Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Mind of the Raven

I'm back! Did you miss me? I've been blogging with my friends over at PetConnection, but as it prepares to disappear into the ether, I decided it was time to resume my presence here. And what better way to start than with a taste of what I've been reading.

I can't remember where I saw this book mentioned recently, but like a raven to shiny things, I am attracted to books of natural history, and I immediately went to Amazon and ordered it. Subtitled "Investigations and Adventures With Wolf-Birds," it's a treatise on the social and, dare I say it, intellectual life of ravens, which have figured in the mythology of cultures ranging from Vikings to Native Americans. The Norse god Odin was accompanied by two ravens--Huginn (Thought) and Muninn (Memory), who flew around the world and brought Odin information. In Native American folklore, ravens--like coyotes--are tricksters and sometimes creators.

The link between ravens and wolves is an interesting one. Many biologists have noted that ravens seem to follow wolves, show no fear of them, and even tease them by yanking on their tails. In chapter 20, "From Wolf-Birds to Human-Birds," author Bernd Heinrich discusses a raven-wolf symbiosis that may involve ravens helping wolves to locate carcasses and serving as watchbirds while wolves eat.

What's in it for the raven? If the carcass hasn't been torn open yet, the raven can't feed, so wolves serve as a sort of can opener for corvids. I imagine the watchbird aspect is simply a beneficial by-product of the raven's suspicious nature. Heinrich quotes wildlife filmmaker Jeff Turner: "I can sneak up on a wolf, but never on a raven. They are unbelievably alert."

Heinrich goes on to say that some ravens have transferred these behaviors to their interactions with people. They follow moose hunters and feast on the leftover gut piles and frequently interact with people in interesting or unusual ways: approaching them, "talking" to them or teasing them in the same way they do wolves by dive-bombing them or sneaking up on them nipping at them. In chapter 21, which I'm reading now, he further explores the raven-human relationship through observations made at Iqaluit, a community on Baffin Island. Leading up to it, he writes:

"Ravens are, and likely always have been, not just wolf-birds. They are our birds as well, and it is small wonder that they hold such a prominent place in our myths and legends."

No comments: