Words first. When extremely hungry, you’re said to be ravenous, and are likely to gobble your food greedily. Just like a raven? Well, no. The word ravenous has its origins in the Latin word rapina (whence words like rape, with its implications of preying upon and plundering).
The bird word, raven, has an entirely different etymology, going right back to the Old High German word hraban. Any guilt about its greedy or plundering ways is surely guilt by association.
But then colour is added to that prejudice. In ancient folklore, from Hebrew to Roman to Australian Aboriginal, the crow was originally white. It was only made black as punishment. An example is the story of Wakarla the crow, from the Adnymathanha people of South Australia’s Flinders Ranges. Because of the crow’s lack of respect for his elders, Wildu the eagle punishes Wakarla by turning him black using smoke.
Urrakurli the magpie, not quite as culpable as Wakarla, is only half-punished, ending up black and white. For the Adnymathanha these tales contain moral lessons that are reinforced every time they see these ubiquitous birds. And clearly they’re not alone in associating ill omen and evil cunning with these black birds.
A Torresian Crow in the Northern Territory
Having spoken with Tlingit people, I would back up Sitka writer Carolyn Servid’s observation*:
The New Caledonian crow, Corvus moneduloides, for instance, has been observed fashioning and using tools. You can see an amazing example on this YouTube clip
Despite their brain power, ravens are not invulnerable. As a frequent visitor to New Zealand, I was surprised by the apparent absence of corvids there. I discovered that there had once been a New Zealand raven, Corvus antipodum. When the Polynesian ancestors of Māori arrived, they introduced Pacific rats (kiore). These voracious rodents ate raven eggs and chicks, and humans also hunted the adult birds.
Astonishingly, given how smart and adaptable ravens are, they were extinct before the first Europeans visited Aotearoa. It's an all-too-familiar story for New Zealand birds, which evolved in the absence of predatory mammals.
Back in Tasmania, forest ravens, Corvus tasmanicus, are one of the most commonly seen birds. Bands of sub-adult ravens, seemingly fully grown, sometimes congregate in the trees around our house. Up to forty birds hold the equivalent of teen “raves”. Their loud – some would say lascivious – kaark-aaarrrk calls multiply and echo through the bush.
This morning a plump individual alights on a bare branch near our deck. It exudes health, its feathers glossy like black silk shot with deep purple. Its legs appear a little lighter, hooped like stockings. The raven is not much under 60cm long, and maybe 700g in weight. I look into its knowing eye, and wonder. Given the healthy appetite of just one bird, and its capacity to clean up whatever it can find, what would forty or fifty of these birds demolish?
Perhaps there's another way to think about it. Without these intelligent and resourceful scavengers, how different would our bush appear?
A forest raven about to do what it does best
[* in her delightful essay Raven, in Wild Moments (ed. M. Engelhard), 2009]