independent

Thursday 17 April 2014

Scanning skies for absent raven

WHERE I'm calling from – to paraphrase the US short story writer Raymond Carver, who was fond of West of Ireland lake-fishing countryside – there are cloudless skies and cold airflows, early and late. For me, at the moment it is not Ireland's West.

I have not seen any ravens on Atlantic cliff-tops, or, indeed, rooks in a wintering area for them, or those other Euro corvids, magpies, bane of songbirds, although an azure-winged relative (cyanopica cyana) is a breeder and roamer of Iberia's stone-pine woods.

I look often for ravens (corvus corax), Edgar Allen Poe's "ghastly grim" night-time door-tapper, though not as sharply alert as the Bedouin of North Africa – who scan the skies for this soaring omen which fills them with fear.

The legendary traveller, Wilfred Thesiger, champion of the persecuted Marsh Arabs of Iraq, once told author Gavin Maxwell about a group of Bedouins, on seeing a raven overhead, called out "Raven, seek they brother", over and over.

The bird can get close to man, however, and there are occasional tales of keeping kitchen company with domestic dogs. Dickens and the poet John Clare had individual birds as pets.

But stocorvus corax or fiach dubh, unlike the stork, does not have a cosy familial place in folklore. There is a dark presence of an "unkindness of ravens" from Norse deities to Poe, a bird black as night, powerfully beaked and uttering deep, croaking calls as it soars over sea-cliffs where it usually nests, aggressively guarding its domain.

This most powerful of corvids has a sinister reputation as a harbinger of pestilence, famine and death derived from attendance on battlefields where numbers gather to feast on the remains of the dead.

The birds wait on standby. The classic image of Cu Chulain has the bird sitting on a shoulder of the strapped-up hero. The Romans, like the Arabs, watched the sky for omens. In 43BC Cicero was forewarned of his death by a fluttering of ravens.

In Poe's The Raven the tapping bird is allowed into the house where it perches 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 one dinner sweet".

But the American Peter Mathiessen's "great requiem bird" was valued as a street scavenger of carrion and waste in medieval towns. And despite a centuries-old reputation for attacking hillside sheep, the consensus now is that the birds – 3,500 pairs in Ireland – feed mainly on carrion.

Ravens, highly intelligent like most corvids, are also adept at stealing food from other scavengers, even great black-backed gulls, though they have met their match in goshawks which can kill and eat them!

Some birds lead pampered lives. At the Tower of London, the regular six (an 'unkindness') get fed daily and have their pictures taken by tourists.

And ravens also like playing games, such as tumbling on snowy slopes, swinging upside-down on branches, tug-o-war over food and talon-locking in flight with companions, all pursued with enthusiasm, according to the naturalist Stephen Moss – more of a madness of kindness, then, as the mood takes them!

Sunday Independent

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