Why is it that people are always going around maligning birds? Poets, proverb coiners, phrasemakers and a lot of other word slingers knock themselves out trying to think up some nasty connotation to hang onto some innocent member of the feathered community. Tame birds, wild birds, beautiful birds—any kind of birds—are apt to get a bad reputation in this manner. The man who coined the phrase "silly goose" ought to be shot. A goose is anything but silly; it is, in fact, a noble bird.
It is popular nowadays when a person displays a lack of determination in a risky situation for other individuals to holler out, "Chicken!" This is ridiculous. A common, barnyard rooster will fight like a fiend, and there is no braver thing than a gamecock which will battle to the death. I've seen a grown man run from a setting hen.
There are hundreds of such cases that could be cited. How about "dead duck"? Why, please tell me, is a dead duck deader than anything else that is dead? Why make somebody "eat crow"? Why not make him eat western pack rat or Florida tree snail? And that brings me to one of the worst examples of bird-badgering in history, the time that Edgar Allan Poe sat down (I assume he sat) and wrote that poem about a relative of the crow, The Raven. Ever since that spectral specimen of Corvus corax perched over the old chamber door, while Poe was suffering from insomnia inside, the whole species has had a jinx on it.
To this day honest, decent people who wouldn't hurt a fly get hate jitters over ravens. If you go up to a man, look him in the eye and say, "Raven!" the betting is 8 to 5 that he will roll his eyes and say, "Nevermore!"
Poe called the raven "ghastly, grim and ancient." Then he said it was an "ominous bird of yore" and insisted that it hailed from some "Plutonian shore." At times he was trying to decide whether it was "bird or devil," and then he'd get mixed up over whether it was "bird or fiend." No wonder the raven likes to take itself off away from the haunts of man. Man, because of Poe, thinks ill of the raven, so the raven has its fun elsewhere.
Now for the truth. The raven is a gay bird—playful, fun-loving and at times downright flippant. It is plain that Poe never saw a bunch of ravens at play. Well, I have. To watch ravens doing aerial acrobatics over the high peaks of the Great Smoky Mountains down in Tennessee and North Carolina is more fun than a barrel of monkey-faced owls.
The raven is the largest member of the Corvidae, a family including rooks, jays and crows. Unlike the crow, which usually flies straight, as though late for an appointment, the raven soars and swoops, glides and dives, careens and cavorts. Sometimes one will fold its wings and drop a couple of hundred feet just for the happy thrill of it. Some observers have seen them playing tag in a windstorm. When courting, their antics are even more carefree, the birds playing touch-wing and tickle-feather in mid-air.
These are not the antics of a bird of ill omen. They are jolly raven games, and you don't find an ominous specter out playing games. Furthermore, scientists rank the raven high in the bird line. A noted ornithologist told me just the other day that ravens in the wild can count up to seven. No other bird is known to reach that. A crow can make it to six, and a pigeon can hit five, and six once in a while, but the raven, he said, has it over them all when it comes to totaling up the score.
And what in Sam Hill would a bird that can count up to seven be doing sitting on an old piece of sculpture saying nothing but "Nevermore"? Ravens have been known to say plenty more than that, and you don't have to split their tongues to make them do it.
Ravens inhabit North America, Europe and northern and central Asia. Some northern subspecies attain a wing-spread of four feet. They'll reside in the most outlandish places, as long as no people are around—deserts, tundras and mountains. They prefer to nest on rocky crags but are also found at home in trees.
And another thing—ravens generally remain mated for life, and a bird that goes steady is not apt to sneak around tapping on other people's doors in the dead of night. They lay four or five eggs, sometimes as many as seven, and are attentive to their young, keeping them in the nest for four or five weeks; obviously a gay yet faithful, home-loving bird. Their feeding habits are not too fastidious, but how about some of the things that people eat? And yet everybody goes around putting the whammy on the raven just because some old poet had a fit of the blues. What a thing!
There are villages in the far north where people don't molest ravens, and have never read Poe's poem. Here the bird, adaptable and friendly if given the chance, does an about-face. It goes into town, teases the local cats, steals bones from dogs and generally has itself some urban fun.
Once I was in a village in northern Canada and, as I was walking along with a friend of mine, we came upon a big, handsome raven. It was fooling around on the eaves of a house. Maybe it was a pet. It wasn't over the door but was just above a window, tapping at something with its bill. We were watching the bird when my friend turned with a glum look and, in a hollow voice, said, "Nevermore!"
I could have socked him.