Today I watched ravens through a grimy windshield. The weather was gross, the roads were gross, and I have always subconsciously felt that ravens were gross. After all, I was watching them in a back-alley parking lot and most of them were scavenging from the organic and locally sourced dumpster.
But two birds caught my eye, or rather, my ear. A large puffed-up raven was perched atop a streetlight and he seemed to be calling to a raven across the street. But it wasn’t the raspy-creepy “Caw… Caw…” that I expected, it was light, resonant and musical. It sounded like the baritone version of a robin or nightingale or a deep slow-motion “whippor…” of the whippoorwill. I stepped out of my car to watch and listen: within moments the raven’s partner flapped up beside him, listening to his call and occasionally chirping a similar baritone response.
As the puffed-up raven continued his haunting chirrup, he sidestepped along the light-post, sidling up next to his partner much like how a romantic middle-school boy not so casually scoots down the bleachers toward his crush. He bowed and sang and scooted, bowed and sang and scooted. When he reached his partner the bond was evident: this was not a new courtship, this was an old married couple. She was calm in his presence, he preened and sang; they were at ease.
I grew up hearing about ravens, watching ravens, even judging ravens. In the Bible, the first bird sent from Noah’s ark to search for dry land is the raven. The prophet Elijah is cared for by ravens, who bring him bread and meat each day in the midst of a national famine. Pacific Northwest Native Americans considered the Raven as both a powerful creator and trickster. But despite this rich and timeless cultural presence of ravens, I considered them pesky and ominous creatures.
Perhaps it was Walt Disney’s fault, portraying ravens as the evil sidekick or creepy omen of bad things to come (see Sleeping Beauty for the prime example). Perhaps it was Edgar Allen Poe’s fault, with The Raven ominously enhanced through repeated readings in English classes and the infamous James Earl Jones reading in the 1990 episode of The Simpson’s: Treehouse of Horror. In my hometown, ravens and their crow cousins were seen as a nuisance. Whatever combination of factors it may have been, I found those bleak and judgmental stereotypes broken on this particular day.
As old man raven expressed gentle love and respect through his lilting, beautiful song, I was reminded of Biblical ravens as hardy, compassionate providers; In Native American lore as powerful, courageous and compassionate creators.
Bernd Heinrich describes the various courting displays of ravens in his volume Ravens in Winter, with a notable observation:
In most animals, courting is seen (by humans) as an immediate prelude to mating. This may be true for robins or warblers, which do not have much time to waste after meeting each other… But I suspect the situation is different for ravens… In them, courting per se could be the culmination of a long process, as it sometimes is in humans.”
He goes on to describe the aerial acrobatics, bowing, preening, strutting, etc. that indicate various courting and play behaviors of ravens. I had never considered ravens mating for life, let alone displaying “off-season” courtship behavior. Another resource described how ravens, like humans, must sometimes work to maintain attachment with their mates, exhibiting behavior that strengthens their relationship (http://birdnote.org/show/ravens-love-song).
Back in the parking lot, the song continued, with calls that occasionally sounded like a sweeter version of a crosswalk signal beeping to indicate that it was now safe to cross. As I watched and listened to the pair of ravens, I found myself feeling safe, like they were telling me the road ahead was clear. I was reminded that even on the grossest of days, ravens are not gross. They may be opportunists, as old man raven indicated when he left the light post for a fresh addition to the local organic dumpster, but they have much to teach us and I, for one, have much to learn.
Author’s Note: Might it be mere coincidence that I observed an old married couple of ravens on Valentine’s Day? I suspect it was not.