The Ravens by Janet Chancellor
Each morning Polaris crumples paper and pushes it under the logs he has stacked in the woodstove. The aroma of freshly brewed coffee fills the cold room with its own kind of warmth and soon the bear claws in the toaster- oven will be ready.
The sun is making its trek up the back side of the mountain and, somewhere on a ledge of rock cliffs or high in the tall trees the ravens are waking to a new day.
The ravens start their day by making graceful circles over the ocean. They steady their mighty wings and glide in a zip-zag pattern through the V-shaped opening that is our “ocean view.” Gently they land in the trees on the edge of the woods where we can hear them calling to each other in deep-throated “rattle-of-the–dice” sounds; or their distinctive “Cronk…Cronk…Cronk” which Polaris and I have decided is definitely a laugh.
Every morning, two beautiful, dark, shiny-feathered ravens light in a specific pine tree at the fringe of our yard. Once they see us through the window, they jump to the ground and wait for Polaris to go a step or two outside the gate and toss them a handful of peanuts. They are Ace and Ana, the ravens we trained.
It started when Polaris and I noticed a pair of ravens discovering some dew-covered peanuts we had thrown out for the blue jays the day before. When the larger raven pecked at a shell to open it, the smaller one tried to snatch it from him. At one point the male gathered three nuts at once into his beak. He hopped a few feet away to eat them, but then he hopped back. Both of the ravens were cautiously on the lookout for intruders. But most of the time, they were just enjoying the unexpected treats –walking forward, hopping back, jumping in the air, sometimes backwards and taking little waddling steps in search of more peanuts.
The next day, Polaris threw a fistful of peanuts into the yard and the raven pair returned.
Curious about these curious birds, I “googled them” and found that ravens are very intelligent -- right up there with dolphins and chimpanzees! We read how they solve problems, hide things, trick animals and signal other ravens by the way they position their beaks; all kinds of things. That’s when we named them and decided to use peanuts to see if they could be trained.
We made some training goals:
1. We wanted Ace and Ana to come to our home in the mornings while we were having coffee,
2. We wanted them to eat together, because they looked so cute together.
3. They had to be on the ground close to the gate before we would feed them.
4. And, also, since we did not want to feed all the ravens in the world, we wanted Ace and Ana to signal their friends that the peanut-fest was an invitation-only event.
We figured that wasn’t too much to ask of a species that can, like a parrot, learn to talk! That’s what google said. And, sure enough! A little practice and they had learned the rules!
Our raven pair normally perch, each at their chosen end of a tree branch. But last spring, we saw them sitting side by side, as though they were talking over the day’s events. They touched bills and preened each other’s feathers.
“Even the hawks don’t want to mess with me,” Ace boasted.
“Well, you are massive!” Ana said, rubbing her head against the ruff of feathers at the nape of his neck, “Look at your thick neck, your wingspan! It must be four feet wide!”
Presently, Ace soared into the air. He swooped and tumbled. Tucking his feet toward his web- shaped tail, he navigated the winds with the long, thin “finger feathers” at his wingtips. He glided across the open sky; summersaulting and flying upside down. When Ana joined him, they soared high together.
If Polaris and I had been able to follow them we would have seen the ravens search for large sticks and twigs. Together they built a bulky, cone-shaped basket, and lined it with grass, bark strips and moss.
For several weeks, we didn’t see our pair. Google says, “After the female lays her olive-green and brown-blotched eggs, she sits on the nest warming and protecting them until they hatch. During this time, the male brings food to his mate."
We may have seen Ace during this incubation time, but we couldn’t recognize him among the ravens that were circling and coming in from the ocean. If Ace was among them, he was breaking the rules for getting peanuts -- so he got none.
Polaris called it, “Tough Love.”
After the eggs hatched, the parent birds continued to spend time with their hatchlings, taking turns bringing food to the nest.
During this time, Ana told stories to their young:
“Once upon a time,” she began, “there was a pair of birds who were very particular. They searched together for insects, beetles and caterpillars but they really loved peanuts.
“Where can we get peanuts?” they asked each other.
And then one day, just when they were giving up hope, they found a pair of humans who had, Guess What!! -- Premium Wild-Bird In-Shell Peanuts! The birds decided to try to train them.
“The peanuts,” she told her hatchlings, “had to be tossed to the ground in the yard of the humans – in a place just outside of the gate where a little yappy dog played. This was a safe place because the other birds and animals were not used to the dog and were afraid to get close to his fence.”
The second thing they wanted was to be fed together. “There is safety in numbers,” the mother raven said.
The last thing was – they didn’t want to eat wet peanuts -- so their snack needed to be hand delivered as a mid-morning event.
“I don’t know how they taught the humans all the rules,” the mother raven said, “except that the birds had heard that humans are very intelligent.”
And the little ravens laughed, “Cronk... Cronk…Cronk…”