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Dining with Ravens
March 5, 2013 - By: - In: Language - Comments Off on Dining with Ravens

My grandfather’s papers aren’t much. A few yellowing folders of old newspaper clippings, a deed or two, and a few letters and snapshots. He was no writer. But there is also five-page memoir, written in the broad loops of his fine hand, an incident report like the kind he used to write as fire chief, but this affidavit concerned the day a raven invited him to dinner  one afternoon up near Holt’s Ledge, late-season 1949.

He was by himself, sitting in the shadows of a hemlock as the snow sifting down to muffle silence, flattened light over a chiaroscuro of bare branches. Hours of stillness, then a movement, shadows melting to a form, a the rustle of feathers. Then a two-step, as a raven leans forward, ruffed neck, calling to my grandfather with a peculiar croaking noise.

The Vikings used to say that Odin, the Raven God, knew all. Every evening his ravens would gather at his hearth to whisper of all the things they had seen in forest. Ravens know.

This one flew away, called, flew back. My grandfather decided to follow the Raven as it arced across the branches down to the swamp. How could my grandfather (not a Viking) know this ancient wisdom? He just knew to follow, and writes that he couldn’t think of a reason not to.

His understanding was correct, because 50 yards on, my grandfather found fresh tracks. The raven was giving my grandfather a deer.

A gut pile is a raven’s bonanza. Biologist Bernd Heinrich has documented how these intelligent birds use their communication skills to recruit a predator to prepare dinner.

Heinrich discovered that ravens in Yellowstone National Park are absolutely dependent on wolves to provide supper. They wouldn’t survive without the wolves. Since their survivial depend on cross-species communication, no wonder ravens are so good at bird language.

Scientists are starting to take a look at the gestures used by ravens and other corvids  to communicate. By repeatedly demonstrating a kind of “look at that”  gesture,  thought to be at the foundation of human language—behavior seen in human infants beginning at about the age of 1—the birds may even be smarter than some nonhuman primates, according to a study by Simone Pika of the Max Planck Institute of Ornithology.

Heinrich, who spent a career in the company of ravens, says, “I suspect that the great gulf or discontinuity that exists between us and all other animals is… ultimately less a matter of consciousness than of culture.”

More on bird language and inter-species communication in an earlier post here.

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