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In the Company of Ravens

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

So I'm hiking up out of Red Rock Crossing Park, back up to Slick Rock and the Secret Slick Rock Trail, the one that got me in this fix in the first place, because I could not resist its name, or the promise it held of finding something secret, something special. The turkey vulture has given me several close passes and some of his invisible, totemic wisdom. And then two ravens hove into view.


I could tell they were young birds first by their voices. I haven’t been around breeding ravens in my lifetime, having lived out of their range, but this spring in the New River Gorge area of West Virginia, I heard what had to be a young raven yelling for its parents in the mist. It was a high-pitched, bleating whoop, an adenoidal shadow of the mellow toots and deep honks the bird would make later in life.

These were yelling. A lot. They took an immediate interest in me, circling just overhead, dangling their legs, talking talking talking.


Well. I thought perhaps that this is something ravens do in Sedona, that they don’t do elsewhere. I wondered if people hand feed them. I still wonder that. I wonder about everything I saw in Sedona. Whatever made the ravens come and seek me out, I was bursting with joy at the simple fact that they did. “Waugh! Waugh!” they called again and again, as they circled and played in the updraft over Slick Rock.

I spoke softly to them, then louder, as it became clear they were not afraid of me in the least. I remembered lying down on a clifftop at Cape St. Mary’s in Newfoundland, maybe 33 years ago, on a fine, cool, foggy, drizzly summer day, wondering what the ravens would do if I feigned death.  I got my answer through slitted eyes as they quartered lower and lower. Finally I heard the soft plop of a raven landing on the turf just a few feet behind my head. I got an instant, primal image of that hefty black beak plunging into my eye socket and sat up flailing, a human windmill. I was doing that GET ‘EM OFF ME ROSIE thing Humphrey Bogart did in “African Queen” when he dove down to fix the prop on their leaky old boat and came up covered in great fat leeches.  Shudder!

I never knew the raven’s true intent in landing behind my head, but I wasn’t going to risk an eye by letting him show me. Why else would he land there? Curiosity, certainly. But maybe because he thought I was dead, and tasty too.

This was an altogether different thing. The energy coming off these young ravens was playful, benign, almost doglike. They wanted to see what I was up to. They wanted to know if I had anything for them. They wanted to play with me.  I was laughing at their antics, as one kept ducking his head between his dangling legs in flight.  It reminded me of a kid riding a bike hands-free, just trying to impress whomever might be watching.

I began to make a game of trying to photograph the two against good backdrops, and, as I do with all my animal and bird subjects, I talked them through it. “Ahh. Red rock. Goood. Nice one. Let’s try that again!”

“You are BEAUTIFUL! Well, after a good molt you’ll be even more beautiful. But what a start you’ve made!”

I could see the pink corners on their mouths that told me they were youngun’s. That, the dull brown matte juvenile plumage, and their high teenage voices were the tipoffs. I wondered if adult ravens would behave this way. I never got the feeling they’d been hand-raised; no, they were truly wild, just unafraid, bold. 

“This is nice, but do you think you could fly over by Cathedral Rock for me? You’d look so good against that backdrop!”

To my amazement, they turned and beat their way over to the Rock, circling against it. I don’t think they spoke English. I think they picked up on the picture I had in my head, on the pure electric communication passing between our minds. I was visualizing a picture of them against the Rock, and I think they saw it in their heads. I also believe they were enjoying my enthusiastic reaction to their antics. I think it perfectly possible that they knew I was photographing them, and wanted to put on a good show for the camera. Ravens don’t miss much. Their eyesight, the things ravens must notice, put us humans to shame, make us look like we’re moving through life with our eyes closed.

 The ravens returned from Cathedral Rock and flew at eye level and what felt like arm's length, back and forth in front of me. By now, they certainly knew I had no food for them. I barely had enough water for me. But I was headed for my car, and all would be well.

Finally they landed.

Their shadows on the rock--were they enjoying them as much as I was?

All of it. The communication we shared, the simple but obvious joy in each other's presence. 

Their finding me was like coming upon someone in the middle of nowhere, and saying Hello! Hello! How's it going? Where are you from? You'd never do that in the grocery store. But out here, meeting someone is special.

 I felt I was in the presence of someone, perhaps people I knew, in raven form. The birds' interest in me was too intense, too friendly, too joyful to be anything other than directed. By whom, I could not know. I might guess, but I'd never know.

All I knew is that I felt accompanied. 

Entertained. Loved, even.

Not alone.

If that be your only message, ravens, it was received with joy and great humility. 

What an honor this was, to be for a little while in the company of ravens. 


Oh, Julie.
I left Ohio long ago, so we cannot be neighbors. But, when I read your writing (books or blog), I am in the company of a kindred spirit; as you were when with the ravens, I suspect.

Posted by Anonymous August 18, 2015 at 8:53 PM

And what an honor it must have been for the ravens to be with you.

Posted by Lucy from MN August 18, 2015 at 9:28 PM

Julie, thanks for this! Gotta share some raven news from the NW. We have nesting ravens in Seattle - first time in Lincoln Park, probably since it was logged off over 100 years ago. But they are back now, and yes they do play. Amazing creatures, esp. the 2 juvies:

Julie, I love the incredible insight you have and the way you express yourself. You are gifted. We are mourning the loss of my dear husband and this lifted our tender hearts. Thank you.

Posted by Anonymous August 19, 2015 at 2:12 AM

Once upon a morning dreary, as I woke weak and weary
With a grim and gory news-feed streaming from NPR
While I fretted, ever grumbling, suddenly there came a tumbling
Of words and pictures from Sedona, magic world beyond my door
From Julie wordsmith, ever painting, painting with her Mac keyboard
Red rock ravens... and so much more.

(deepest apologies to E.A.P.)

Oh, Julie! I think that this is my favorite post of yours thus far! I love corvids in general, but Ravens are something special, even though I have never met one in real life. I think you are right about them being able to picture in their minds the image that you are holding in yours. I suspect that once upon a time, early in our evolution, we could also do this. What changed? We became reliant upon language. It's similar to my handwriting becoming crap now that I use a keyboard to "write" everything. If you don't use it, you lose it. I also suspect that the Ravens could "see" the emotions you were experiencing somehow. I live with parrots, and they certainly can tell what mood I am in, even when I am trying to cover it up, and they react accordingly, getting loud and obnoxious when I am angry or upset, and becoming mellow when I am. Hobbes, especially, seems able to discern when I am lying on the sofa sick as opposed to lying on the sofa napping, and will come over to sit on the back of the sofa, looking for all the world like he is fretting. I seem to remember reading somewhere that birds have heightened emotions as opposed to humans.

Great post about one of my favorite birds. Their relatives', the Crows, numbers are back up after West Nile virus here in Maryland.--hart

Wonderful post and about one of my favorite birds! Two things to share.

Several years ago I was standing in a spot not too far from where you were. I was watching what I'm pretty sure were ravens playing. They would fold up their wings and fall straight to the ground and at the last minute open up and come swooping back up to do it again.

There is a shepherd in Flagstaff that has a raven who's adopted her. Great stories :-).

What a beautiful blog. The comments were so special--especially the one about your blog lifting the tender heart of a woman who is mourning the loss of her husband.

Take good care everyone!

What a wonderful experience you had. I loved reading about it.

Ravenwhispper. Sounds like you have a good start on another book. If you are even in the Phoenix area, I would enjoy showing you the burrowing owls in our area. Dean Luehrs, Sun City,AZ

Posted by Anonymous August 22, 2015 at 7:33 AM
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