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.
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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'."
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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)
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!