Meet the Raven. One serious bird.
Around four years ago I was just about to sit myself down to breakfast in the company of my parents when my Father, who was near the Kitchen window, roared out an expression which I can’t print here. Sufficeth to say his expression was spherical and in the plural. Having nearly smashed the carton of Orange juice all over the wall with fright I asked him what on earth he was shouting about. He didn’t answer but only motioned, never taking his eyes off the window, for me to come over and see what he was looking at. I came over and pleasantly allowed my jaw to move up and down in an action resembling a yo-yo.
Outside in the garden was the usual collection of birds that frequented my mothers’ birdtable. There were sparrows, finches, and the odd unwelcome magpie. However, this particular day, things were different due to a new visitor in our back garden. This was a huge raven, sitting in the middle of all the other birds, glowering at those around him. It was the first time I had ever seen one of these incredible creatures in the flesh. He (she?) sat there, unmoving, obsidian black, vicious looking. The other birds around him looked, well, frankly, pathetic.
What struck me immediately was the sheer size of the raven. He was, without labouring the point, huge. I was, much like a lot of Irish people would be, immediately cast back to childhood and remembered hearing the wonderful tales of Cúchullainn, the greatest of all the Fianna warriors, the knights of the Red Branch of Ulster, who had been both guided and plagued by a giant raven, which was the physical embodiment of the Morrigan, the Celtic Goddess of war. It was easy to understand, looking at this behemoth of coal black feathers sitting in my garden, how the Ancient Celts must have made such an association. The Raven was for them an extremely important animal, an omen of things to come, the harbinger of war and death, and the call to glorious battles?
The Raven is a bird which has had a hard time of it from mankind. They have been associated in man’s mind with everything negative from death, disease and war to mischief, pestilence, melancholia and disappointment. This last one possibly comes from the fact that it was a Raven who was first sent out by Noah to find dry land. The doves got all the glory for bringing home a scroungy twig whilst the Ravens took the hard job of finding the land in the first place. Ravens are common in ancient mythology, as we have already seen from the two examples cited. They also appear in Norse mythology in the shape of the two huge birds Hugin and Munin who were news gatherers for Odin. Ravens appear in some cultures of the Pacific Northwest and in Siberia the Raven made the earth. You can read more about raven mythology here .
Ravens are members of the Corvidae family or, in simple terms, the crow family. This is a very large family of birds which includes Magpies, Jays, Jackdaws, Rooks, the list goes on. The largest member of the family, the Raven, can be found on every continent on planet Earth barring one: Antarctica. The absurdly low temperatures prevent them, and just about every other type of life, from living there. They get big. Very big. At maturity they average out at about 65cm (27 inches) in length. Their wing span is about twice that. In otherwords about the size of a Hawk. There is a strange otherworldly blue iridescent sheen on their feathers. They give the impression of being so black that in actual fact they are out the other side of black and somewhere into a new colour altogether. The beak and feet are black, the eyes are brown. The throat feathers are fluffed and spiky, lending another touch of menace to and already scary spectacle. This is one serious bird.
However, all is not sinister and evil. Recent research has shown that Ravens are incredibly smart birds. So smart in fact that some researchers are beginning to feel distinctly uneasy about everything that we have held as truth about the entire Corvidae family. In January of 1999 Douglas Chadwick reported that recent research by Heinrich Bernd has shown that Ravens are a great deal more intelligent than we have given them credit for, notably that they seem to show reasoning abilities. Indeed, Ravens are famous for the ingenuity that they have employed in seeking out food. This includes opening bags, zips, and fasteners and taking the lids off of bins. The list of comic raven activity goes on and on. Bernd’s research received hoots of derision from the scientific community when first proposed but now seems to have found some standing, if at least the National Geographic article from 1999 is anything to go by.
In an Irish context Ravens are difficult to find, and indeed it is difficult to get a precise population count. They tend to be erratic in their sightings and prefer to cling to mountainous and hilly areas which makes it even more difficult to get a sighting of them, never mind an estimate of their numbers.
For those wanting to see the real live thing, the best of luck and let me know where you see one. For those of you who are feeling lazy and are just curious to see one up close? yep, you guessed it: visit the Natural History Museum on Merrion Street, Dublin. Don’t forget, it’s free.
To hear what a Raven sounds like, go here.
To report your Raven sightings/demonic possesions/talking animal incidents, contact Blather Paranormal Investigations Inc., or just stick a comment below…
See Also: The Economist: Quoth the raven