The Black Bird
[Another in my series about my experience on the Navajo Reservation.]
Ravens are everywhere in Window Rock, Arizona. In the air. Perched on utility lines and fences. Scavenging along the road. Few Window Rock vistas–near or far, it doesn’t matter–do not include ravens. They are as iconic as the Navajos with whom they share this land or the dramatic rock formations that are this land.
Ravens are big birds, averaging about two and a half pounds and a four foot wingspan. Graceful in the air, ravens look goofy walking on the ground, their heads bobbing forward with each flat-footed step. Their color is a deep black with a purplish hue that appears iridescent in the right light. Ravens have long, thick bills and shaggy throat feathers. Unlike hawks or other larger raptors whom they resemble in flight, ravens are often on the ground, scavenging, oblivious to their awkward gait but keenly aware of their immediate surroundings. Ravens are cautious but take flight only when necessary, seemingly confident of their ability to escape any terrestrial threats.
The sheer cliffs that dominate the east side of Black Creek Valley are raven rookeries. Crags, ledges and other clefts in the rock provide numerous nesting sites. The nests are quite visible; the white stains on the rock–years of raven poop–testify to generations hatched and fledged on these cliffs. The nests, used year after year, are active from late spring thru the summer. During that time, the cliffs are abuzz with activity. The noise from the raven nests drifts down to the valley below. Parents fly back and forth. Chicks move about the nest, on to its edge and finally into the sky. When a hawk ventures near, the adult ravens gang up on the intruder to drive it away.
Ravens are gregarious. Although a lone raven gliding in the sky above is not uncommon, they often fly, forage and scavenge in small groups. Their rookeries on the the sheer cliffs recall the cliff dwellings of the Ancient Ones, now abandoned. Perhaps the congregate nature of their nesting sites is an apt metaphor for this highly intelligent bird. Ravens have demonstrated cognitive learning ability in a variety of tests. Their foraging and scavenging strategies also demonstrate their ability to think ahead. Ravens will carve chunks from carrion rather than nibbling; if driven off they will be able to take food with them. Ravens will follow wolf packs to scavenge on their kill and will, if the opportunity arises, stalk other predators to steal their prey.
Their dark plumage and size creates a spectral image. In western culture the raven is a somber bird, a harbinger, Poe’s “thing of evil–prophet still, if bird or devil!” A solitary raven perched on a fence post, calling out in its deep baritone feels like an omen even on a sunny day. When the sky is dark and the wind blows, it’s easy to see ominous portents in that lone creature roosting along the way.
In reality, that raven and his many kin are part of the natural world they inhabit. Just another creature that is adapted to this harsh land. No particular ill follows their path. Sometimes they seem to be talking to me as I pass. Maybe they are, telling me to keep moving or perhaps some secret that I will never understand. What I do know, however, is that for me to be part of this land, I must recognize the raven as a fellow creature who shares the land with me.
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