As you probably know, I normally just post aboutbirds on my blog and on social media.
My aim is to share my love for ravens, crows, and other birds — but I also hope to convey, through my portraits, a feeling of empathy.
I like to think that the feeling of kinship with another species will spill over into similar feeling for our fellow humans, however different their life experiences may be from our own.
Yesterday I stuck my head over the social media parapet to express how sad and worried I feel about some of the things happening as part of the “Freedom Convoy” currently demonstrating in Ottawa.
Many people felt the same, but others disagreed heartily. One commenter felt it was inappropriate for me to express my political views on my Facebook page.
I do generally try to stay away from politics, trying mostly to share the beauty and humour I see in my subject matter, and give people a respite from the more stressful areas of social media.
However, sometimes it feels that just posting pretty pictures of birds is not enough.
I feel a real connection with the birds I photograph and — I hope it goes without saying — with my fellow humans, many of whom have had a very rough time through Covid.
What makes me so sad and worried about the “Freedom Convoy” is that is has gotten very far away from a protest by some truck drivers angered by a new cross-border vaccine mandate affecting their industry. It has been co-opted to a large extent by groups with far more extreme goals and intimidating tactics.
It’s important that we feel empathy for truck drivers who have been working hard to keep us all supplied with the things we need through some very tough times — but it’s equally important to feel the same sympathy for:
the exhausted and often abused nurses and doctors working through the pandemic
the front line workers forced to confront angry people as they go about their often low paying service jobs
the teachers and school staff struggling to provide children with some sense of normalcy and to keep everyone safe at the same time
people with underlying health conditions (and their caregivers) whose lives are far more affected by Covid than most of us
those in Ottawa unable to get around, or get sufficient sleep, due to the ongoing disruptions there
people who have been intimidated by some elements among the demonstrators
those who feel indirectly, but realistically, threatened by the very presence of swastikas, Confederate flags and Pure Blood t-shirts on blatant display
journalists who have been trolled in threatening ways on social media and in real life for doing their jobs
The list could go on …
I lead a pretty privileged life, and I’m chilled to the bone by what I’ve seen and read over the last few days, so I can only imagine how those in the direct far-right line of fire must feel seeing these things.
So, I just felt I had to say something yesterday.And again today.
I had to say THIS IS NOT OK, just in case, by my silence, anyone might think I believe that all is well as long as we just gaze at lovely birds.
I believe a huge majority of people in Canada are far from OK with it and that we need to say so, even if it’s not what we usually do.
Respectfully, if you find this post too political I will be fine if you decide you don’t want to follow my blog or posts any more — or you can just stay tuned for more crows and ravens and empathy.
So here we go, resuming normal programming with some pictures of ravens — some in fog and some in sunshine.
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
I’m feeling a little sorry for myself today. Nothing too serious — just a sudden tweak to the back sustained, somewhat ironically, while tying the laces on my exercise shoes.
As I’m currently housebound, it’s time to access the memory vault of recent raven encounters.
Corvid-like, I cache these recollections like an emergency rainy day fund, or a jar of home-canned apricot jam set aside for a hopelessly dark and wet morning some time in January.
In peering into the raven pantry I hope to cheer myself (and you too, if you need it) with a reminder of all the raven beauty out there. The fact that it’s certainly going on right now, even if no human is watching, is always a source of comfort to me.
Here are some highlights from three recent trips to the back country.
Raven Reminiscence 1 — Dog Mountain
Near the end of August, with the diminishing of heat and crowds, and the completion (more or less) of major home renovations, we ventured out for the first hike of the summer. The short trip up to Dog Mountain was made tricky by the latticework of wet and slippery roots everywhere. The view at the top was just becoming veiled in cloud with nary a raven in sight.
A group of walkers had wandered off, leaving their lunches and backpacks unattended at the viewpoint. Rooky mistake — and yet the bags were left unmolested, leading me to believe there couldn’t possibly be any ravens on the mountain that day.
Still, it was lovely to be up there and I was resigning myself to a raven-free expedition (it happens) when, out of the blowing mist …
And where there is one raven, there is usually a mate
Summer’s End Raven
Raven Reminiscence 2 — Lillooet Lake
Right at the end of August we visited friends who live on Lillooet Lake, near Pemberton. So much space, and the distant sounds of ravens.
On one particular early morning walk along the lake shore we heard some raven calls I’d never experienced before.
A solo raven sat in tree by the lake making a few general “Here I am. Where are you?” calls to his mate, along with some gentle “water dripping from a bamboo pipe” sounds. There were small birds skimming across the surface of the lake too and we noticed that the raven began to turn his considerable vocal talents to mimicking their cheeping calls.
Moments later some distant dog barking inspired this next bit of impersonation …
Next, we see the raven couple enjoying a quiet moment in their enviable back yard. Raven real estate listings would include “Miles of lake, hundreds of kilometres of forest, towering cliffs for soaring, few people, birds of all kinds to imitate …”
Raven pair at Lillooet Lake
Raven Reminiscence 3 — Black Mountain
The third, and most recent, experience actually involved some amateur raven conjuring.
We’d hiked up to the Black Mountain area of Cypress Bowl. It was a beautify morning with not another human to be seen. The view was breath taking, the weather was perfect.
Geordie in his happy place …
Taking it all in, I said “This is so perfect. Only one thing could make it better . . . ”
I don’t need to tell you who landed with a dignified “quork” before I finished the sentence.
Only one single feather out of place, in spite of a light breeze.
Raven obligingly posing in front of the landmark Two Sisters peaks — also known as The Lions.
We walked around the whole area for a couple of hours and every once in a while we’d see our wish-summoned ravens in the distance. As usual, there was a pair of them.
The most surprising raven thing of the summer happened when we took a last break at Cabin Lake before hiking back from Black Mountain to the parking lot.
Our raven showed up once again. Popped up, in fact …
There was a bit of a raven promenade along the boardwalk …
One of them confidently took up a post on top of a park sign.
That still wasn’t the amazing thing.
Nor was it the fact that the raven stayed there, quite unperturbed, as several hikers walked along the boardwalk inches away from him.
No, the amazing thing was that the humans didn’t seem to even notice him!!
How can anyone walk right by such a commanding bird, so close and at eye level, and not even cast a glance their way — or at least offer a respectful greeting???
My mind was a bit boggled, but then again, perhaps those people were obsessed by lichen, wholly consumed by cloud formations, or just fitness-fixated and on to the next peak.
We all have our foibles, I guess.
But I would always, always advise taking a moment to greet a raven.
Sometimes they’ll even greet you back!
And, speaking of backs, time to go get the heat pad on mine after this little delve into the repository of raven recollection. If I start feeling really low I may have to revert to watching my “ravens playing in snow” videos on repeat.
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
Not having made it up the mountains this week, I wasn’t expecting to hear that heart- lifting and immediately recognizable raven call.
And yet, wandering out to the alley with the recycling and no expectations — there it was. Unmistakable. And loud.
It was so loud because it was on the Hydro pole right beside me! Dropped recycling and pelted back to the house for the camera, just in time to catch a quick shot of a crow (undoubtedly Marvin or Mavis) dive bombing the visitor.
The raven flew off to the most unlikely of destinations — the construction site where they’re building the artificial turf sports facility for the private school at the end of the street. Naturally, I followed.
The upcoming video isn’t as pastorally playful as the one I took a couple of weeks ago of them enjoying fun in the mountain snow, but I think it’s just as interesting a display of how a raven brain ticks. Our resourceful corvid friend had a bundle of something in his/her beak. I couldn’t really tell what it was, but it seemed precious. Perhaps bones. Watch how carefully that treasure is cached under whatever material is available — in this case, great lumps of grey road crush.
My favourite part is the ultra-casual “nothing to see here” saunter away afterwards.
Adding extra excitement, the flag person for the construction site yelled at me and told me I wasn’t allowed to take photos! Huh? Not wanting to get into the dubious legality of that statement, I just pointed out the raven and continued filming. Luckily for all concerned, they decided to just let the crazy corvid lady alone.
After a short site inspection, taking in the piles of gravel and some of the heavy machinery, the raven tried out the acoustics. Even before all the extra concrete was poured for the sports facility, this area was occasionally appreciated by visiting ravens for its echo chamber qualities. (See: Special Days, 2018) Yesterday’s calls , shown in the following video, reminded the crows to renew their official protests.
After a brief stop in nearby tree and being re-mobbed by crows (mostly likely Marvin and Mavis again) our visitor decided to move on.
I often wonder if the ravens we sometimes we see in our neighbourhood have just popped down from the local mountains. Vancouver seems very close from there, all spread out below, and not too many powerful wing flaps away for a raven with an urge for some urban excitement. Anyway, it makes me happy to know that, even if we don’t see them every day, they’re close.
I’m always, always straining my ears for that call.
About a year ago I posted the first Raven Therapy story. The world had just shifted in ways that, at that point, we couldn’t really grasp. All I knew was that I needed therapeutic ravens, and that other people might need them too.
Formal raven couple, convinced that this trail has been groomed just for them
I turns out that, in the months since then, there were long periods when it was impossible to get up into the mountains and hang out with ravens — trails being closed to avoid crowding … or trails open, but too crowded to feel safe. On rare and happy occasions a raven or two would grace our neighbourhood.
As we mark the Covid anniversary (even with glimmers of light at the end of the tunnel) I definitely needed a booster dose of raven therapy. Perhaps you do too.
Resisting the covid with the corvid.
These are photos and videos from a couple of recent early morning trips to the local mountains.
Just in case you’re in a rush and don’t have time to read all of this at once, here’s the most potent shot of raven therapy first.
Ravens playing in the snow. In my humble opinion, there are few things more joyful.
If you have time to stay around, I’ll be sharing a few looks at the details of raven beauty and some more observations on their amazing behaviour. A veritable raven therapy spa experience!
Like crows in snow, I love photographing ravens in that pure white backdrop — especially on a nice cloudy day where all the details are revealed.
Raven catching just the softest rays of early morning sunshine
Perhaps the most joyful sight was this behaviour between a raven pair.
Raven joins her mate
He feeds her. This is preparation behaviour for nesting season, where the female will beg for food from the male to trigger that instinct in him to keep her fed later in the season while she’s sitting on the eggs.
Just after this happened, I saw this rather funny exchange.
Raven couple standing together
A slight head movement …
Beaks touch …
The moment turns into a full examination of his beak for possible hidden snacks — say aaaah
Chasing after a distant raven call can be a bit of a mug’s game as, nine times out of ten, the raven is long gone by the time you catch up with the sound.
Yesterday morning, however, my raven luck was overflowing. I followed the calls to a street really close to our house and found not one, but FOUR ravens.
One pair was calling in a large cedar tree, only a couple of blocks from our house.
Across the street another raven pair were calling from a house roof, setting off a cacophony of crow cawing and dog barking.
I should mention that Geordie, a calm veteran of many a corvid encounter, was not one of the barkers. He was more worried that we were never going to get home.
I ended up following the roof ravens as they moved from one house to another for the next half hour or so. Sorry Geordie.
The wet and windy weather was playing havoc with that majestic look the ravens usually maintain.
At one point the raven pair landed on the roof of some friends. As the raven was calling and I was taking photos from the alleyway, my friend’s head popped out of her attic window to ask, “Is there a raven on my roof?” and I was able to answer, “No, there are TWO ravens on your roof!” We decided that, if a pair of magpies is a “Two for Joy” situation, then two ravens must be a great omen.
The absolute highlight of my morning was watching the two wet roof ravens engage in some allopreening and also the affectionate beak play that I captured as a still moment in my new Raven Kiss image.
At that point I felt that my urban nature enthusiasm batteries were charged to the point of overflow. Simultaneously, my camera battery was drained, so it was finally (to Geordie’s relief) time to head home.
Sometimes it seems as if the world of nature knows just what I need. All I have to do is get outside, even if my jaded inner voice is asking “why bother?” … and just go see.
Sometimes it’s something I’ve seen a hundred times before — in just a slightly different light.
Sometimes it’s a show stopping surprise.
Either way, it’s always worth dragging my boots on. The dog generally agrees.
Corvids don’t really kiss like humans … but they do show affection for each other in a number of ways. In the case of the pair above — they were touching beaks in a very affectionate way for quite a while.
I think this behaviour would come under the umbrella of corvid allopreening which usually involves a crow or raven gently (more or less) combing through their partner’s feathers. This solicitous behaviour strengthens the pair bond between them, and helps to keep those very important feathers in tip top condition. I’ve also read an article about ravens using allopreening to restore harmony after some sort of dispute — Ravens Kiss and Make Up After a Brawl (New Scientist.)
On our last snowshoeing trip a couple of weeks ago we saw this pair of ravens …
Watching them was especially therapeutic as it was the day after the storming of the US Capitol building. Such loving care made me want to cry.
Just seeing ravens in general was the equivalent of a Club Med vacation!
In spite of the wet snow.
Geordie also had an excellent day
A rather censorious Steller’s Jay
I may add some new images from the last trip to my Raven Portraits gallery, but for now, Raven Kiss is available now … in time for Valentine’s Day (hint.)
Earlier this week I wrote about a new study into the impressive range of raven intelligence. Lots of people wrote to me or commented on Raven Reasoning with their own first hand stories of raven cleverness.
So now I’m inspired to tell my favourite raven story …
The ravens of Mount Seymour are well known for their lunch and snack stealing prowess. On almost every hiking or snowshoeing trip there we’ve witnessed a skilful heist of one sort or another, with prizes ranging from sandwiches to chocolate bars to full party-sized bags of chips.
But this one incident stands out.
It was winter and we’d snowshoed to a poplar destination where people always rest to take in the view out over Vancouver and eat their lunch.
We’d eaten ours and were about to head back down, but we stopped to talk to a group of six people who were still eating. A pair of ravens were nonchalantly strolling about nearby.
One of the men in the group fixed the ravens with a stern gaze and recounted how they’d stolen his sandwich on the last trip. “Never again,” he asserted. With a flourish, he took the remaining half of his sandwich and pushed it well into the depths of the backpack lying close beside him.
As we were chatting I had one eye on a raven (as I always do) and was just halfway through uttering the phrase, “I think this raven is casing the joint,” when …
In a move too quick for human eye to follow, the raven darted right through the middle of this large group of raven-suspicious humans, unhesitatingly plunged his head far into the man’s backpack, and flew off with his prize. There may have been a raven cackle as he disappeared into the distance.
The skill and daring took our collective breath away. Once we recovered the power of speech, most of us (excluding the theft victim) declared it pretty hilarious. And definitely very impressive.
The reason I’d been about to say my bit about “casing the joint” was I’d noticed his raven eyes darting back and forth, measuring the distance between the people, gauging how distracted we were by the conversation and the view and, all the time, remembering exactly which compartment of the backpack contained the sandwich.
We really didn’t stand a chance.
I can’t count the times I’ve been impressed by raven shrewdness, but that was one of the funniest.
Another incident: raven solves a banana problem, see following photos.
This is going to be delicious, but it’s hard to carry like this …
The theme tune of a banana company’s ad campaign from my childhood comes to mind, “Un-zip a banana!”
Play is a well known indicator of intelligence and social sophistication in a species so, for further proof that ravens are geniuses …
I’ve posted these ravens playing snowball videos before but I didn’t think you’d mind seeing them again. I could watch them over and over, particularly if I need cheering up!
Lastly, a rousing rendition of Joy to the World, raven style …
A meticulous study recently published by scientists in Leipzig, Germany, concludes that the intelligence of ravens rivals that of the great apes.
Other studies have come to similar conclusions, but this one was especially exhaustive, employing a complex combination of tests designed to measure various aspects of intelligence.
They found, among other things, that four month old ravens have already developed the impressive skill and knowledge of adults, making them incredibly quick learners.
It’s an interesting study in many respects — another step away from older science that assessed all species using, what we are now beginning to see, are very limited human criteria. It was long thought that birds, because of the small size of their brains relative to those of primates, couldn’t possibly be that smart.
Birds and mammals have been travelling down divergent evolutionary paths for lo these hundreds of millions of years. It’s now becoming evident that the mammal/bird development routes may well have ultimately led them to comparable destinations, intelligence-wise. While bird brains are indeed much smaller that our primate ones, it turns out that the many kinds of intelligence are far too complicated to be simply measured in weight and volume.
The German study is also interesting in that it questions the limitation of how valid our human assessment of other species’ intelligence can really be. We inevitably filter the results of our experiments through our particular type of intelligence. The ravens perform the tasks set by the human scientists, but how would humans perform in a test set for us by ravens?
Indeed, it has often occurred to me that I’m proving to be a rather disappointing subject for the ongoing experiment being conducted by our local corvids.
I often see myself reflected in crows and ravens. Not just literally …
… but also in the way I tend to see my own feelings and thoughts reflected back at me. Because I’m not bound by scientific rigour, and because I spend so much thinking about them and watching them, I often lapse into formulating little human-corvid parallels.
Corvids remind me of humans in so many ways — from how we both look sad on wet days to how we care for those we love.
It brings me joy to see these familiar things reflected back at me — but at the same time I realize I really have no idea of what they’re truly thinking and feeling.
They are a deep mystery and that is, in itself, marvellous.