Friday, October 8, 2010

Did a Raven Read My Mind?

After my wife and I bought 52 acres of wild land,

we soon noticed that we were not alone. We often saw huge flocks of ravens over head. We soon learned that one neighboring farmer was also a butcher and too often dumped his waste in a neighboring ravine. We didn't appreciate that, but it did attract the ravens which we soon saw were engaging birds to watch especially when they pair off and perform indescribable aerial dances.

The ravens I hear have a call a bit deeper and more melodious than a crow's caw, and a becoming gurgling like noise. Compared to crows and blue jays, ravens are circumspect, and when they do make a noise, you never get the impression that they are being carried away by any emotions. At first they never gave me the impression that they noticed us at all.

It took us a good while to become familiar with 52 acres of woods, fields and ponds. When we were off exploring, my wife would often call out her nickname for me, Bert, to get my help or show me some beautiful or curious thing. I'd call back and head off to where she was. One day I heard "Bert! Bert!", shouted back and began heading her way, then a raven flew over me calling "Bert! Bert!" I waited. No more shouts from my wife. She hadn't called me. I realized that a raven might be mocking our pedestrian limitations. It could encompass our whole land with a few flaps of its wings.

It would not take anything with a bird's eye view long to see why I loved the land. We gleaned our firewood from it, but I never used a chainsaw or any other machine, because I wanted to see and hear the birds and other animals. One of our first treats was realizing that cuckoos nested on our land.

Their "cuk-cuk-cuk" seemed very close and soon enough we began to get glimpses of them. I was sawing firewood one day, and I saw a cuckoo in a nearby honeysuckle. At the same time I heard another cuckoo calling as it flew above us. I looked up and saw a raven. Like a good naturalist, I took what nature showed me at face value. Although much bigger than a cuckoo, the raven must have felt some competitive pressure from a bird bigger than most using our land. But the cuckoos hung around and I got the suspicion that the raven's imitation was for my benefit.

Our land is not far from a huge swamp, about 2 miles long and 1 mile wide. I frequently sat on a high ridge overlooking the swamp

and the most entertaining sound to hear is the "galumphing" cistern-pump-like sounds of the bittern. Adding to the pleasure is that the bittern is seldom seen. So one listens to the obvious and strains to see its invisible source. My principal pleasure on our land was watching the beavers. Once you get the knack, or as I like to put it, soak up the odor of the land so as not to overly alarm a beaver's excellent sense of smell,

it is relatively easy to see beavers, but a good bit of patient sitting and waiting are required. The beaver pond I often watched nestled in a wooded valley was not bittern territory. There were no high grasses for the bird to hide in.

So when I heard its characteristic galumphing sound maybe 50 yards away from where I was sitting, I was electrified. I whipped out my camcorder and though I couldn't see the bird, I took video of that area at high magnification hoping that a close look at the video might reveal the bittern. Then a raven laughed after its fashion and flew away.

On a hot, humid September evening just as it was getting dark, I was startled to see a bobcat walking along the shore of the beaver pond.

This was the first time I had seen a bobcat and was most impressed by the power and swagger of its strut, and the noise it made that seemed to fill the valley, an electric "cack-cack-cack." This was not a predator stealthily hunting but a predator showing who was boss. I didn't see a beaver, but I heard one slap its tail. I saw the bobcat for about 15 seconds and got a 4 second video of it. But I continued to hear it as it continued down the pond, crossed the pond and began to come up the side of the pond where I was sitting. I noticed that it getting dark and headed back to our cabin....

The next day I walked around the pond to see if there were any dead beavers, no. Then in the evening I sat up on the ridge again in case the bobcat routinely paraded down the shore of the beaver pond. While it was still pretty good light, I heard the "cack-cack-cack" again. Of course, I had sat with camcorder in hand. I turned it on and aimed where I expected the bobcat to strut. Then I heard a raven laugh and saw it fly away.

Since there was no doubt that I heard the bobcat make that noise the day before, I could only conclude that the raven had been perched up in a tree that evening and heard the bobcat. I didn't have to take the raven's imitating the bobcat personally, maybe it would have done it if I had not been there. But I did take it personally. The raven who probably well knew the bobcat's routine, since it might leave morsels for it to scavenge, was making fun of my limitations.

While ravens come and go, they don't have a seasonal pattern and we share the winter with them, though we spend most of our time in warm house about 10 miles away on the St. Lawrence River. Ravens don't hang around the river much. When we get to our land on a good winter day, we tracks animals.

One day I picked up a coyote's trail, crossing the beaver pond and then going up a ridge heading for a man-made pond that is on our land, where there were also beavers. A coyote's trail is usually pretty forthright not winding like fisher's or devious like a bobcat's. It has one ploy that I've experienced. When it senses that something is tracking it, it will my a wide circle to high ground so that it can get to the back of its pursuer. So when I heard a coyote-like barking behind me and off to the right, I whipped out my camcorder and contemplated my next move: approach it directly, stand and wait for its next move, or try to circle around it? Then I heard a raven laugh and fly away.

I didn't mind this trickery, and made good stories of it, but for my own self respect, I did remind myself of experiences I had in the woods that the raven did not mock. The raven must have figured out that I spent hours watching beavers, and listening to them. The beavers were familiar enough with me, that they didn't slap their tail at me whenever I was around. But they do make sounds, hums, whines and murmurs, often making them in their lodge before they come out for the evening, and sometimes communicating that way in the pond. Those sounds are music to my ears, and if the raven was so smart, it must have noticed how I enjoyed them. I decided that I had one up on the raven: it could not imitate a beaver. Indeed, when beavers gnaw wood, it is quite audible. The raven didn't imitate that either.

The beavers I watch at the man-made pond on a land, which they do dam to make higher, are refugees from that huge swamp nearby that is heavily trapped. There has never been a beaver family there and beaver families with adults, two year olds, yearlings and kits usually do a lot of humming and whining with each other. Even when there were three refugees in the man-made pond and even when they shoved or groomed each other, I rarely heard any hums or whines. Because the beavers were not a family, I often worried that they had left, as eventually they usually did. So watching beavers there meant sitting still and hoping that there were beavers there to watch. I often sit on a shady knoll 15 feet or so above their bank lodge.

They often stayed there as well as in several bank burrows on the opposite shore. One evening I was relieved to see a beaver come out of the lodge below me, then after it dove into the water heading to the opposite shore, I heard a beaver hum. Then a raven flew out of a tree above me, and laughed all the way as it flew across the pond. I waited in vain for another beaver to come out of the lodge, or for another hum. But the beavers in this pond almost never hum....

I gave up any pretense that I could rival a raven's understanding of what I continued to insist was "my" land. But while the raven was showing me that it knew exactly what I was doing, I couldn't say that it had read my mind. One day in late July, I saw a bobcat again, this time walking down the dirt road that forms one of the borders of our land.

It was silent, though obviously not on any stealth mission. It turned and went down to the dam of the man-made pond. I followed and when I got there, I saw two beavers swimming in the pond looking up at the shore where the bobcat must have just been.

Later in the fall, I found a dead beaver in the inlet channel to the pond, and I saw bobcat prints in the mud nearby. Yet I didn't hastily conclude that the bobcat ate a beaver. For one thing the bones of the beaver were rather picked clean

and I had seen the two beavers I was accustomed to see here a few nights before. Had someone used our dirt road to drive down and dispose of a beaver carcass? Now and then we've been graced with a deer carcass or two. But after I found the beaver carcass in the pond, there were no beavers in the pond for a week, which suggested that one was taken by the bobcat and the other went to the safe swamp below with acres and acres of marsh and channels where a bobcat can't go. Then two beavers reappeared in the pond....

One evening after I collected a few more of the dead beaver's bones that didn't smell as much as they had before, I sat on the high bank of the pond and ran several scenarios through my brain, more or less at the same time. Generally I am a patient tracker. Tomorrow's signs may well explain what you saw today. But there comes a point where all the data seems to be in and an important conclusion has to be drawn. I have never seen evidence of a bobcat killing a beaver before. As my mind struggled with these questions, I heard a raven in a nearby tree continuously babbling, which I've never heard a raven do. But this was babbling with an edge to it, reminding me of the almost dissonant rumblings in Chopin's Second Sonata just after the Funeral March but with more sharps than flats. The raven was mimicking the confusion in my mind. Sitting on a wet green bank in the evening with sunset unfolding above is conducive to clearing one's mind. So that's what I did. I thought on the reflections in the pond below. The raven stopped babbling. But my yoga skills are minimal. My mind soon began twisting around the beaver-bobcat conundrum again. The raven started babbling again. As I tried to clear my mind again. It flew off laughing.

Evidently the raven could read the confusion in my brain by the change in my body language. I'm sure it can notice a wrinkle, a twitch, a tensed muscle. But how did it so neatly summarize my confusion with its babble?

The raven has been off my case ever since, save that I occasionally hear a raven making a galumphing sound like a bittern, but that must be fun. Indeed, I've heard ravens making galumphing sounds to each other, before flying off with raucous laughs. Sometimes I wish a raven would enter my mind again. Perhaps we could converse playing a kind of twenty questions. I could think of something and it could babble if I was way off base, laugh if what I was thinking was simply stupid, and caw smartly if I was right. But what do you ask a god who has always mocked you?

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