The Endearing Qualities Of The Raven



There is no way to sugarcoat this, so let me just lay it on the line. Here is the lead paragraph of an article with a Tokyo dateline that recently appeared in the Los Angeles Times:

"They are on Tokyo's most-wanted list these days, vilified as child abusers, arsonists, grave robbers and cannibals. They eat everything including the rotten and still-living."

Is it another sleazy Godzilla movie? Or worse yet, has the big guy teamed up again with Rodan or Mothra or one of his other endearing companions? Guess again, monster breath.

The creature that's wreaking havoc on the Japanese capital is none other than the lowly crow. But we're not talking about your run of the mill, everyday, scarecrow-fearing field crow.

No, as writer Valerie Reitman reports, "The villains are jungle crows huge, jet-black creatures with intimidating beaks, killer claws and a caw that sounds like a sea gull on steroids."

OK, straight faces everybody, because this is no laughing matter. These "brazen birds," which number some 21,000 (but who's counting), are two feet long with a wingspan of over a yard, and they are "on the attack."

Fortified by an "urban smorgasbord" of garbage and trash, the "emboldened" crows cruise the city looking for victims to swoop down upon and peck unmercifully. The Japan Wild Birds Association has issued a warning not to leave children unattended and, Reitman adds, "with good reason."

Three-year-old Kimiko Enamoto was, for example, attacked by five crows in a city park. When she ran, they pecked her on the head.

Her mother, Yuko Enamoto, saved the day by throwing one of her sandals at the birds, then rushed young Kimiko to the hospital. But while the child "escaped with only a tetanus shot," Reitman reports she is getting over the terror "a lot more slowly."

Since guns are illegal in Japan, militant citizens are fighting back with such weapons as belts, golf clubs, umbrellas, and, of course, the always handy sandal.

Now I don't know about you, but I think we need to prepare ourselves for a similar outburst here in the Rim country. As the folks at Disney tell us over and over, "It's a small world, after all."

So I called Debbie Lutch, Forest Service wildlife biologist attached to the Payson Ranger Station. "Arizona has crows," she said, "but we don't have too many around here. We have mostly ravens."

But, I asked investigatively, are ravens related to crows? "Oh, very closely," she replied.

Now I've been looking for an excuse to do a column on ravens for a long time. Problem is, I wanted to extol their virtues and my set-up has taken us in a different direction.

Let me see if I can get us from here to there.

The raven's obvious claim to fame is Edgar Allan Poe's poem of the same name. Even those who don't give poetry a passing thought shiver when they hear that famous line:

"Quoth the raven, nevermore."

If the jungle crow's 36-inch wingspan gives you pause, consider that the common raven has a four-foot wingspan, a three-inch beak, and ranks as the world's largest perching bird, whatever the heck that means. And according to a recent "National Geographic" article by Douglas H. Chadwick, Lutch is right on the money: ravens belong to the corvid family that includes magpies, jays, rooks, and crows.

Chadwick also points out that during our frontier days, ravens were hunted and killed nearly to extinction because of their appetite for eggs, chicks and lambs. Today, he adds, they "adapt quickly to changing technologies," learning to untie knots, unzip zippers and unveil Velcro in their relentless quest for "such favored items as cookies and potato chips."

While Chadwick makes no mention of ravens attacking humans, he does relate an incident where one was "eating groceries from a brown paper sack in the back of a moving pickup truck." I maintain that it is a short flight from the back of a pickup truck to the cab, especially for a ravenous raven who is riled at not finding any cookies or potato chips in those brown paper sacks.

But before you take that shotgun down from the gun rack, consider the raven's more endearing qualities. According to Chadwick, ravens have a range of vocalizations that is exceeded only by human speech, "a broad, quirky vocabulary of 'cr-r-uks,' 'prruks,' and 'toks.'

Lest you think the sounds a raven makes are just meaningless chatter, consider also that the corvid's brains are among the most highly developed of all birds, and that the raven is the largest corvid. As Chadwick puts it, the raven is "an uncannily bright bird that survives with wits and wiles as sharp as its beak."

Another fascinating tidbit is that while Poe and others have created an aura of foreboding around the raven, in other cultures the bird is considered sacred, even a creator of life. Native Americans, in fact, tell many stories of ravens communicating with humans, often to warn them of impending danger.

Chadwick relates a personal incident where the "high-pitched yells of ravens approaching food ... warned me of a grizzly guarding a carcass not far away." And he points out that ravens seem to "notice, consider, and comment on everything" to the point where "people sometimes get the feeling that the bird is bearing a message for them."

So whatever you do, leave those sandals holstered on your feet, because rather than something ominous like "nevermore," those cr-r-uks, prruks, and toks are more likely to translate into, "Hey buddy, can you spare a potato chip," or, "Polly wants an Oreo."

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