I had great intentions this weekend to take one for the team. Really I did.
My intent for this post was to head out for a little High Arctic mid-winter birding, and write about the difficulties of it, but I thought better of it. The Canadian Arctic for much of this winter has seen unprecedented warm temperatures. On the South Baffin, some 1100 kms south of me, the sea ice is only now freezing up. It has rained in Iqaluit this winter in both December and January. Heck, we’ve had freezing drizzle here in December. The nearest place with climate data from me, Pond Inlet, saw a December that averaged 4 degrees warmer than normal.
But this week saw our temperatures return to normal. This past weekend the temperature here hung around -40C (or for that matter -40F). Now I’m found of telling people that we are no colder here than the Canadian Prairies, we’re just colder longer. Normally we can expect temperatures in the mid -20s to the -30s from November through to March. And normally we only see about a week of temps in the -40s. In fact I don’t even think we made it to -40 last winter. Surprisingly our coldest month comes with the return of the Sun.
The Sun is about two weeks away from re-emerging from below the horizon, but this weekend was COLD! It probably felt colder than other years, simply because we aren’t used to it yet. As Saturday and Sunday slipped away, I looked out at the ice fog and convinced myself that a snowmobile trip that likely wouldn’t garner any other species but the one I am guaranteed of seeing in town just wasn’t going to happen. Even to give me a break from the house renovations I’m in the midst of.
So instead I thought I’d give you a taste of the bird that is my constant companion, Winter and Summer. The bird that is always there for me, and has grown into my favourite bird. The Raven (Corvus corax).
It is hard to imagine an Arctic Bird more resilient than the Raven. They not only live year round up here, they thrive. Mid winter I estimate there are around 300 in the immediate area, and my counts regularly find well over 200. They are more far flung once early spring arrives. Human habitation concentrates them. Our scraps and garbage make it easier for them to survive.
But they do live up here all year long despite us, and they have for a long time. Out away from town they’d spend much of their winter following Polar Bears or Wolves, and cleaning up their kills for them. They are a most resourceful bird.
The are dark, sleek, beautiful birds. Their feathers at time seem to suck light into them like some Black Hole, and at other times reflect that light, breaking it into a myriad of colours and hues. I love to watch them fly. They seem to make solid the wind, playing, weaving, and soaring in it like we do the ground. It is child’s play for them to hang motionless in the strongest blizzard, hanging in one small box of space, until tiring of that spot they’ll peel away and soar high into the air, riding the wind to another place.
They are the smartest amongst the smartest family of birds, the Corvids. Problem solvers, everyone who has lived amongst them has marveled, or cursed, their resourcefulness at thwarting our keeping tasty morsels away from them. I have watched one of them dance in front of a chained up dog, the dog straining at its leash. While it keeps the dogs attention more Ravens descend on the bowl of dog food. I marveled, when I lived in Thompson Manitoba, over two Ravens bouncing up and down on the lid of my neighbour’s plastic garbage bin, until they popped the catches on it. The lid now off, they eagerly ripped into the bags, scattering the non edible garbage to the wind as they dined.
Their voices intrigue me. Every now and then, at least once a year. I’ll hear them utter a sound that I’ve not heard before, something exotic to mix with the croaks, the falling water, the boinks, and other sounds. They are marvelous creatures, and I can see them anytime I want, just by stepping out my front door. No snowmobile ride in -40 necessary.
Yay! Thank you for not finding anything more exotic, Clare. Love those ravens. Those first two shots are breathtaking. Ravens can be difficult to photograph due to the light-sucking, black-hole-ish nature of their feathers!
Even if the only bird you see all winter is a raven, I won’t get tired of reading stories about them. They are the coolest birds.
Love this post and title, Clare. And I would have stayed home too… Rochester weather is almost mild compared to yours, but I’ve been pretty well pinned down this winter!
I always get a kick out of teaching kids (and adults!) metric conversions and giving them -40C to practice on to see how many times they redo it trying to get a different answer.
I am not a birder, but so many of my friends are that perhaps one day the bug (or the bird) will bite me. I do love bird photos and stories, however, and your telling of the Raven dancing before the dog so the others could raid the food bowl is a hoot (owl allusion, I know).
Your temps boggle my mind. Here in Central California, we are experiencing a strange early spring which is going to mess up the plants when the frost returns, as it inevitably will.
Such beautiful photos, clare. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such fine close ups. Besides stealing dog food and scraps out of garbage, I wonder what else the ravens find to eat in that winter climate. They are incredibly resourceful.
Thanks Liza. I throw away many more Raven pictures than I keep.
They are the coolest birds Carolyn. Smart, handsome, playful birds, and they stick around when all the other cool birds have abandoned me.
Thanks Mike. For those who might not be familiar with it, it is a line from The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe.
Conversion is always tricky Kirby 🙂
Thanks Tara. Lately as many as 16 Ravens have been visiting our dog Bolt’s bowl at lunch time. No need to trick her though, she seems more than willing to share.
Thank you Robin. Pretty much anything edible they can find. There are always scraps of some sort laying about. Without people around they’d be following predators, taking their scraps.
lovely post, Clare
Thank you Dale.
great post!!! and now i wait to see a Parliment of Ravens…. viva Corvus corax!
Thank you Nita. I believe that for groups of bird “parliament” is a group of owls. Raven’s supposedly is “a murder”.
To add another cool factor to ravens, when in captivity, they can be trained to talk, and have deep “manly” voices, compared to parrot’s squeaky tones. Studies show that when trained, they have a higher capacity of speech than Parrots, and show signs of understanding speech, rather than mimicry.
They have an incredible range of natural calls as well Charlie. And about the time you think you’ve heard every noise possible from them they come up with another song.
Wonderful posting Clare. I’ve been in the avian field now for around 30yrs. Having experience with both wild & exotic pet species and the “corvids” have always been one of my favorite class of birds. There sheer intelligence alone is enough to fascinate and captivate any avian enthusiast much less those folks who aren’t even interested in bird behavior at all. I’m often asked what is the difference between Crow’s & Raven’s since i find most “non educated” birders aren’t even aware that they are clearly NOT one in the same bird by any means. For starters, the sheer size of these two species is clearly apparent with Raven’s being around 25in with a 4-4.5ft wingspan. And Crow’s being around 18-20in with a 3ft wingspan. Then lets move onto other finite details such as; the larger more curved beak a Raven has, to go along with those shaggy throat feathers, long wedged-shaped tail, and deeply fingered primary flight feathers. If that isn’t enough of an indicator then there flying style would show it better than any of the other physical differences i mentioned. Plainly put Raven’s soar and Crow’s do not. In fact they soar so well that one may think there viewing a raptor or vulture at first glance. There aren’t many birds of prey or vultures that can out soar if you will a Raven. I’ve often seen them having “dog fights” with birds of prey like your watching two military planes go at it if you will just for the sheer delight…!!! Moving onto voice recognition is a bit more difficult however if enough time is spent listening to both species one would quickly discern the differences. Raven’s croak and are much more guttural in there calls then Crow’s are plus you’ll often find Crow’s mobbing Raven’s. As even though the two are within the same class of birds they still don’t particularly care for each others company so much for family bonding right…!!! LOL In closing, if your privileged enough to be in an area that is frequented by these majestic & highly intelligent birds. Then by all means take the proper time to observe them. Because i assure you given enough time watching them you’ll come to understand there grace, beauty, and power our largest perching birds possess.