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Reckling: The ravens among us

“Send a raven!” commanded Ned Stark, head of House Stark and lord paramount of the North. This is a kingly order heard throughout the engaging seven-book sequel and popular HBO television series, “The Game of Thrones.” The large black-feathered birds are used, much like messenger pigeons, to deliver important missives between the castles and cities of Westoros. The birds are greatly prized for their intelligence and their ability to fly swiftly across great distances.

Even if you’re not a “Game of Thrones” fan, each of us has had our own interactions with these bold, glossy-black birds. Ravens have had a very long relationship with mankind and they’ve soared throughout our literary expressions, legends and tribal lore. They star in the zodiacal designs, ancient art and globally in our oral and written histories.

Before I learned to admire these cawing winged creatures, they annoyed me. The dark-plumed birds would camp in the tall trees outside my bedroom window and at sunrise would begin their guttural, croaking conversations. It was enough to make me threaten them about buying a BB gun if they didn’t shut up. I also thought they were a little creepy, perhaps a leftover from watching Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” when I was a youngster.



Ravens are everywhere. Their amazing adaptability to any environment is a testament to their longevity and widespread existence. A University of Georgia anthropologist has attributed 181 names for ravens and crows, derived from 136 human languages on five different continents. Ravens have had an impressive existence here on earth.

The Corvidae are a diverse group of passerine (perching birds), known for their brash behavior, unmelodious calls and sly intelligence; they are adaptable, opportunistic omnivores. Corvidae include ravens, crows, magpies, jays, nutcrackers and the rook.




According to the biblical flood narrative of Genesis, a raven is the first creature Noah releases to search for land:

“And it came to pass at the end of forty days, that Noah opened one window of the ark which he had made: And he sent forth a raven, which went forth until the waters were dried up from the earth.” — Genesis 8: 6-7

Noah’s raven did not return to the ark; perhaps it discovered land and plenty of dining opportunities. In Jewish theological analysis, ravens are held in disdain for they continually ignored the decree against copulation aboard the ark.

The raven is a magnificent flier and can hold its position motionless in a gale and its ability to scout for land is well known. Ancient mariners followed ravens with the belief they would lead them to land. Before there were compasses, navigators would carry on-board shore-sighting birds. The Vikings located Iceland with the aid of ravens and Alexander the Great was supposedly guided across the desert by two ravens sent from heaven.

Images of ravens appear in caves in Spain and France, drawn by Paleolithic peoples as early as 30,000 years ago. Ancient Greek art depicts Apollo with his sacred bird, the raven, who was his servant and messenger. The raven plays an important role in old Celtic and English civilizations and is the inspirational namesake of many locales across the countryside of Europe.

An old English rhyme about raven sightings reads:

One for bad news,

Two for mirth.

Three is a wedding,

Four is a birth.

Five is for riches,

Six is a thief.

Seven, a journey,

Eight is for grief.

Nine is a secret,

Ten is for sorrow.

Eleven is for love,

Twelve — joy tomorrow.

As with the majority of animals, humans have assigned this dark bird numerous forms of symbolic meaning and anthropomorphic identities. It’s considered to be an evil spirit or harbinger of death, perhaps due to its carrion eating ways. The association between ravens and death, either from war, illness or execution, led to the belief that the birds were prophetic and able to foresee death. “To have a raven’s knowledge” is an Irish saying, which means one has the ability to see into the future and the wisdom to understand it.

On many hikes into the high country I have heard the sound of the wind through feathers only to look aloft to find two or three ravens hovering in the breeze above me, usually when I’m sitting down for a picnic lunch on a mountainside. Even winter hiking on the coldest, most bitter days proves only one living creature — the raven — quietly huddled upon high branches, braving the brutal weather.

Ravens have accompanied the human race throughout the centuries while we’ve traveled in our wagons, sleds, hunting parties and migrations. They’ve borne witness to our own darkness as we’ve slaughtered each other across myriad battlefields and they’ve feasted on our corpses in the silent aftermath. The big sooty birds will fly the skies even when we’re gone, forever riding the air with their powerful wing beats, filling the empty places with their throaty calls.

Margaret Reckling lives in Woody Creek and welcomes your comments at margreck880@gmail.com.