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Nevermore ...

Posted: March 10, 2012 - 6:54pm

One of the things I like about winter (and there aren’t many) is watching the ravens gather and visit.

I’m not a dedicated bird watcher; I can identify several species, and I am always happy to see a new one, but generally, I just like to see the activity, especially in the winter.

Chickadees and nuthatches flock to the bird feeders with an occasional woodpecker, and even a Stellar jay once in awhile, but the ravens congregate in the streets and on the light poles noisily announcing to everyone that the world belongs to them.

I wasn’t too aware of ravens before we came to Alaska. My only exposure was from Edgar Allan Poe, and that is a rather skewed vision, ominous and eerie. When we came north the omnipresence of the big birds was disconcerting at first, but we soon found out they were more bark than bite, at times a real nuisance but more often pure entertainment. We equated them with the magpies we were used to in Idaho: bigger, but like a teenaged sibling, trying to attract attention in any way possible.

When we went to the village we really found out about ravens. We learned quickly that they are revered, even in this day and age. Raven is the trickster according to the Interior Athabascan tradition, and is responsible for many things good and not so good in the world. For instance, he stole the sun from Bear and brought daylight to the people and he also made land rise from the water that covered the earth. However, if a raven lands on your roof top, someone in the house is going to die. And, like all portents and miracles, it comes true often enough that people forget the times it doesn’t. One especially should never kill a raven. If that happens, even by accident, bad luck will certainly follow.

During the second or third winter we were in the village, Hubby had picked up the garbage from around the barrels for several days in a row, and nothing we could do would keep the ravens out of it. They seemed to find every little chink in the cover and soon it would be on the ground with papers and peels and whatever else they didn’t want to carry off. Finally, in a fit of frustration, and maybe a little cabin fever, Hubby laid in wait for the villains and popped the first one in with a well placed shot from his shotgun. It fell on the ground, dead, and the others flew off squawking and chattering. Some landed in the tree tops to keep vigil and others flew away across the village. Somehow, without our ever leaving home, everyone in the village knew what had happened and friends and neighbors all warned Hubby to be very careful because bad things were sure to happen. The next day, when he went out to check the generator, he slipped on the ice (that hadn’t been there the day before) and fell and broke his ankle.

Coincidence? I think not! We may not have become true believers after that, but we certainly learned to respect the ravens.

Animal groups have collective names, like a school of fish, or a flock of sheep. Swans are a bevy, or a bank; gulls a colony or a screech (isn’t that appropriate?) and jays are a party or a scold. A bunch of ravens also has two names. One is an “unkindness of ravens” and probably fits most in the summer (and when they want revenge) when they are usually harassing other birds or finding road-kill or Dumpster diving. They don’t appear to be the most pleasant of birds then as they gang up on unsuspecting gulls or fishermen and steal their bounty.

The other name for them is a “storytelling of ravens” and that is how I see them in the winter. They appear to congregate and chat on the snow berms and in the fields, then fly off to spread the word at the beach or in a parking lot somewhere. A name I have bestowed on a group of them is a “calligraphy of ravens” as I’ve watched them against the blue spring sky diving and darting like a quill pen across parchment (a little poetry there).
They are not the most beautiful of birds close up, but surely the most recognized as they dance their jet black way across the sky oblivious to almost everything but space.

The big black birds are always with us, but it seems in winter they are more obvious, maybe because other birds are not as prevalent. In the spring and summer our attention goes to the swallows and robins. We watch for the cheechako geese and cranes counting them as the true harbingers of spring, forgetting that the most loyal of sourdoughs is Raven.

Virginia Walters lives in Kenai.

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