7 May 2011

Ravens

I was staying at my mother in law’s place, in Wollongong a few days ago, when I heard a strange noise coming from the street. A sort of cross between the bleating of a sheep and the cry of a toddler. I was later told it was an Australian raven. For those unfamiliar with the sound of this creature of the Antipodes, here is a sound file, provided by the website "Birds in backyards"  I think the crow in this recording is a bit mellower than the one I came across.


I had read somewhere that ravens can learn to speak like humans. If that’s so, maybe this raven had picked up that noise from hanging around a herd of sheep? Not quite. Apparently the noise my Wollongong raven was making was a territorial call…Shocking...I thought of the poem by Edgar Allan Poe, “The Raven” and his continued repetition of “Nevermore”, driving the protagonist to insanity. I think I could go insane if I had to listen to one of these ravens for a few hours.

Poe wasn’t the first one to talk about ravens in a story.  Truth is there are crows on all temperate continents (except South America) and they appear in different and distant mythologies, often under a negative light, which is not really surprising given the noises they make and the fact that they feed off dead animals.

In Spain, we have the proverb "Cría cuervos y te sacarán los ojos." which translates as, "Raise ravens, and they'll take your eyes out" and is generally used for someone who has bad luck in raising children, or raised them badly, and is suffering the consequences. It is a phrase said to originate with Don Álvaro de Luna, a Castilian aristocrat, during a hunting expedition. In the course of the hunt his party came across a beggar with terrible scarring in the place of eyes. The beggar explained that he had raised a raven for three years with affection and great care, but it attacked him one day, leaving him blind. The bon mot was Don Álvaro's reply.

In Australia, legends involving the Crow have been observed in various Aboriginal language groups and cultures. I have included below the story that tells the story of the Crow's role in the theft of fire:
In the mythology of the Aboriginal people of south-eastern Australia, the Karatgurk were seven sisters who represented the Pleiades star cluster. According to a legend told by the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, in the Dreamtime the Karatgurk alone possessed the secret of fire. Each one carried a live coal on the end of her digging stick, allowing them to cook the yams which the dug out of the ground.
The sisters refused to share their coals with anybody, however they were ultimately tricked into giving up their secret by Crow. After burying a number of snakes in an ant mound Crow called the Karatgurk women over, telling them that he had discovered ant larvae which were tastier than yams. The women began digging, angering the snakes, which attacked. Shrieking, the sisters struck the snakes with their digging sticks, hitting them with such force that the live coals flew off. Crow, who had been waiting for this, gathered the coals up and hid them in a kangaroo skin bag. The women soon discovered the theft and chased him, but the bird simply flew out of their reach and perched at the top of a high tree.
Bunjil the Eaglehawk, who had seen all of this, asked Crow for some of the coals so that he could cook a possum. Crow instead offered to cook it for him. Soon, a large group had gathered around Crow's tree, shouting and demanding that he share the secret of fire with them. The din frightened Crow and at last he flung several live coals at the crowd. Kurok-goru the fire-tailed finch picked up some of the coals and hid them behind his back, which is why to this day firefinches have red tails. The rest were gathered up by Bunjil's shaman helpers, Djurt-djurt the Nankeen Kestrel and Thara the quail hawk.
The coals caused a bushfire which burnt Crow's feathers permanently black and threatened to consume the entire land, until Bunjil's efforts halted its spread. The Karatgurk sisters, meanwhile, were swept into the sky where they became the Pleiades (the stars are said to represent their glowing fire sticks).

Maybe Aboriginal people were able to see the qualities of crows before other cultures did...Evidence now suggests crows are very intelligent animals, to the point that Joshua Klein, a “technologist” from the US, has built a machine that trains crows to gather lost change and deposit it in exchange for peanuts. He believes that we may be able to train them to work for us finding expensive components from discarded electronics or picking up rubbish. Could we train them without fear of them taking our eyes out afterwards? I don’t know...