There is much crows and ravens can teach us
“Once upon a midnight dreary...” begins the poem, The Raven, by Edgar Allen Poe.
It tells the story of a man who has lost his beloved Lenore and yearns for her presence only to be told by an ominous raven that he will hold her “nevermore.”
In this poem and in many cultures, ravens and crows serve as symbols of darkness and death, but in other mythologies, they represent light bringers and creators, this contradiction perhaps because the birds themselves are exceptionally complex and intelligent.
One of the most impressive encounters Ted and I’ve had with ravens and death occurred several years ago when we drove up to the Robertson Pasture Trail on Blue Mountain and hiked into the woods, intending to eat our lunch amidst the pines.
We didn’t get far before we saw thousands of Mormon crickets swarming the ground. Mormon crickets, so named because they threatened the tender crops of the Salt Lake City pioneers, are actually shieldbacked katydids, not crickets.
Although flightless, they travel fast and far, and when they swarm, they eat every plant and dead insect in their path. Mostly, I try to be respectful toward God’s creations, but the katydids had a face only a mother could love, and I wasn’t their mother.
Finally, we found a place where we could sit down. I wasn’t feeling much like eating, but as I bit into my sandwich, Ted said, “Look,” and gestured toward the sky.
I don’t remember now if the birds were crows or ravens or both, but hundreds were flying toward the area. They landed in a clearing in front of us and began gorging on the katydids.
As we watched, more and more flew into the clearing, and although they weren’t seagulls, I felt we were seeing our own miracle with a San Juan twist.
Corvids, which include ravens, crows, magpies, and jays, are classified as songbirds and make a variety of sounds to communicate.
Raven language includes caws, croaks, rattles, clicks, trills, and, if trained, human words such as “nevermore.”
They’re also great imitators and duplicate a variety of sounds including dogs, dripping water, cats, and other birds.
According to Brian Mertins, the caws can be divided into two broad categories. The first is a pattern of four to nine caws followed by stillness with the sequence repeated many times.
Mertins thinks those calls, which are context free, communicate with mates and family members.
The other category is context vocalizations which are varied, unstructured, and convey a specific event, such as the presence of a predator.
Other experts believe raven language is tonal, the same sounds taking on different meanings according to how long the bird pauses between notes and its intonations.
Many studies document not only raven language, but also their intelligence. If they know patience will be rewarded, they have the ability to forego a treat for a better one, sometimes outdoing children in similar willpower tests.
They recognize and remember human faces, those who harm and those who help, and spread that knowledge to other ravens or crows.
They create, use, and combine tools from twigs, wire, and paper to solve multi-step problems, the only non-primates to do so.
They plan for the future, pretending to stash food, then hiding it in their feathers and caching it elsewhere to fool other corvids.
They match similar and dissimilar objects without prior training.
And, if sheer joy in living is a sign of intelligence, they are playful, sliding down snow-covered windshields or roofs, doing aerial loops, spins, and spirals, flipping upside down and flying short distances, and even locking talons in midair.
Apparently, they also feel the full gamut of emotions, so perhaps Poe’s raven was speaking “nevermore” from experience because corvids assess danger and mourn when one of their kindred has been killed. In fact, people have witnessed them dropping twigs on their dead as if burying them.
One day, as Oggie and I walked in Westwater, we heard a ruckus coming from the corvid population, mostly ravens and magpies. Curious, we hustled to the stream.
When we came close, the birds took flight, scolding us and landing in nearby trees. Not knowing what to expect, we slipped through the oakbrush and scared a fox feeding on a dead raven.
As the fox bounded up the hill, I examined the corpse, surprised at the raven’s death since they are seldom caught by predators, especially foxes.
After a similar experience in her backyard, my friend Sandra Skouson wrote a chiasmic poem, Tending the Crippled Crow, about two crows tending and grieving a wounded one.
Not quite the rhythm
of some ungainly wind
lifting the edge
of black plastic the
cats have loosened—
Not the way the light
makes shadows from the cherry tree
there at cross grains from the sun
even in June
and full of birds
I come near
to find one good wing
and two pale legs
retreating between the fence and the woodpile
Not for me to fix,
with leather gloves,
a cardboard box,
and stick splint—
I have only
terror to bring.
There is nothing
more to do, but
keep noisy watch
from the tree
and the air like those two sound crows
and wait for the shadows of cats in the night.
Darkness, death, light, and creation, ravens and crows play complex and contradictory roles in literature and mythology, but the birds themselves may have much to teach us about communication, joy, and grief.