A Congress of Ravens

The first we knew of them, we heard the wind brush through wing feathers, a soft shushing over our heads.  Three ravens passed just above tree level. 

A little further down the trail, the calls of several ravens stopped us again. In a clearing between juniper and oak, we saw more ravens lifting from tree line. 

Why were these ravens gathering?  Normally, ravens travel in pairs or family groups.  That means 2 or 5 or 6 birds together. A pair of birds will soar and pirouette as dancers moving synchronously.  A family group will gather to chase off strange ravens, not members of their territory – and territory is claimed for years, not a season or two.

The wider our angle of view, the more ravens we saw, coming from the four directions. At first it was as a gathering of different clans, socially distancing: 10 there, 5 overhead, another 8 or so to the east, more arriving from the west.

We speculated, guessed and assumed reasons for so many ravens gathering. I’ve seen a ‘muster’ of crows grieving the death of a fellow.  Ravens have their own reasons to congress together. 

While we watched, the ravens kettled into a single large swirl. We watched them coalesce into a tighter and tighter circle and move upward. A rough count was 20 or more ravens. Looking above their kettle, we saw a large, single bird soaring, dipping, turning.  Sunlight flashed off its head and tail and my first thought was, “Red Tail,” but soon it became clear that the soaring bird was too large and too high for a hawk.

“Oh,” I said to myself, “I have my binoculars here!” So taken with the drama going on above me, I totally forgot I had means to observe.  Friend had become mesmerized and needed reminding that she, too, had her binocs hanging from on a halter around her neck.  We put glasses on that single bird and noted a light head, white tail and white patches underwing.  A juvenile baldie!  Or was it?  We watched the bird maneuver as the congress of ravens came close enough to harass.  But what is a baldie doing down here?  They are typically up near Lake Roberts.  Or at least Bill Evans.  Not down this far south over the high desert.  I remembered that juvenile Bald Eagles have varied markings and this bird seemed to evidence that. But enough doubt lingered.  What else could it be? 

I pulled out my phone and logged into iBird.  First opened the page for Bald Eagles to look at various juvenile years.  Not quite.  No large white patches underwing, only random white feathers.  Took a look at Golden Eagle.  This is the right territory, right habitat.  And there was the image on the screen that duplicated what we were seeing live, high above the desert and above a mob of ravens. We looked back up—and they were gone.  Every raven.  The eagle. Gone. The sky was empty.  While we were busy studying pixels, the real creatures flew their own sky-paths, taking them over a ridge and away.

In the days since, I find myself remembering a chapter from Craig Childs’ book, Animal Dialogues, about coming across a congress of ravens in a canyon in Utah.  Here is a relevant paragraph that reflects what we witnessed there on the CDTrail, but ours was a less lethal outcome.  The link (over Ravens are mobbers) will follow to the full reprinted story in Sun Magazine. 

Ravens are mobbers; that much I knew. They frequently gang up on invaders, generally the likes of hawks, eagles, or owls, pecking the backs of their heads, getting in their faces and screaming. They have a sense of appropriateness, attacking something that is out of place when the time is right…

About the Author

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I grew up and lived in the DC Metro area for most of my life. For the last 20-some years of my career, I worked for the Federal Government. Much of that time, I worked with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the US Forest Service. Visiting refuges and National Forests around the country, working with the folks whose jobs were to protect, restore, and manage the wild lands, forests and creatures that depend on them is where my heart resonated. I didn't know it then, but that's where my public lands advocacy must have been born. I moved from DC to southwestern NM in 2008. I continued to work until 2013, when I left the government in December. Now I spend my time volunteering for various conservation non-profits. And advocating for the protection of these lands that belong to all of us. I enjoy hiking, tracking, writing, photography, reading, birding, and driving bad roads in my big-girl 2013 F150 4x4.

2 Comments

These are wonderful stories–yours and Childs’–thank you for providing the link. I am reminded of so many ravens I’ve observed in Silver City, Santa Fe and the Pacific coast. The ones in SC seemed especially vocal, hanging out in the big American oak in my backyard on Bayard Street.

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