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Ravens Among Us

Ravens Among Us

With a beak like a Swiss Army knife and an intellect to match, the raven is a many-faced figure in the Northern landscape. Our bond with the birds is longstanding, but always conflicted.
By Jessa Gamble
Oct 25
2008
From the October/November 2008 Issue

I became intrigued by ravens upon hearing the story of Gary Maund and Gumby. Maund’s friendship with the raven started on the September day his daughter found the bird sprawled on their Yellowknife doorstep. One of his wings had broken, leaving him defenceless. Maund had an old rabbit cage in the shed and a soft spot for animals, so he took in the bird. His family named him Gumby and he convalesced in the Maund home for months. He had the run of the house, with a perch in the laundry area and plastic on the floors to catch his droppings.

But by December it became clear Gumby was getting bored. He would grab the cats’ tails, and would get into the spices, manipulating door handles and caps with a lock-picker’s ease. At the computer station near his perch, the speaker ports were soon packed with stashed food, mostly the dog-kibble Gumby preferred.

Committed to his new friend, Maund decided to rehabilitate the bird. He took him to the local sandpits and threw him  in the air, forcing him to fly and exercise his muscles. “At first he only flew a few feet,” he says. “The muscles in his chest had deteriorated from under-use.” Finally, after a few weeks, the raven flapped from Maund’s house to the neighbour’s roof, where he started rolling and sliding in the snow. He then flew away, back to the urban jungle he called home. 

Though he had left his human companions for the wild world, the raven still checked in on its rescuer. For years afterward Gumby would follow Maund’s truck whenever he spotted it, landing on a side mirror for a brief visit. Despite their familiarity, the raven would never get too close. “He tolerated us, but he held his own and he knew he was captive,” remembers Maund. “They have a sense about them – they know themselves, and even to the end he would never let us touch him.”

In the North, where the raven is ever-present – as an icon, mascot and pest – the species is as mysterious as it is ubiquitous. For me, as for most people up here, these winged scavengers hover just below my conscious radar. After hearing Maund’s story, I set about to discover more about the ravens that share our Northern world, and whose bond to us is, like Gumby’s, deep yet decidedly distant. 

Ravens swarm near a municipal dump. Though the birds are territorial, when a food source is rich enough they will band together to overwhelm the defences of the resident raven. Photo by Chris Colbourne

Like mosquitoes and mice, the common raven is everywhere. It’s one of the most prevalent birds in the world, found on every continent except South America and Australia. From Greenland to Mexico, Siberia to Afghanistan, ravens are genius adaptors. In North America alone, there are roughly four million of the birds.

Up here, Corvus corax, from the Greek for “croaker,” has been a resident for two million years. When humans came over the Bering land bridge, ravens were waiting for us. Archeologists have found fossilized ravens in the earliest human encampments in Canada, dating back 10,000 years.

They have a good deal in common with us. We’re both gregarious and family oriented. We both rely on acute sight and vocal nuance, and we recognize individuals of our species, leaning on memory and mental maps for our survival. Far from picky eaters, we both feed from many links of the food chain – hence the term “ravenous.” And perhaps our spookiest shared behaviour is our walk: a lordly strut that conveys pride, purpose and curiosity. 

The raven is often mistaken for its similar-looking cousin, the crow – also black, noisy and everywhere. The most obvious difference is the raven’s imposing size. It can weigh in at over a kilogram. An adult male can grow as big as a hawk, with a wingspan of up to a metre. The raven’s flight employs more soaring, less flapping. Though they comfortably make their home in Northern boreal and tundra regions, they can also adapt to warm climates. Compared with the crow’s anemic and repetitive caw, the raven’s low krawk – and its arsenal of other sounds – are a dead giveaway. They’ll imitate bells and woodblocks and dripping water. Sometimes their warbling sounds downright conversational.

When artist Nicole Bauberger arrived in the Yukon, she was struck by the summer light’s brilliance and the snow’s blinding whiteness. In contrast, jet-black ravens fascinated her as a form, and she felt drawn to the birds as painting subjects. “When I look at a raven, the raven looks back,” says Bauberger, after I snatch up a series of raven portraits for my home. “I feel like we’re gazing at each other as equals. I can’t fly, but the bird can’t drive standard.” Her artistic fixation led to an exhibit entitled “Forty Ravens.” Still, Bauberger doesn’t romanticize the raven’s noble character: “If I’m stealing something from a raven by using its image it’s nothing a raven wouldn’t be perfectly willing to steal from me.”

Yellowknife dog-musher Warren Palfrey would agree. When it’s feeding time at his kennels, ravens descend in droves, exhibiting impressive intelligence and cunning. If a dog has a bone, a few ravens will get together to pull a heist. One acts as a decoy, toying with the dog until it lashes out. The distraction leaves the bone unattended, and another raven swipes it and flies away with the prize. “I do worry the ravens might carry viruses going around the other kennels,” says Palfrey, “but on the whole they’re just funny to watch. We get a good laugh out of their tricks.”

Though associated with peskiness and thievery, ravens have also been known to be helpful, especially to hunters. When the birds circle in the distance it’s a safe bet caribou are near. Bears look for the same clues to a food source, so the Yukon’s Tr’ondek people mimicked ravens’ calls to attract prey for their bear hunts. This technique, however, wouldn’t work for moose, which are spooked by ravens because they so often herald the presence of wolves. Nature’s janitors, ravens clear wolf-kills, picking carcasses clean. Our domestic dogs, descendants of wolves themselves, were attractive to ravens for the same reason. And it didn’t take long for ravens to discover that humans are the most wasteful hunters of all. Since the beginning of our co-existence, ravens have thrived on our excesses. 

Nowadays, the raven’s insistence on shacking up with us causes urban problems. “We tend to get raven-related power outages in the fall,” says Bob Bromley, a Yellowknife ornithologist and member of the territory’s legislative assembly. “The young are not stable fliers or perchers, so they flap around and rock on the power lines until they make contact with another line.” During a bird count, Bromley’s team once counted 11 raven carcasses under city power lines. In Yellowknife, the city dump – a raven haven – is located uncomfortably close to the airport, so ravens en route to the mother of all scavenger-heaps become a hazard for pilots.

At a Yukon golf course, a raven grabs a ball – perhaps mistaking it for a tasty egg. Ravens belong to the same genus as magpies, so bright and glittery objects are sure to catch their eye. Photo by Chris Colbourne

To see ravens in action for myself, I made a pilgrimage to the city’s dump in mid-summer. At the entrance on the outskirts of town I saw only hundreds of circling seagulls, screaming and flapping and carrying on. Past the mountains of neatly stacked tires and car batteries, past the glittering garden of shattered glass and old, doorless refrigerators, I found a section closed to the public with a sign that read “contaminated soil.” And there they were.

Roughly one coal-black raven for every six gulls sat on the compacted household waste. In winter, the ratio reverses as the gulls move south, but for now the contrast was stark. Compared with the poised, mature-seeming ravens, the seagulls’ behaviour was downright hysterical. Looking around the sweltering piles of offal, I wondered how these handsome birds – who seem to do more socializing than eating – stay so clean-looking. Ravens, cloaked in a shiny blue-back shell of feathers, were busy tearing open bags and picking through kitchen waste, a veritable jackpot of food.

Deeply engrained in Northern culture, the image of a raven is often associated with death, a fact that’s unsurprising given the birds’ frequent proximity to corpses. In Edgar Allan Poe’s poem The Raven, he describes the birds’ eyes as having “all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming.” It’s been said that a superstitious King Charles II kept and coddled lucky ravens in the Tower of London to ward off the fall of his dynasty. 

According to Norwegian lore, mariners used ravens to set a course for land, and Vikings located Iceland with the help of the three ravens they kept on board the ship, letting them fly and following them when the birds sensed they were close to shore. The biblical character of Noah was not so lucky: His raven never returned from the ark once released, and he had to resort to the more obedient dove, which brought an olive branch back from dry land. 

Folklore often picks up on other aspects of the raven’s character as well. A raven’s foot hung around an Inuit newborn’s neck was believed to bring the child an ability to endure long periods without food. Assistants to the Norse god Odin, the ravens Hugin and Munin (thought and memory) would venture out each day and return to Valhalla in the evening to report on the world’s goings-on. In aboriginal cultures, ravens take on wide-ranging roles, figuring as creators, tricksters and ominous omens.

The Yukon’s Tlingit people have a special spiritual connection to ravens, having taken on the totem animal for one of their clans. Raven stories are told to children to underscore moral lessons, to simply entertain, or to explain the existence of natural phenomena. According to one Tlingit legend, a raven is to thank for the tides. To save his people from starvation, the bird sought out the old lady who holds the tideline in her lap, kicking sand in her eyes so she would let go of it and reveal the clams and edible flotsam that cling to beaches. And when the beach-combing dried up, he negotiated an arrangement with the old woman so she would let go of the line twice a day to reveal fresh pickings. 

With respect there often comes fear, and the raven’s role in Northern aboriginal legends can be gruesome. In one story, a raven is said to have led an Inuit family to a campsite at the base of a snowy mountain, then hopped around at the summit to cause an avalanche. The ensuing destruction left a mound of corpses out of which the raven pecked the eyes.

A red squirrel experiences an unexpected delay. For ravens, there’s something irresistible about tails. The mischievous birds have even been known to toy with the tails of cats. Photo by Chris Colbourne

Far from mere superstition, there’s a reason humans bear an uneasy respect for ravens. The Inuit eye-eating tale strikes a chord with Bob Bromley. High in a rock quarry outside Yellowknife, he once held a female adult raven captive near its nest. A group of birdwatchers looked on as the ornithologist gave an impromptu lecture on ravens’ merits. Though Bromley’s task was to band its leg for tracking, education was also part of his mandate as a bird biologist. “I was just explaining how the raven’s beak is remarkable for its ability to penetrate frozen food. I was holding it pretty close,” he tells me. “Then it reeled back and drove its beak right to my eye.” Hours later, convinced he would have lost the eye if he hadn’t happened to be wearing safety glasses, Bromley was still shaking.