Oct 16 2011

Raven Rest Stop

Melissa Crytzer Fry

After encountering a half dozen ravens hopping along in the wash that runs through our driveway (these are big feathered friends, folks – think medium-sized dog), I decided to don my Nancy Drew hat. These black-cloaked birds had been squatting for two days already… What were they doing? Why had they taken over my permanent raven residents’ residence?

Slowly, slowy, I steered the quad to my stakeout position. I cut the engine immediately upon arrival so I didn’t disturb the hundreds more of these critters Velcroed to the nearby railroad trestle. I raised my camera, quietly unsnapping the lens cover.

These ravens have been calling our home their home. Click to enlarge.

The ravens scattered, decorating the sky, flecks of pepper against salt-colored clouds. I muttered under my breath. My photo op was gone, but I quickly realized that I was privy to an even greater treat: an aerial and auditory spectacle.

The scattering of ravens resulted in this view. Click to enlarge.

Why not enjoy the show, I thought? So I assumed the supine position (uncomfortably) on the quad seat, head pointed toward the sky, feet wrapped around handlebars. When I wasn’t snapping shots, I closed my eyes and listened. Ahh, the unmistakable whisk of air that occurs only when wings slap the sky. Methodic, mesmerizing, hypnotic.

Then I started to see that the ravens were forming beautiful patterns before my eyes. And often, two would cling side by side in synchronized pairs, their wings beating the same rhythm. And they’d talk, their throaty clicks a highly evolved form of communication.

A group of about 50 ravens (yes, I tried to count) flew right overhead, while another larger group dove and dipped in front of the Galiuro Mountains. Click to enlarge.

I was, indeed, enchanted. Given that ravens are one of the most frequently written-about birds in world literature, that makes sense, doesn’t it? The video below illustrates their aerodynamic acrobatics. Listen to them call out to one another (and watch them pair off).

Still playing the role of Nancy Drew, I uncovered another feathery fact: this giant grouping of ravens – traveling in massive flocks – was actually the Chihuahuan raven, on its way to Mexico for the winter. Our permanent residents are Common Ravens; they share the trestle with no one year-round and avoid flocks. They also generally stay put, using the same nest for years. Amazingly, they seemed to be gracious hosts, sharing their trestle with the Chihuahuans and staying behind when their cousins headed south.

Satisfied with the mystery I’d solved, I retired my Nancy Drew hat. Then I settled down to re-read Poe’s The Raven.

For Writers, Readers: An article by Rebekah Neelin indicates that, in literature, ravens often fall into three symbolic categories:

  1. Evil spirit/harbinger of death
  2. Trickster/thief
  3. Prophetic or wise spirit

How could you look at these wonderful birds and think they are anything less than inspired? This is one of the baby Common Ravens – our yearlong residents – posing for me last spring. Click to enlarge.

What do you think when you see a raven? Evil spirit? Thief? Genius? Do you think Halloween? Do you get a chill, or find them entertaining and social?

My Birds of Arizona Field Guide says that ravens are considered to be the smartest of all birds, which my blogger friend Julia Munroe Martin confirmed when she wrote a fascinating post about the intelligent crows (more cousins of the raven) that recognize her and her husband during their walks!

What stories have you read in which ravens – or other birds – set the tone in a particular scene? Have you thought of incorporating birds as symbols? Which birds might you choose? Why? How might they lend depth to you story?


49 Responses to “Raven Rest Stop”

  • avatar Julia Munroe Martin Says:

    Well, I think you know which birds I would (DO) choose. 🙂 This is an amazing post and not just because I love crows and especially not just because you mention my blog (but thank you for the shout out). We remain so fascinated by crows and have started taking notes on their behavior when we walk in our usual spots. I absolutely love how you’ve described the ravens as well as your sleuthing (I am a huge Nancy Drew fan!!). The research about the Chihuahuan vs. permanent residents is fascinating — I’ve been trying to figure out if our crows migrate. And your photos and video are wonderful; my favorite is the photo of the scattering of the ravens. What a sky!

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    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    I thought I might know your bird choice ;-). I can’t wait to be privy to the notes you’ve taken re: your crow buddies. Fascinating! And go Nancy Drew (I, too, loved the scattered ravens. I had quite a few from which to choose. So difficult!)

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  • avatar K Says:

    Melissa, I often think of ravens as a bad omen when I see them driving or hiking. Then I immediately tell myself that this is a myth and that the ravens have been given a bad reputation. My sister raised an orphan crow to a juvenile until he finally took off for greener pastures. I remember her commenting on how intelligent and full of mischief they are. The information about the Chihuahuan ravens migrating was really cool and news to me. I love how you investigate your questions and get scientific facts to explain plant and creature habits for our lovely earth. You are so much like Nancy Drew that now I will add investigator to your list of assests.

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    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    You are not alone, K, in your thoughts. Literature proves it (and maybe is partially responsible for that myth building). I LOVE the story of your sister and the orphan crow; see – look how smart and loving they are!

    Now THAT is a compliment: me like Nancy Drew :-).

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  • avatar Cynthia Robertson Says:

    I do have a raven in Sword of Mordrey. He sits atop the picked clean skull of a priest hung for betraying Castle Belvoir. The crow observes the Lord of Belvoir with one black shining eye, as he passes beneath the barbican and enters the bailey. And yes, it’s prophetic.
    I first encountered these huge blackbirds up at the Grand Canyon. And I was duly impressed. They seemed at least as smart as cats. Maybe more so. I had no idea they migrated to Mexico. It’s interesting that the littler crows welcome them and aren’t bothered by them.

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    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    Prophetic … but is this raven responsible for the “picked-clean skull”? Prophetic AND sinister?

    Actually the Common Raven is much larger than the Chihuahuan raven, so my yearlong residents (three against 200 or so) held their own. Maybe it was their size? Ha ha. And only the Chihuahuan ravens head south. The common ravens stay put year round. I was reading and learned that what you’re seeing up in the GC MAY actually be crows! They are all so similar in appearance; hard to tell. But crows are dang smart, too. Ask Julia!

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  • avatar Suzie Ivy Says:

    Okay this is probably in poor taste but it’s illegal to shoot ravens here but not crows. We have a saying: If it’s flying it’s a raven if it’s sitting still it’s a crow. The animal lover in me is always chasing the black wonders away so they fly.

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    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    I did not know this… Is this the whole state of AZ? As I said to Cynthia, above, it’s hard to tell them apart, honestly. How would you even know unless you had the two next to one another?

    You’re like me: when it’s quail season, I’m telling all the quail: “Stay on my property. You’re safe here!”

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    Suzie Ivy Reply:

    I really thought the people here were pulling my leg so I’m not sure if it’s true or not. It could just be a town joke but I’ve seen stranger laws. Quail are wonderful. Good for you!

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    Michelle Reply:

    Hi Suzie and Melissa, good for AZ for protecting the ravens. When identifying ravens in flight check out their – ravens have a wedged shaped tail whereas crows have a blunt square shaped tail.

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  • avatar Cynthia Robertson Says:

    I was told they were ravens. They’re huge. Much bigger than the crows we have here in the valley. As tall as the length of my forearm from the tip of my fingers to my elbow, and a broad wingspan.

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    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    Yep. I’d say ravens. They are gigantic, aren’t they? I love them :-).

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    Cynthia Robertson Reply:

    I do like them, but…they’re kind of scary up close.

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    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    By the way – even the crows around here are WAY bigger than the crows of my youth in PA. Must be the sun that makes them flourish!

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  • avatar Leah Says:

    First of all, I love your comparison to Nancy Drew (also a favorite series of books of mine). Second, I loved that piece Julia wrote about the crows because we’re convinced the same crow is following my husband around town. And finally, you bring up a fascinating point about how ravens are used in literature and such as symbols of evil or threat. When I think about what I’ve read that pertains to ravens, it usually always has a dark connotation. Thanks for a great fall post!

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    Melissa Reply:

    How very cool that you might have the same crow following your hubby around town; I find that ultra fascinating.

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  • avatar Erika Marks Says:

    I love the whole pacing and set-up of this post, Melissa! And I LOVE ravens and I never think of them as ominous–gothic, certainly, but not in a sinister way–more in a classic way (does that make any sense? Did I just totally contradict myself?). Maybe it’s because we belong to the Raptor Center here and they have a wonderful group of rescued ravens (and crows) and they are SO animated! I love them!

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    Melissa Reply:

    What a fabulous compliment coming from a PUBLISHED author :-). I am so jealous that you belong to a Raptor Center; I had the chance to visit one in Sitka, Alaska when I was there doing work for a client. Would that not be one of THE best jobs (next to being a novelist, of course)?

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  • avatar Jolina Petersheim Says:

    I agree with, Erika, Melissa; I LOVE the way you set this up and I particularly love this line: “The ravens scattered, decorating the sky, flecks of pepper against salt-colored clouds.”

    Beautiful imagery!

    I am not scared of ravens, but I do have this thing out for cranes. I read a book when I was in my early teens about a crane who led two young girls into the woods where they mysteriously died. The book was set in MY neck of the woods in Adams, TN, (the book was about the Bell Witch depicted in the film, ‘An American Haunting’). I believe that’s why I now shiver whenever one flies over our house with its legs trailing behind it.

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    Melissa Reply:

    Why thank you, Jolina. Coming from the queen of story setup, it’s really a treat to hear you liked the way I set up the post. (I hoped someone would like the pepper-salt description, too).

    I’m not sure if, by crane, you’re talking about blue herons, but I always felt that way growing up, too – that they were very scary looking, death on wings with their poker straight legs following behind. Though I do also find them beautiful in their own bony, angular way (and I know Erika and Julia love them, too). Your story is just downright terrifying, and I don’t blame you for shivering when you see a crane.

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  • avatar Amber Says:

    I can’t hear “raven” without thinking “why is a raven like a writing desk?” 🙂

    I love ravens, and I like to think of them as more genius than evil. Mischievous, yes, but not evil. I wish there were more of them around here!

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    Melissa Reply:

    I didn’t even think of Alice in Wonderland! I’m with you: more genius than evil!

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  • avatar Sara Says:

    That is beautiful. I put ravens and crows in the same category as ominous, spooky birds. They are just SO large it’s intimidating.
    I used to lay in our pasture growing up and watch the circling vultures which I suppose is much creepier as they actually circle dead animals to eat.

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    Melissa Reply:

    I’m with you 100% on the turkey vultures. CREEPY beyond all creepiness.

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  • avatar Natalia Sylvester Says:

    Such a beautifully-written post, Melissa! I love the imagery and how you described their wings flapping. I could almost hear it.

    I don’t have many preconceptions about birds in general. Every time I see one it makes me wonder how they must see the world from so high, and what it must be like to feel so weightless. I once wrote a scene that started with a bird’s eye view and zoomed in on the tiniest detail, and I really enjoyed looking at the bigger picture the way they must see it!

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    Melissa Reply:

    I also think about birds the same way – wondering what their view is like! I LOVE the idea of the scene you wrote from a bird’s eye view … that change from macro-view to micro-view!

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    Natalia Sylvester Reply:

    It was a really good writing exercise that I learned at a writer’s conference. Funny thing is, it was at a workshop hosted by my agent (not at the time, of course). But the scene ended up becoming the third chapter of my book, and then I signed with her several months later. It was one of the reasons I knew we’d be a good match, since she’d already helped me improve the book with her editorial insights.

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    Melissa Reply:

    I love the serendipitous way your came to find your agent – AND that the bird’s eye scene became C3 of your book. Yes, a good match, indeed.

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  • avatar Mahesh Raj Mohan Says:

    Here’s another compliment on that evocatively-written post, Melissa. I didn’t realize ravens were that big! I haven’t had a lot of contact with them, but they’ve always fascinated me. The fantasy series I’ve mentioned before, A Song of Ice and Fire, uses ravens. They’re usually bringers of bad news: “dark wings, dark words.” But I’m with you, I think they’re pretty magical.

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    Melissa Reply:

    Thanks for the compliment, Mahesh! Magical is a perfect way to describe them – even in those dark settings when they are the bearers of bad news. I’m sad that they are now gone!

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  • avatar Tracy Says:

    I’ve always viewed the raven as wise and sort of the watcher of all. They never frighten me but rather enchant me. Wonderful shots and post with some great food for thought!

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    Melissa Reply:

    Thanks, Tracy. Somehow I knew you’d share my raven love!

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  • avatar Katie Shea Says:

    The first thing I think when I hear “raven” is Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Raven” (first published in 1845). In Poe’s story, I remember the raven representing lost love and death. It remains a creepy image in my mind, and an animal who is presented itself during melancholy and saddened times. Your post has definitely taken me back to high school English class and interpreting the symbolism of the “raven.” I wonder if it has any connection with what is going on in today’s world?

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    Melissa Reply:

    Indeed… “Quoth the raven”…

    I have teaching certification for 7-12, and during my student teaching taught Poe’s “The Raven,” so it brings back so, so many memories.

    Interesting question about the raven’s connection in today’s society.

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  • avatar Lori Parker Says:

    Crrrrrreeeeepy!!! I hate ravens and crows. I saw two try to take down my cat, BJ Honeycutt, but he’s 18 lbs and swatted them a good one. But they kept diving at him. It was like a scene from Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom!

    But don’t listen to me. I’m terrified of birds. Mom let me watch Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” when I was six or seven. Scarred for life.

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    Melissa Reply:

    My hubs has a niece who is also deathly afraid of birds – all of them. Sorry to have creeped you out, but they really are lovely birds (except the time I saw one of them carrying a baby bunny in its talons and delivering it to its own baby ravens).

    But I would probably think differently if my kitty had been under attack (this is why they are indoor only … oh, and because of the coyotes, bobcats and mountain lions). Poor BJ Honeycutt!

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  • avatar Beth Hoffman Says:

    Love, love, love this post, and the photographs too! My current novel features boy who has a kinship with birds and believes the feathers he finds have special meaning. So, as you can imagine, your post really spoke to me!

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    Melissa Reply:

    Oh I cannot wait until your next novel is out. You’re saying ALL the right things: boy with a kinship for birds. Feathers with special meaning! And beautiful outdoor scenery! Can’t wait. Can’t wait.

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    Beth Hoffman Reply:

    I’m incredibly eager for you to read it, Melissa. And I’m equally eager to read your novel, I know I’m in for a big treat! Keep writing!

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  • avatar Nina B Says:

    My instant answer is SCARY and EVIL. I guess I’m very influenced by how ravens have been shown in literature, poems (Poe, of course), and even on the screen. Ravens need a new PR campaign!

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    Melissa Reply:

    Ha. You’re right. Ravens DO need a new PR campaign, and maybe I’m the gal for the job!

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  • avatar V.V. Denman Says:

    Ha. We have swarms of black birds at the local Walmart. Yes, swarms. It’s creepy. I like yours much better. Much. Much. I also love your video because the birds can be heard. This city-dweller is envious of the lack of noise out your way.

    Lovely post, of course.

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    Melissa Reply:

    That is truly one of the BEST things about living in the country… the quiet, which lends itself to lots of birdsong!

    I wonder if your blackbirds are migrating?

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    V.V. Denman Reply:

    It seems they’re always there. Now that I think about it, they might migrate away during the winter, but they seem right at home the rest of the year.

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  • avatar Stephanie Alexander Says:

    Love birds of all sorts– especially parrots and ravens! Have both in my current books. I think of ravens as prophetic– but there’s definitely something a bit dark and sinister about them as well. The ones at the Tower of London look ready to poke out the eyes of an unsuspecting tourist at any moment! Great post as always. 🙂

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  • avatar Michelle Says:

    Very fascinating to read about these Chihuahuan ravens, didn’t know they migrated. Beautiful photos! Interesting and somewhat sad that some people are afraid of birds. I find ravens quite fascinating myself and enjoy listening to their croaks and gurgles. I happen to have a story about the raven on my page http://writingcanoe.com/canoes-in-bc-history

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    Melissa Reply:

    Wow. Somehow I missed your response to my raven post way back when! I would LOVE to read your raven story. Can you send me the direct link? I think the link you provided is of your site’s history? Thank you for sharing!

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    Michelle Reply:

    Hi Melissa, didn’t mean to mislead you, the raven story isn’t mine – rather it’s an age-old myth held by First Nations on the westcoast: “Raven had a magical canoe that could shrink to the size of a pine needle or expand to hold the entire universe”
    There is a picture of Raven in his magical canoe I copied from the Canadian Museum of Civilization about halfway down on my canoe page. 🙂

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  • avatar Fear of Writing Says:

    I love that the ravens became “flecks of pepper against salt-colored clouds” as they flew off. And the railroad trestle is positively romantic! I’m jealous of your wonderful setting. You must almost burst with inspiration being surrounded by all this.

    When I think of ravens, I think of them as very smart and cunning. And also funny. I tend to think of them having a good cackle whenever we humans see them as sinister.

    Can’t remember if I’ve ever used birds symbolically in my fiction writing, but a few months ago I wrote a blog post where I needed the perfect bird to symbolize writers singing their song. I consulted with the best birding expert I know – Julia Munroe Martin – and she came up with the . . . on second thought, I won’t give it away. Here’s the link:

    http://fearofwriting.com/blog/2011/09/writing-and-singing-whats-the-diff

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