Thursday, September 11, 2008

Rainbow Bird - The Common Raven

Common Raven. Photograph by Gail Garber

Once upon a time, there lived a bird more beautiful, smarter, and braver than all the others. He had iridescent feathers of many colors and was admired by all for his many attributes. One day the Earth began to grow cold, and snow began to fall. The animals, who had never before seen snow, were not afraid. However, as the white blanket grew deeper daily, and food became limited, they asked their beautiful and smart friend to visit the Great Sky Spirit to stop the snow. Rainbow Crow volunteered to take the dangerous journey, calling out to the others in the sweetest voice of all, “I will go; I will stop the snow.”

The Great Sky Spirit had never before heard such a sweet song, as Rainbow Crow asked for help. Although he was powerless to stop the snow, he gave Rainbow Crow a stick with a bit of fire on the end and told him to hurry back home before the fire disappeared. On the first day, the fire blackened Rainbow Crow’s tail feathers. On the second day, the fire burned brighter on a shortened stick and covered all of his feathers with soot. On the third day, the fire was so hot and the smoke so thick that ash blew into his mouth and his once beautiful voice became harsh. As he returned home, the fire warmed the Earth and melted the snow, and the animals were happy. Rainbow Crow flew off alone and wept. He could no longer sing, was no longer beautiful and his rainbow feathers were gone forever.

The Great Sky Spirit heard Crow weeping, and came down from the sky to soothe the black bird. “Soon, the two-legged will walk the Earth, but because you are brave and unselfish, I will give you the gift of freedom. You will never be hunted for your meat tastes like fire and smoke; your feathers will never be taken because your rainbow colors are now black, and you will never be captured because your voice is broken and harsh. Your black feathers; however, shine and reflect all the colors of the Earth, if you take the time to look closely.”

One of my favorite legends, the delightful children’s, “Rainbow Crow”, by Nancy Van Laan, was based on a tale of the Lenape Indians. Crow, also known as Raven, probably has as many myths and legends associated with it as all the other birds combined. Native Americans of the northwest, revere ravens as being the creator of the earth, moon, sun, and stars, but the bird is also considered to be a trickster and a cheater. To some, the bird symbolizes death, wisdom, or danger.

Members of the Corvid family, the common raven is the largest of the passerines (or perching birds), strong and powerful, highly intelligent, playful, daring, and funny. Unappreciated by many, these remarkable birds are assuredly survivors in a human dominated landscape. It is one of the most geographically widespread, naturally occurring birds in the world. It is found throughout most of North America, and in all terrestrial land types except for rain forests. Although in some areas the population is rapidly expanding,is considered a pest, and programs are in place to reduce numbers, in other areas precipitous declines in population have lead to reintroduction efforts. It is listed as an endangered species in some states. They evolved with the great bison herds and wolf packs of North America. Now, they are resident wherever they occur, even in the high Arctic, although they wander during the winter.

They are the acknowledged leader in avian intelligence, with numerous stories about their cerebral prowess. A raven trapped in a wire cage was freed by wild ravens. From outside the cage, they dug a hole under the wire while the trapped raven dug from the inside, eventually making an opening large enough to crawl out. They have been documented using tools and making use of human equipment, such as bathing in sprinklers. Extraordinarily playful, they are inventive in their quest for fun. A few of the many reported behaviors include sliding down a snow-covered hill on their bellies, dropping and catching objects while in flight or passing them among each other, hanging upside down by one foot, playing tug-or-war, and harrassing other animals by pecking on their tails. In one instance a pair of ravens played an endless game of tag. One raven strutted close by a cat that gazed intently at the bird, apparently anticipating an an easy snack. In the meantime the other bird would quietly approach from behind to pull on the cat’s tail. As the cat turned to see what was tugging on it, the other raven would then pull on the again unprotected tail. This game went on four hours until the exhausted cat crawled off.

Supreme aerialists, they are often the only species surfing the sky on a very windy day when even the eagles are earthbound. Although they seem to be fearless, in reality, they are wary around humans and other unfamiliar objects. They generally inhabit areas more distant from human concentration areas than their cousin, the American Crow. They are dependent on coyote or wolves to open the carcasses of large animals, and although they will approach the predatory mammals, it is with the extreme caution on which their lives depend.

Pairs remain together throughout the year, and in winter, groups of ravens often roost together, possibly to reduce the effect of extreme low temperatures and wind chill. In areas where winter foods consist mostly of deer or elk carcasses, flocks of 50-100 are common. In other areas where grain is a major food source, up to 2,000 ravens have been seen together.

Perhaps the word adaptable should be included in the species’ name. Whatever the challenge, they rise to the occasion. One of my favorite sights occurs daily in the Jemez if one cares to climb to the higher mesa tops to look down on this magnificent bird as it plays on the thermals, rolling, diving, and climbing, all the while croaking with the harsh voice that was left to Rainbow Crow. If you look closely at a raven feather reflecting in the sunlight, you just might see the remains of the former rainbow.

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