Monday, July 6, 2015

Birdlore: The Common Raven, Face of the Trickster

Imagine you are walking down the World Bird Sanctuary Display Line and it is a quiet weekday morning.  You’re glancing straight ahead, walking briskly, when a ‘Hello’ is echoed behind you.  Craning your head sharply to the right, no one is there.  In fact, you realize you’re utterly alone at that moment!

 Another ‘Hello’ sounds, and you follow the call to its source from a nearby enclosure.  Beady black eyes glare at you, glistening black tail feathers flex up and down, and a long, thick, pointy beak gapes open again, “Hello.”

Poe, the Common Raven, greets you with a tease.

Poe, WBS's Common Raven (photo: Gay Schroer)

Common Ravens (Corvus corax) are highly intelligent members of the corvid family.  They are described as having the brain capacity of a 3-5 year-old child and can use tools to gather food and solve puzzles.  This cleverness also allows them to outsmart or outmaneuver other birds.  A pair of ravens will work together to steal from seabird colonies.  One raven will distract a brooding adult on a nest and the other raven will make a grab for an egg or small chick.

Common Raven (Corvus corax) (photo: wikipedia)
Ravens are multifaceted characters in Native American culture.  They may be revered as a cultural hero, creator, or a being benevolent to humans.  Another side of the Raven is that of a trickster.  The raven will use his cunning and cleverness to obtain an object or goal, either for self-seeking or selfless reasons.

One story among the northwest tribes tells how raven reclaims the sun and moon hidden away from the rest of the world.

Raven Steals the Light

Once long ago in ancient times, a mighty chief lived with his beautiful daughter.  He took the sun and the moon from the sky and hung them in his house, leaving the rest of the world shrouded in darkness.

With the darkness, the people of the earth could not hunt or fish.  They had to crawl through the forest, with their hands as their guide, to hope to find wood to light the fires in their homes.  If they thought they had found firewood they would bite it to make certain indeed.

When Raven discovered the mighty chief had taken the sun and moon from the earth, he flew to the chief’s house to reclaim what had been stolen.  Raven asked the powerful chief to restore the sun and moon to its rightful place, but the chief refused.  Not the least bit discouraged, the clever black bird devised a devious plan.

He followed the chief’s beautiful daughter to a nearby stream which she visited every day.  There, Raven waited and hid until her return the next day.  As she approached the stream, Raven transformed himself into a tiny fish and leaped into the water.  The beautiful daughter filled her bucket and then dipped her drinking cup into the cool water.  In the form of a tiny fish, Raven swam into the cup and the girl drank the water and Raven unknowingly.

The girl became pregnant after Raven entered her body and transformed into a baby.  Time passed and the girl gave birth to a boy, who was in fact Raven.  The baby grew healthy and fast and soon was a young boy.  The mighty chief loved his grandson greatly and would spoil him.  One day his grandson began crying for something.

The chief asked his grandson what he wanted in order to make him happy.  The boy gestured to the sun and moon hanging from the ceiling of their home.  Reluctant at first, the grandfather relented and gave the boy the sun and moon if he would stop crying.  The child took them outside to play with for a time, whereupon he suddenly threw them high into the sky.  The mighty chief rushed outside of his house to see what had happened, but Raven had already returned to his true form and flew far away.

That is how Raven returned light to the world.

If you would like to learn more about the intelligence of Ravens and Crows, come to the World Bird Sanctuary and speak with one of our naturalists or visit Poe, the Common Raven, who lives on the Sanctuary’s Display Line.

As with all of the creatures that call the World Bird Sanctuary home, Poe is available for adoption in our Adopt A Bird program.  Click Here to adopt Poe, or call 636-861-3225 and ask for Marion to find out more about our Adopt A Bird Program.

Submitted by Jessica Bunke, World Bird Sanctuary Naturalist/Trainer

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