Birds are fascinating creatures and their place in our ecosystems is one of undisputed importance. Ravens in particular, are quite the endearing and intelligent corvid. In Ron Joseph's Bald Eagles, Bear Cubs and Hermit Bill, former wildlife biologist recounts one such tale surrounding his favorite bird. This story will both delight and encourage you to take a look outside your window for glimpses of their ebony wings.
This is an excerpt from the chapter titled "Ravens Are My Brothers."
STEVE HAD A PREMONITION THAT SOMETHING WAS troubling Fred, the family dog. “The tone of his bark just sounded odd,” he said. Peering out a bedroom window in their Dexter home, he summoned his wife, Jennie. Together, they watched a standoff between Fred and a raven, which stood defiantly ten feet beyond the dog’s outstretched chain. As this was happening, with the dog’s attention on the first raven, a second raven stealthily slipped behind the dog and ate half a bowl of his Purina chow.
“What was astonishing was that the ravens switched positions so the second raven could also eat.” Steve said. “And then they flew off over the potato field. Fred, who’d quietly retreated to his empty bowl, looked perplexed, like the delayed reaction of a victim discovering he’d been pick-pocketed.”
Ravens are well known for playing pranks on dogs and wildlife. Most Maine wildlife biologists have a favorite raven story. Mine occurred in March 1989. I had dumped a horse carcass in a gravel pit on the Telos logging road, several miles east of Baxter State Park, to feed a pair of golden eagles, a rare species in Maine that returned to their nest site there when food was scarce. I spent the better part of three days in a blind peering through a spotting scope at my offering. Three ravens immediately landed near the horse and cautiously approached the unfamiliar carcass. When the thick hide proved impenetrable, the large black birds took to the air, soaring and squawking over the carcass for the next two days.
On the third day, a pack of coyotes, presumably responding to the incessant raven calls, arrived at the gravel pit. They too warily approached the carcass, eventually tearing it open and devouring large chunks of meat. Securing reinforcements, the three ravens plus three more landed and formed a ring around the coyotes. One brave raven sprint-hopped in, grabbed a chunk of horsemeat, and retreated barely ahead of a lunging coyote. The other birds waited and watched. An impatient raven tugged the tail of a coyote whose head was buried under the horse’s rib cage. The raven was testing the predator’s tolerance limits. It was a classic ecology textbook example of mutualism—the ravens had recruited the carnivores to do the hard work of ripping apart the thick-skinned horse for them. Now that the carcass had been torn open and the satiated coyotes were resting elsewhere, the ravens feasted.
The species is a powerful symbol and a popular subject of mythology and folklore. In the Bible, the raven was the first animal to be released from Noah’s ark. In Norse mythology, a pair of ravens named Huginn (from Old Norse for “thought”) and Muninn (Old Norse for “memory”) flew the world over and delivered information to the god Odin. Perched on each of Odin’s shoulders, the ravens took turn whispering their findings.
New England biologist and author Bernd Heinrich has studied ravens for many years near his cabin in western Maine. His book Ravens in Winter is a natural history classic. During one phone conversation, he said to me, “Humans and ravens have a long common history of a symbiotic relationship.”
Ravens, Heinrich told me, like the first humans, scavenge on kills of many carnivores. He theorizes that ravens learned that wolves, and later humans, would lead them to food. Although ravens are omnivores, much of their food comes from what other animals have killed, including game killed by humans.
My brother, Robert, lives and hunts deer, elk, and the like in British Columbia. A few winters ago, he shot a mountain goat and then lost sight of it during a whiteout atop a mountain. When the skies cleared, he trudged through snow for two hours, unsuccessfully searching for the dead goat. Dejected, he headed downslope, followed by a pair of flying ravens calling overhead. Having gotten my brother’s attention, the birds flew to a peak he hadn’t scoured.
“I had a feeling,” he said. “As odd as it sounds, the ravens were telling me to follow them to the dead goat. So, I huffed and puffed my way up to the summit. Twenty minutes later, I found the dead goat.”
Robert field-dressed the animal, packed the butchered goat meat on a metal frame, and began the descent back to his truck. Halfway down the slope, he looked uphill with binoculars. The ravens were feeding on the goat’s organs.
“The ravens—they’re clever as hell—led me to the goat knowing that I’d leave something for them to eat,” he said.
Some Inuit hunters still scan the Arctic skies for ravens, as their ancestors did, believing that the birds dip their black wings in the direction of the most productive caribou and seal hunting grounds. Many native Alaskan cultures revere the raven as the one who brought them the sun, which helps explain why it’s the most featured animal in their art.
In April 1988, while I searched for winter-killed deer north of Moosehead Lake, several perched ravens called to each other in what sounded like a gurgling croak. Curious, I snowshoed towards them and discovered ten dead deer. Following the sounds of ravens, I soon learned, led me to dead deer. Using a hatchet to perform crude necropsies, I made previously inaccessible venison available to the ravens. For several weeks, the corvids and I worked in unison.
As I discovered from my eagle blind, ravens also exhibit endearing playful behavior. I watched two adults performing aerial rolls and somersaults. One showboating bird flew upside down. As if trying to impress its parents, a youngster played with a twig in midair, dropping it, then diving to retrieve it before hitting the ground.
In June 2006, at Point Barrow, Alaska, my Inupiat birding guide showed me nesting snowy owls, pectoral sandpipers, king eiders, and red-throated loons. The sighting of ravens, however, generated the most excitement in his voice. When I mentioned that ravens were my favorite bird, his face lit up.
“They’re my favorite bird, too,” he said. “Each winter during the Christmas Bird Count, when it’s dark twenty-four-hours a day, ravens are the only species on my list. All other Arctic birds have flown south. The raven spends the Arctic winter here with me. That makes him my brother.”
This excerpt is taken from Bald Eagles, Bear Cubs, and Hermit Bill by wildlife biologist Ron Joseph. This collection of stories recounts Ron's youth in central Maine, the importance of his family's dairy farm, and his adventures in the field over the course of a career that spanned more than three decades.
Ronald A. Joseph was born in Waterville, Maine, in 1952 and grew up in neighboring Oakland. In 1978, he began a career as a state and federal wildlife biologist, mostly in Maine, but also for a time in New Hampshire and Utah. One particular focus during his career was the restoration of endangered species. He is now retired, but continues to speak, volunteer, and lead birding trips. He lives in Sidney. This is his first book.