Nature Notes

A Raven King.

At the foot of the down, below the double gibbet that IMG_2078has stood in several incarnations since 1676, is a dead raven.

Both wings are folded demurely across its breast and belly, crossing at the tips as if it were a dark angel, its head lowered on its breast in repose. The friend that found the bird holds it in his two hands, gently rolling it in the light to reveal so many colours other than black: magenta, emerald, royal blue and shining jet; magnificent, stately and transient colours of oil, preen and light.

The weight, solidity and size of the bird is breathtaking; it is big as a buzzard. I push gently on the bird’s wrist joint, as if it were a hidden button, to flex and fan the vast, black fingered expanse of its wings. The mechanism moves easily. Then, I hold the raven against me so that one wingtip brushes the ground: the other reaches past my waist.

We do not know how it died. Ravens can be long-lived (17+ years in the wild) but they have their enemies. This bird’s eyes, somewhat ironically, are gone. Chevrons of blood mark its chest like a coat of arms. One shoulder bone is cleanly broken (though this could have happened after death) and I can see inside the lightweight hollow tube of bird bone and its supporting criss-cross of vaulted web. Without doing an amateur post-mortem I cannot tell for sure, but I think it’s been shot.

The raven’s black claws are like raptor talons, sharp and with gripping pads. The bird’s
great roman-nosed bill, finely feathered around its nostrils and anvil-like, lends it nobility. I press my finger to the beak-tip to feel the sharpness required to open carcasses and wonder, briefly, what carrion this bird’s ancestors would have scavenged. I think of the gibbet, and the two bodies ‘hung in chaynes’ high above seven counties – and also of the far older long barrow on which the gibbet is erected between the two parishes. But the birds that ply the updrafts in their dozens now, probably originate from Welsh or Cornish birds. And the bird in my hand exudes more intelligence, wisdom, and character than grisly superstition. Ravens play, taunt, steal, spy and bluff and show empathy for one another. Perhaps the collective noun of ‘an unkindness of ravens’ ought to be reformed and rewritten as an ‘empathy’, an ‘intelligence’ or a ‘dialogue of ravens’.

The children come home from school and are amazed by it. They stroke the sheen of soft, glossy feathers with reverence, feel the prick of the great claws. My youngest gently prises open the bill to see its long, clever tongue and we peer down vocal chords capable of uttering such astonishing, nuanced and complex language. When I hear a raven, I am compelled always to stop and listen, to point it out to others. The voice of IMG_1601such an oracle seems meant for more than just its peers, whether it is understood, or any of my business anyway.

I bury the bird in the end, pulling a few primary feathers first, hoping to unearth a raven skull in a couple of months, knowing how such a talisman would inspire children’s writing on the workshops I do, with its intimations of myth, awe and the real wild world. Perhaps it will soar again then – a sort of Raven King for the imagination.

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