Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Respectable Raven

Whenever winter lands hard across Montana, I think of Ravens. Wind, snow -- Ravens.

Two or three serious blizzards have lured me into the mountains when I probably should have stayed home. But each time I ventured into the crushing cold, I found Ravens at play. Ravens making great looping, roller coaster flights into gale-force winds. Flights that lacked any apparent direction or purpose, flights that just looked fun. I trudged home half-numb but full of respect.

Curious Raven (c) John Ashley

Ravens provided the inspiration for many Native American stories, and now they are acknowledged as one of the most intelligent and wide-ranging of all bird species. They are year-round residents here in the western half of Montana. Unlike Crows, which are smaller and often live in flocks in towns, Ravens tend to live in monogamous pairs in the wild, undeveloped areas that remain.

Displays of their ingenuity have been noted often. Ravens have been seen defending their nest by dropping stones on approaching people, and passing food through a zoo cage to feed a hungry vulture in freezing weather. The association between Ravens and wolves is also well-documented.

Raven carries part of a fish more than a mile back to its nest (c) John AshleyRavens are scavengers, but they are unable to tear open a fresh carcass. So they learned to follow wolves (and wolf tracks) and scavenge their kills. Calling Ravens are also thought to alert wolves to the freshly deceased. Once torn open by wolves, the carcass becomes accessible to the Ravens. But it gets a little more complex.

Ravens have also learned to make seasonally-appropriate responses to howling wolves. Ravens generally ignore wolf howls between April and September, when wolves tend to hunt smaller items, and most howling occurs near the den site. But in winter, Ravens actively follow the wild chorus of howling wolves. In winter, wolves tend to hunt in groups and kill larger prey, which can take several days to completely consume. This change in wolf hunting tactics gives Ravens ample opportunities to scavenge meals.

The adaptability of Ravens is inspirational, especially as we look through the fall and see winter approaching. On that note, I leave you with one of the Native American stories involving the respectable Raven.

In the beginning there was nothing. Only water, darkness and The Raven.

He flew through the darkness with a bag that hung around his neck. He had been flying for a long time, and was starting to get tired. So while he flew, he removed a rock from his bag and threw it into the sea. This rock became the first land. He sat down upon this land to rest, while resting he took other rocks from his sack and threw them into the water. Thus The Raven made the land.

Rested, The Raven picked up his bag and continued to fly. After a while he became tired, so he sat on a rock and took more items from his bag. He removed the fir, the pine, the spruce, the redwood and all the trees of the world. He also removed the huckleberry bush, the wild strawberry, the grass and all of the plants of the world, including the plants of the sea. These things he scattered across the land and the water, so that they may grow.

Again, The Raven took his pouch around his neck and flew through the darkness. And again The Raven became tired so that he sat upon a rock. This time he removed all the animals of the world. The wolf, the eagle, the salmon, the bear, the dear, and all the animals of the land and of the sea.

The Raven looked around him at the world he had made, it was a good world, and every one was peaceful and happy. But before he flew off he looked into his pouch and saw that there was one thing left. So The Raven removed man from the bag and placed him upon the earth to care and respect all The Raven's creations.

Story reprinted from the educational site, "First People," www.firstpeople.us

Behind the bird: You can learn more about Ravens from the PBS video by the same name.  

Behind the lens: A curious, wild and free Raven photographed at eye level with Nikon D700, 500mm f4 lens with 1.4X converter.