Wiser, Bird by Bird

Ravens over Goose Creek / Floyd County, Virginia

“It couldn’t be ravens, Fred. They don’t winter this far south” a friend once corrected me. But I knew the difference between ravens and other black birds. How could you really mistake them for anything else if you watch and listen. I possessed a pretty tight cluster of identifying features of voice, flight and silhouette. I knew ravens, after all.

But I didn’t know then something I discovered just a few days ago when I took this picture just off the back porch: When ravens fly really close–closer, I suppose, than I’ve ever been to hear–the acoustics of their flight is the antithesis of owl flight.

The owl’s strong suit is stealth. It’s feathers are soft. It’s flight is air on air, so as to not give warning to the wee timorous mousie twitching down below. The raven’s strength is its powerful  stroke against an arctic wind, then in its strong feathers the rigidity to rest its body weight on outstretched wings and relax–to soar and lift, tuning each feather separately the way a pilot feathers the controls of elements of his fixed imitation of the real and living thing. Raven wings make the sound of helicopter rotors still slow enough to count each revolution, each artificial flap.

The forceful thrust of hard-edged feathers against air not 50 feet overhead  put me on guard. I had no precedent. It spooked the dog, too. We moved into the clearing for a better look. Two ravens flew in close formation with a half-dozen black vultures–black birds whose wings made inaudible turbulence in the same are–all riding a rising mass of unusually warm October air just above the roof of the house.

Against all odds that they would still be there when I rushed back with my camera, I ran and grabbed it. The mixed guild of black birds had move west, nearer the barn, but they were still lower in the sky than is usual for birds looking for loft.  Even so, they were by then far too high to hear the rush of raven wings. But I heard it that one time in my life. And now I know one more thing about these black silhouettes against the sky over Goose Creek. I’m one small bit wiser about ravens.


About fred

Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

5 comments:

  1. Hmm, I’m with Carolyn, Fred… the ratio of wing to body, the lack of wedge tail, the general massiveness of the birds…

    By the way, I have a new blog, Bird by Bird, alongside Feathers of Hope, so your title was exciting to me.

  2. Won’t get into the raven ID debate, but can confirm the eerie sound of raven wings. I once watched their Pied Southern African cousins dueling above the tumbled stone of the Great Zimbabwe and their wings made something like the sound of an untrimmed sail in a storm at sea.

  3. On the subject of spooked creatures: we don’t get much air traffic in Danville, VA, so when I heard the sound that turned out to be a Goodyear blimp passing over my house the other day (it’s in town giving joyrides to employees of the local Goodyear plant), I went out to see it.

    I was amused to see that, like your dog, the birds in my trees seemed spooked. Lots of small flutters and settlings as it made its ponderous way over us. What they must have thought of that thing in their airspace …

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