I was at the southern tip of South America, and there were no ravens. I saw no crows, either. This was latitude 55º S., the Antarctic equivalent of southeastern Alaska and northern British Columbia. The natives of the Arctic are famous for their stories about Raven. So where were South America's trickster birds?
It turns out there are none. Every other continent around the globe has some member of the crow or raven family. Northern South America has a jay, which is a cousin of the Corvids. But ravens and crows have scarcely moved south of Mexico in the Americas.
The bird-watchers at Living Wild in South America explain that the Corvids probably had no reason to go far south – though that does not seem to stop most explorers from moving around the world, and it has not kept ravens out of Africa or Australia. The Living Wild photographers also mention the interesting caracara family, suggesting that these bold and common birds of South America may out-compete ravens for the omnivorous scavanger slot. Maybe so, but caracaras seem solemn, no-nonsense birds to me, more like eagles and hawks. The role of sassy entertainer is still open in southern South America, currently filled by smaller birds like the chucao.
Whatever the reason for their absence, I missed ravens in the bogs and tundras of southern Patagonia.
* * *
Have you ever been surprised by the absence of something you had always assumed would be there?
In his clever article "Has Success Spoiled the Crow?" David Quammen argues that the corvid family—which includes crows and ravens—may be too smart for its own good.
"For example," he writes, "they play a lot.
"Animal play is a reasonably common phenomenon, at least among certain mammals, especially in the young of these species. Play activities—by definition—are any that serve no immediate biological function, and which therefore do not directly improve the animal's prospects for survival and reproduction. The corvids, according to expert testimony, are irrepressibly playful. In fact, they show the most complex play known in birds. Ravens play toss with themselves in the air, dropping and catching again a small twig. They lie on their backs and juggle objects (in one recorded case, a rubber ball) between beak and feet. They jostle each other sociably in a version of 'king of the mountain' with no real territorial stakes. Crows are equally frivolous. They play a brand of rugby, wherein one crow picks up a white pebble or a bit of shell and flies from tree to tree, taking a friendly bashing from its buddies until it drops the token. And they have a comedy-acrobatic routine: allowing themselves to tip backward dizzily from a wire perch, holding a loose grip so as to hang upside-down, spreading out both wings, then daringly letting go with one foot; finally, switching feet to let go with the other. Such shameless hot-dogging is usually performed for a small audience of other crows.
"There is also an element of the practical jokester. Of the Indian house crow, Wilmore says: '. . . this Crow has a sense of humor, and revels in the discomfort caused by its playful tweaking at the tails of other birds, and at the ears of sleeping cows and dogs; it also pecks the toes of flying foxes as they hang sleeping in their roosts.' This crow is a laff riot. Another of Wilmore's favorite species amuses itself, she says, by 'dropping down on sleeping rabbits and rapping them over the skull or settling on drowsy cattle and startling them.' What we have here is actually a distinct subcategory of playfulness known, where I come from at least, as Cruisin' For a Bruisin'."
* * *
Do you have a favorite story about animal play?
pp. 33-34 of "Has Success Spoiled the Crow?"
in Natural Acts: A Sidelong View of Science and Nature
by David Quammen (NY: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1985)
The raven sang
two or three times a sweet melody.
Then she saw us.
She saw me, anyway, and stopped.
We were two artists, moving into the guest house for a two-week residency at Hubbell Trading Post. I heard unfamiliar birdsong and stepped outside to see who it was. A large raven was perched on a wooden electric pole.
It was 5 p.m. in late September, that hour before real dusk when ravens fly in ones and twos all in the same direction, calling. The raven looked down at me.
"Rwork," she said and flew west. But I was sure I had heard something else first.
That raven sang
two or three times a true melody.
I wanted to hear it again.
The same raven (or one like her) often perched on that pole near dusk during our residency. I listened as often as I could but only heard the usual range of raven evening talk, which is interesting in its own right.
Scientists have recorded over 80 distinct sounds made by ravens, though they currently believe an individual raven may use only about 20 of these on a regular basis. Sort of like I only use about 5,000 of maybe 100,000 words of common English.
Ravens have been credited with:
rrronk cluck rattle whine-thunk
caw squawk (low) honk (very rapid) rap-rap-rap
coo (long rasping) caw (nasal) honk cowp-cowp-cowp-uk
kruk (low, soft, murmur/ oo-oo (soft upward inflected) cheow
krrk whisper) km and mm knock (rapid) caulk-caulk-caulk-caulk
nuk cark pruk growl
Eighty distinct sounds—plus unexpected silence. Ravens seldom speak during the breeding season until the babies hatch, and they do not call out when a captive raven is set free.
Individual ravens are known to imitate: Other birds, a train whistle, radio static, a motorcycle being revved, urinals flushing, dogs barking (near and far away) and, in the Olympic National Forest, the sound of avalanche control explosions: "One – two – three – beccccchh." But the closest I found to music in the literature was a story by Jane Kilham, wife and colleague of corvid scientist Lawrence Kilham. She heard wild ravens make sounds "similar to spring water gurgling through a tube, so musical that she found it fascinating to listen to." Perhaps there was hope for me yet.
Then, one night, I saw a PBS Nova program called "A Murder of Crows." The narrator noted that, like ravens, crows have many words, such as different cries for cat, human, and hawk, with different levels of urgency for each. They also have what the narrator called two dialects—one familiar to us and raucous, the other for private family moments which is melodic and sweet. They played 13 seconds of crows murmuring in a nest near the University of Washington, and my heart jumped. Was I getting closer to hearing that music again?
Catherine Feher-Elston tells of a bird she rehabilitated who enjoyed a music box that played "the Neapolitan classic Torno a Sorrento." She lived in northern Arizona for a while, so maybe I had heard her rehabilitated bird at Hubbell, singing an Italian popular tune. But no—Feher-Elston's bird was also a crow. I want to respect differences between these two highly-intelligent species. Because, even within each group, there are wide variations, especially in vocabulary.
Lawrence Kilham quotes a 1922 observer as saying, "Nearly every raven I met has some note that is distinctive." The Yale team of Marzluff and Angell write that raven literature reports "many unique calls with distinct meanings." And Bernd Heinrich, well-respected author of Mind of the Raven, says, "We know infinitely less about vocal communication in ravens than. . .about the call of a frog, a cricket, or the zebra finch. . . . The more complex and specific a communication system becomes, the more random-sounding and arbitrary it will appear." All of which surely allows for the possibility of music, even in a gravel-voiced songbird, right?
Distinctive notes. Unique calls. "Unique" means one time only. So why do I ask for this raven gift again? To confirm what I know to be true?
As Craig Comstock, a raven-watcher in Maine said, "I understand the need for the scientific method, but there are times when nature speaks just once, and it is a loss not to listen."
I heard a raven
sing melody sweet and true
and I treasure it.
* * *
Have you had a unique experience you would like to share?
With gratitude to the Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site
Artist-in-Residence Program, Ganado, Arizona.
Catherine Feher-Elston, personal communication.
Bernd Heinrich, Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds
(NY: Cliff Street Books, HarperCollins Publishers, 1999)
Lawrence Kilham, The American Crow and the Common Raven
(College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1989)
John M. Marzluff and Tony Angell, In the Company of Crows and Ravens
(New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005)
PBS A Murder of Crows, video.pbs.org/video/1621910826
aired 24 October 2010
As a reader, I like essays and novels that are informed by ideas. Annie Dillard. Michael Ondaatje. I am hoping here to join others who feel the same. I look forward to thoughtful conversations!