Sunday 23 October 2016

Night-dark birds that wait to feast on the dead

Joe Kennedy

Published 13/12/2015 | 02:30

Highly intelligent: Corvus corax, the common raven
Highly intelligent: Corvus corax, the common raven

I sometimes miss not seeing choughs, King Arthur's birds, in the sunny south-east, where they used to pull earthworms from the soft soil of the fields at Helvick Head.

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I was spoiled by almost daily sightings of the red-legs with their strange cries and acrobatic tumbling over the cliffs.

But watchful also of ravens, which sought respect for their territories and could express their displeasure at human encroachment.

Menacing swoops and croaks were warnings to intruders to stay away.

All corvids are ­highly intelligent and would ­converse with humans if it were ­possible. The other day a ­jackdaw was making its presence known above a bus stop. I wondered aloud, "What are you going on about?" Ah . . . there was a small dog on a leash among people ­underneath, and the usual food droppings, though the dog had no ­interest in these.

A bus pulled in and down dropped Jack to scrape and snatch a flattened potato chip. Voilà. A raven ­- Poe's "ghastly grim" door-tapper - might have given the dog a jab of its beak.

The Bedouin of North Africa - our pre-historic relatives, some hold - scan the skies for this bird, an omen that fills them with fear.

Traveller and writer Wilfred Thesiger, hero of the marsh Arabs of Iraq, told the author Gavin Maxwell about a camel caravan of Bedouin noticing a raven overhead, and calling out "Raven, seek thy brother", over and over again. They were terrified.

The bird, though, can become close to man, like other corvids. Charles Dickens and the countryside poet John Clare had pet ravens in their kitchens.

But there is a dark presence also of the "unkindness of ravens", from Norse gods to Edgar Allan Poe, of a bird black as night with powerful beak and deep croaking calls as it soars over its hill and cliff-side territories.

It has a sinister reputation in history as a harbinger of pestilence, famine and death, from its presence on battlefields waiting to feast on the remains of the dead. The classic artist's image of Cu Chulainn has the bird sitting on the hero's shoulder, strapped up from his wounds.

The Romans, like the Arabs, also watched the skies for omens. Cicero, in 43BC, was forewarned of death by a fluttering of ravens.

Hugin and Munin (mind and memory), of Norse folklore, sat on the shoulders of Odin, god of war, flying off each day to return and report what they had seen.

In Poe's The Raven, the tapping bird enters the house and refuses to leave, uttering one word: "Nevermore".

In the classic Scots ballad, The Twa Corbies, the birds find a new-slain knight whom "naebody kens lies there" and decide to "make our dinner sweet".

But the "great requiem bird" of the American writer Peter Matthiessen was also much valued as a street scavenger of medieval towns and, despite unease that it can attack sheep and lambs on the mountainsides, there is a consensus now that it feeds on carrion, the animals already being dead in the fields.

The birds have a lighter side to their nature. They enjoy games of tumbling on snowy slopes, talon-locking in flight with companions, tug of war over food, all pursued enthusiastically, according to the naturalist Stephen Moss. A madness of kindness, as it were, as the mood takes them.

Sunday Independent

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