Winter treasure 17: Ravens

31/12/20 It’s not so easy as you might think to identify a buzzard-sized raven in flight simply by size, unless there happens to be a crow mobbing it. And then you have to be certain that is a crow rather than a jackdaw or rook.

It has taken me a few years of experience and research to become confident in my identification of ravens. The first time I saw them must have been on a primary school trip to the Tower of London. As far as I know, I never saw or heard one again until I started walking the Southwest Coast Path. Making slow progress over the steep Cornish cliffs, I was alerted to the presence of an unfamiliar bird by a cronk: a deeper, gentler, altogether more beautiful and friendly sound than the caw of a crow.

Its voice is distinctive, but its pitch can vary, and this confused me at first. Sometimes the cronk is unmistakably low and sonorous; sometimes it is higher and sounds more like a gentle version of a crow. This is still the most reliable method of identification, however, along with its tail – if you manage to get a look – which is diamond-shaped (usually described as wedge-shaped), in contrast to the crow’s fanned tail. It has taken me many sightings and hearings, both at home and in the surrounding countryside, to be sure – absolutely sure – that the visitors to my garden the day after the winter solstice were a pair of ravens.

I always want to cheer an underdog, especially an intelligent one. Ravens used to be widespread, but after years of persecution, they held on only in the western and northern peripheries of the UK. Now they are making a comeback. There is great pleasure and excitement to be had in confirming the presence of an animal that you first thought was an aural hallucination or a simple case of mistaken identity: the east of England is a blank spot in all of the raven distribution maps I have found. Ravens don’t live in Suffolk, apparently. Only now they do. And the fact I have heard them in my garden several times since the summer – twice in the last week – gives me hope they will stay put.

There can’t be many animals so rich in symbolism as the raven. It appears in countless cultures through history and around the world. Unlike most animals, its mythology is mixed, even contradictory. Some associate the raven with loss, death and bad omens; others with wisdom and prophecy. Its power is in no doubt, however: raven gods abound.

For me, the raven carries a freer significance, unattached to any historical or mythical baggage except for the legend learnt in childhood that disaster would follow if the ravens ever left the Tower of London. This story of their protective power must predispose me to like them, as does the knowledge that they pair for life. I have also just now understood, thanks to the video below about raven behaviour, what it was I witnessed recently on the south Cornish coast: it was a raven, not a crow, I watched soar above the cliffs, pull its wings in to its body, turn upside down, then right itself after a second or two, repeating the manoeuvre over and over. In the video it is described as a dive, but this suggests it has a travel purpose. The purpose I saw was none other than to have fun; to play about with the wind and its own flying prowess.

The more I learn about ravens, the more fascinating and delightful I find them. But the delight was already there, helped along by Grip, the raven in Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge. Based on Dickens’ own pet ravens, I thought Grip was by far the most believable, likeable and intelligent character in the novel. With intelligence comes play and mischief, and no doubt this is where the raven as trickster god originated. These qualities in a creature are admittedly an irresistible attraction to me: a reassuringly stubborn challenge to the supposed supremacy of the human race, which I know is an illusion. But the truth is, I see such qualities in most of the animals that surround me, if I will only stop long enough to observe and engage with them. So what is it, really, about ravens that makes me glow just thinking about them?

It is that comforting, rolling purr of a voice that simply should not come from such an imposing black bulk in the sky. The cronk. It makes me smile; it makes me tingle. It stops me in surprise every time, not only when I hear it in unexpected places. It is the most musical sound you will ever hear from a corvid; in Dickens’ words, ‘seeming to come through his thick feathers rather than out of his mouth.’