‘It’s fluffing up its feathers when it does that. I’ve never heard that before and there are thousands of them round here. We noticed in lock-down.‘ The raven postures and preens before his mate, ruffling his feathers and giving voice in a resonant gurgle answered with a gruff bark.
\If we could see clearly into the dark crown of the pine we might see bill-caressing that’s part of their courtship display. They're breaking-off twigs and flying with them in their bills as they build a nest. Ravens pair for life so perhaps this rite of spring is long-established between them.
Raven are huge birds, strong fliers who spend much time preening. Feather-care is essential to flight and they tend the barbs and barbules of each feather and slick it into place. In courtship display preening is about showing-off, impressing a potential mate to convince her he’s the one. For humankind, preening is presentation and self-regard rather than high functionality.
Our interlude with raven marks the coming of spring, the bird breeds early. That liquid call from the dark crown of the Scot’s pine is curious and arresting, stopping walkers in their tracks. ‘They’re very intelligent‘ says a woman with a dog. We share what we observe and later that day I read-up on raven once again, natural history and myth.
Raven, the carrion bird, is a companion of Odin the Norse god of war and death. The bird is an emblem of the battlefield, come for the feast. Odin, the raven god, is pictured with ravens on his shoulders- Hugin and Munin who fly out each dawn to scour the world and bring back news to Odin the All Father who gave an eye that he might have wisdom and see into all things. Hugin and Munin, ravens of thought and memory. It’s a profound and ancient bond.
We underestimate all that earlier peoples knew about wildlife that was close about everyone in their daily life, an intimacy and an abundance now lost to us. With new advanced technology we discover much, or perhaps we rediscover what our ancestors knew long ago.
Redshank and curlew stir with their feet and probe the silts with long bills for crustaceans. The sun brings out colour on those elegant red- shanks and toes.
The Three Ravens, sung by Andreas Scholl
It's a lonely scene of a newly slain knight and three ravens sitting in a tree awaiting their opportunity. There are different versions of the ballad, elegiac and downright murderous. There's shape-shifting in Andreas Scholl's version. It is deceptively simple, and elusive. Who is telling this story, who killed the knight and why? The ground keeps slipping and sliding under your feet. The ballad's themes are fidelity, treachery and betrayal. All we know for sure is what we see- the body of a knight and three ravens ominously watching. The only voices are the ravens planning their feast.