Archive for December, 2020

Revised Corvids Blog Entry

For some reason my recent blog entry did not include the photos. Don’t ask me why, I abhor trying to solve computer issues. I am hoping that this link includes them. And if it doesn’t and you want to see them, go to my Facebook page.

For the Love of Corvids

I heard it first. Overhead, just above the naked canopy of the woods, a muffled cadence “whoosh. . whoosh. . whoosh” pulsed through the early morning silence. I glanced up and the raven gurgled a call as it passed over in its direct flight to somewhere. And I knew as I looked up, the raven was looking down at me.  Did I see a slight nod?  Wishing me luck? As it flew out of sight, a second raven croaked off to my right. 

Minutes later, well south of me, a group of crows were cawing up the morning. Their vocalization was not the typical “caw, caw, caw,” but instead almost sounded like chuckling between caws.

Maybe these crows and ravens were giddy because it was opening morning of the firearm deer hunting season, which in their world could be seen as a corvid thanksgiving.  I was perched in a tree, with my bow and arrows, hoping to fill our freezer and maybe, just maybe, the passing corvids would also find sustenance in my luck as a hunter.

I love ravens, even more than I love crows. And I love crows more than I love magpies and jays.  All of them belong to a group of birds known as corvids, a shortened moniker from their official family name:  Corvidae. They are among the smartest and most adaptable birds in the world. They are skilled foragers and scavengers.

Successful deer hunters field dress their kills, leaving gut piles. These are steaming feasts for all scavengers. 

Ravens and crows keep things simple in their singular plumage color of black. I can only imagine this make life easier.  No dressings for a bright, colorful courtship. Instead they utilize their amazing range of vocalizations and interesting behaviors to attract attention.

Jays are the only corvids around here that have any color and they wear it well. Lots of folks think jays are piggy and bullies at the bird feeder. I would beg to differ. I find them beautiful, sassy and damned smart. I love ‘em. Here in Minnesota we have two native jays, the blue jay and the gray jay, also known as the Canada jay or whiskey jack. 

Perhaps much of my love of corvids stems from a stolen kiss. Four years ago we snowshoed up near a sunlit Mt. Baker in Washington state. Stopping for lunch, we attracted the attention of a gray jay who obviously had learned the art of sneaking in for spilled crumbs. The bird was bold and I fooled it into a kiss by offering a piece of sandwich held delicately in my lips as the bird hovered and gently plucked it from me.  So is it any wonder, my infatuation with corvids? No other bird has showed me such affection. 

Corvids are crafty. Ravens and crows have been known to divert the attention of a predator feeding on a kill only to have one of their gang sneak in and pilfer a bit. There is evidence that ravens intentionally help predators find prey. Once the predator kills the prey the corvids perch in nearby trees awaiting their turn at the spoils.  

Who knows,  maybe that hunting partnership is also aligned with us. 

Years ago I was hunting deer up in Superior National Forest, not far from Lake Superior. In the early morning light, I heard a raven pass directly overhead. I looked up and witnessed a perfectly executed barrel roll with the bird nearly going on its back in flight.  I wondered, was that move for fun? Showing off?  It reminded me of a passage from anthropologist Richard Nelson’s book, Make Prayers to the Raven: A Koyukon View of the Northern Forest.  Nelson lived with Koyukon people for an extended time. He wrote of the their belief that when an overhead raven rolled in flight it was emptying its pack over the Koyukon hunter and that would ensure hunting success. And it worked. I shot a deer later that morning. I like to think the barrel-rolling raven returned to feed on the gut pile of that deer. 

 Back when I was in high school, I used to spend a fair amount of time down by the confluence of Goose Creek and the St. Croix River, which separates Minnesota from Wisconsin. (This was prior to the establishment of Wild River State Park.) One spring, friend Nels and I found a crow’s nest in a white pine. Thinking it would be really cool to snatch a baby crow and raise it, we decided to check out the nest. With the help of a boost, I reached some lower branches and laddered my way up to investigate the twiggy nest. There were five recently hatched nestlings huddled in their near nakedness. They were too young to take and try to raise as pets. 

My idea was to teach a crow to talk and have it ride on my shoulder. Crows have complex throat muscles making all kinds of vocalizations possible.  They are excellent mimics. In the book Lost Art of Crow Taming by Pete Byers, the author claims all that is needed to teach a crow to talk is “patience, perseverance and repetition.” He knew one crow that could say, “I’m Jim Crow.” 

A couple of weeks later we returned to the nesting tree. The mosquitoes were thick. Scrambling up through the branches, I found the nest empty. My dream was voided as well as some of my blood. 

I should add here that at that time crows were not protected. In 1972 they received federal protection when the Migratory Bird Treaty Act was amended to include the protection of raptors and corvids. 

Each year that we butcher a deer we hang the skeleton in the big bur oak at the edge of our yard.  This bony bird feeder attracts crows only in the quiet early hours of the day. They don’t tolerate our closeness as much as the woodpeckers, chickadees and nuthatches that flit over the prize. 

Note the downy woodpecker and the mesh bag with deer fat.

By winter’s end the pair of deer skeletons will be picked clean. Sassy corvids will feel the seasonal tide of hormones urging them to find a mate and start all over again.  And with luck, I will have the privilege of sharing nods with an autumn raven again.