Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Friday, November 30, 2018

Laura's Best Bird EVER: Raven with a Gift from Above

Common Raven

Back in 1981, right after I moved to Duluth when I was pregnant with my first baby, Russ refinished some floors in our apartment. Being pregnant, I simply couldn’t deal with the smells, so I stayed in Port Wing, Wisconsin, with his parents for a couple of weeks, taking long, long walks along country roads every morning. My favorite walk was about 10 miles, but if I wasn’t quite up to that or the weather grew unpleasant, I could keep it at 6. I could also add extensions to make the full hike more like 12 miles. That spring was when I grew especially bonded to Port Wing, developing a feel for the various habitats and which birds were where.

One day when I returned to the house, I noticed that my wristwatch, a gift from Russ that I treasured, was missing. It was on a leather strap, and the buckle had occasionally worked its way open. I thought it was lost forever.

Gift from a raven

The next day when I was three or four miles from Russ’s parents place, a raven flew over making some interesting squawks I’d never heard before. A few minutes later, that one or another flew over with something hanging out of its beak. I pulled up my binoculars, and there was my wristwatch! The raven flew in, closer and closer, right over my head. And voila! It dropped my wristwatch at my feet.

I don’t have words to describe my disbelief, surprise, and a joy that far, far surpassed my pleasure in having my good old watch back, oddly enough still in working order. What was going on in that raven’s mind? I’d not focused on the ravens on my morning walk except to notice them, and occasionally to call up a “good morning”—when I’m birding alone, I sometimes do carry on conversations with birds. I’ll never know if this raven thought that was interesting, endearing, or what, or whether it noticed me dropping the watch and associated me with it. Ravens often pick up shiny objects, and maybe when this one saw the person it associated with that object again, it decided to match us out of a sense of order rather than generosity. Maybe it wanted to give some random item it found to a random person.

I’ll never know. But it’s fun to speculate about the mystery. I’d read about how smart ravens are even before I started birding or ever saw a real one, but it had never occurred to me that raven intelligence and a kind of raven benevolence could possibly have an impact on my personal life.

When I think about that raven now, more than 37 years later, I’m still gobsmacked. I’ve spent the intervening years studying everything I could about avian intelligence, but the more I learn, the more I realize that I haven’t even scratched the surface.

We human beings have been smart enough to raze whole swaths of forest and prairie, blow Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Baghdad to smithereens, and enslave, torture, and kill millions of our very own species. Now we send probes to Mars and beyond, yearning to find more intelligent life out there that I think, based on the movies we create, we assume will be just as menacing as our own species.

Meanwhile, we still lack the basic intelligence to even notice, much less understand or communicate with, the intelligent life forms right here on our home planet—life forms intelligent enough to muster together satisfying lives without blowing anyone up or taking too much more than they need for their own security and happiness. They may be pretty much defenseless against us, but that says more about our own deadly sins of greed and wrath than anything about their intelligence.

My wristwatch stopped working a year or two after it dropped from the skies at my feet, but I’ve never been able to throw it away. Somehow that raven had transformed my inexpensive but beloved trinket into a priceless treasure. That raven was my best bird EVER!