time for their moment of glory and dives at Ice Ball Raven.
And that was it — just a few seconds of raven social interaction.
I love these moments because I know they’re just the very tip of the raven iceberg.
It’s tantalizing, wondering about the hours and hours of Ibsen-like drama and dialogue I’m missing when I’m not up on the mountain.
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!
This a re-post of my original blog, first written in 2014.
I was reminded of it by the appearance of one of my images in the newly publishedBook of the Raven next to the chapter about Charles Dickens’ raven, Grip, who is said to have inspired Edgar Allen Poe’s poem, The Raven.
And to the original post, with the addition of some newer raven images …
I have concluded that Edgar Allen Poe’s famous poem, The Raven, is nothing more than an unfortunate inter-species misunderstanding. Let me explain …
I was thinking of calling this new crow portrait “Nevermore”. Before making my final decision, I decided to reread the famous poem that has forever linked ravens with the word “nevermore”.
The last time I read it was in the 1970s when I was studying literature at university. Steeped as I was in the poetry and prose of the English Romantic poets, I rapturously devoured The Raven, reading it as the dramatic story of a heartbroken young man, mourning the loss of his true love, receiving a dire prophecy of everlasting gloom from his nocturnal avian visitor, a “grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore”.
Read in that light, I’d be reluctant to link “my” handsome fellow to such a bleak and rather morbid portrait of raven-kind. But then it came to me — the whole episode described in the poem is simply a terrible misunderstanding!
The raven isn’t saying “Nevermore” at all. He’s showing the typical corvid aptitude for mimicry and repeating what he’s heard the heartsick human calling out into the darkness – the name of his lost love, Lenore. (It’s sometimes a little tricky to interpret the raven accent.) Perhaps he’s even trying to cheer up our lachrymose hero.
So really, instead of calling upon the raven to “get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore,” he should have gone out for a nice brisk night-time walk with the friendly raven for company, and possibly felt quite refreshed by morning.
So, with this cheerier interpretation in mind, I think I’ll go ahead and call my image, Nevermore. The image is for sale as a fine art photographic print in my online store.
With apologies to serious Edgar Allen Poe fans everywhere.
But, if you would like to re-read the poem and decide if you see any truth in my interpretation, here is the poem:
by Edgar Allen Poe
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visiter,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.”
Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December;
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow;—vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore—
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Nameless here for evermore.
And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
“’Tis some visiter entreating entrance at my chamber door—
Some late visiter entreating entrance at my chamber door;—
This it is and nothing more.”
Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
“Sir,” said I, “or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you”—here I opened wide the door;—
Darkness there and nothing more.
Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “Lenore?”
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, “Lenore!”—
Merely this and nothing more.
Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
“Surely,” said I, “surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore—
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;—
’Tis the wind and nothing more!”
Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.
Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore—
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning—little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door—
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as “Nevermore.”
But the Raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing farther then he uttered—not a feather then he fluttered—
Till I scarcely more than muttered “Other friends have flown before—
On the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes have flown before.”
Then the bird said “Nevermore.”
Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
“Doubtless,” said I, “what it utters is its only stock and store
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore—
Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore
But the Raven still beguiling all my fancy into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door;
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore—
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking “Nevermore.”
This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom’s core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion’s velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o’er,
But whose velvet-violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o’er,
She shall press, ah, nevermore!
Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
“Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee—by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite—respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore;
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!—
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted—
On this home by Horror haunted—tell me truly, I implore—
Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us—by that God we both adore—
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
“Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!” I shrieked, upstarting—
“Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken!—quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor