By James Bishop, Jr.
(December 5, 2018)
“Ravens are the birds I’ll miss most when I die. If only the darkness into which we must look were composed of the black light of their limber intelligence. If only we did not have to die at all. Instead, become ravens.”
― Louise Erdrich, The Painted Drum
From time to time, the skies above Sedona can be busy with ravens and helicopters. As the New Year looms, the truth must be faced: citizens likely know more about helicopters than they do about ravens even though ravens have been around as long as time itself and are much more interesting.
Since prehistoric times even, back when there were Greek and Roman gods it was believed that ravens had divining powers. Nordic mythology, for example, places two ravens, one is thought and one is memory, on the shoulder of the god, Odin. At dawn, the birds flew off to all corners of the world. At days end, they returned with important secrets, which they whispered in his ear. Raven stories are endless. The French believe that bad priests become ravens. In folklore, ravens were the only creatures to defy the decree against lovemaking. Switching to California’s Sierra Nevada, ravens warned hunters one day of a black bear on a trail below.
Often honored among medicine & holy men of Native American tribes for their shape-shifting qualities, the raven was called upon in ritual so that visions could be clarified. Shares Benny Benedict, local crack wilderness guide, “Ravens come from the world of grandfathers and grandmothers, from the Great Mystery, they are bringers of magic and dreams, spending 80 percent of their life in the air, flying on the currents, amidst the helicopters. What’s more, they are considered one of the most intelligent of animal creatures, ranked up there with dolphins and chimpanzees.”
Despite helicopters, the ravens inhabit the chasms of the San Juan, the Colorado, and even the Verde River. They compete with eagles, owls, and Peregrine Falcons for nesting sites. Common ravens mate for life and build their nests on cliffs, in trees, and on structures such as power-line towers, telephone poles, billboards, and bridges. They are everywhere. Last summer, when tourists crossed the last bridge over Dry Creek on 89A coming from Cottonwood, little did they know that directly underneath, three young healthy ravens shared a nest while being cared for by mother and father, a rare trait in other birds.
Tourists also may know what kind of food is served in Sedona’s restaurants but do they know that the raven’s bill of fare is enormous and varied, anything from scorpions to domestic cats and even 285 crickets at a sitting! According to one theory, they cannot eat carrion until something else or a camper vehicle opens the carcass for them. They live amidst us in cliffs, in pine trees and they are the brains of the bird world. “Raven intelligence is so keen”, observed one ecologist, “that by comparison, other birds act like vegetables.”
And what do they do for fun? Legends tell in the Southwest of ravens as creators and clowns or as rascals who create humans for their own amusement. They have been observed sliding down snowbanks just for fun. They have been seen playing catch-me-if-you-can with wolves, otters, and dogs. Common ravens are known for spectacular aerobatics such as flying in loops, or interlocking talons with each other in flight. They are also one of the few breed of animals that make their own toys and have been observed breaking off twigs to play with socially. In addition, according to legend, they created mosquitos and sent rivers downhill, since rivers flowing both uphill and down in the original perfect world devised on a raven’s whim made life too easy. Truth be told, ravens are a bundle of contradictions: They can pull the tail of wolves and eagles, chase them away from their nest and their food, but at other times welcome the same individuals and share the same food.
Can helicopters compete with all this?
Looking outside today, some ravens appear more nervous than usual. Is it because their favorite restaurant has changed its menu and put too many additives in the food which spoil their dumpster dinner? Are they wondering whether they will have to turn vegan to stay in Sedona? Alternatively, perhaps they welcomed the latest storm that grounded the helicopters so they could practice their acrobatics in the empty skies, heralding a party, known to include a hundred or more.
On a typical day, they will stop off at McDonalds for a quick bite, no time to wait for the scraps from upscale restaurants of the two-legged. Other times, they can be observed listening to the clamor above the city of Sedona. It has even been suggested by some scientists that the brains of common ravens rank high among all species and that they display an amazing ability to solve problems, so could it be that the county and the city could use some new consultant to solve their problems?
–James Bishop and Karen Walker
Loved this article as I am one of Sedona’s raven lovers. I was so entranced by them
when I first moved here that I wrote a book, “The Un-Common Raven: one smart bird.” Photos are by our own Loren Haury and are beautiful. These birds capture attention and affection of residents and tourists alike because of their size and intelligence and playful manner. We are lucky to be living with them.