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Blog : Posts tagged with ‘ravens’

Corvids again

But the question is still there

Today, when I went for my daily walk,* I took my camera with me, intending to take shots for a planned series of posts about railway history that I’m slowly putting together. However, this post is more of a follow-up to the one from the other day on the various types of corvid you can see in this area.

I mentioned in that post that, around here, jackdaws nest in the girders of railway bridges in much the same way that pigeons do elsewhere. I’d only just passed under the railway bridge that I was thinking of when writing that, when I realised that I was walking along a few feet away from a jackdaw, at head height but on the other side of some iron railings. The ground on the other side of the wall was rather higher than by the footpath, so as I walked, the jackdaw was walking too, stopping to look for things in the grass. I tried taking a photo, and it didn’t seem overly bothered. I took a few before eventually it flew away.

A jackdaw

You can see the significant feature of jackdaws that makes them easy to recognise: the silvery-grey head and neck.

Later on, as I was on a slightly more rural part of the walk, I spotted a much larger bird on the far side of a meadow. This is what I was talking about before: sometimes I see larger black birds, that might be ravens, but they are never quite close enough to get a definite identification. Even with the good camera, this is the best I could do.

A raven, maybe

To my eyes, that could well be a raven. It seems to have a raven-like profile to the head, and it seemed to be quite a big bird too. Whether it really was a raven: well, I’m no birdwatcher. If I do manage any better, more definite raven identifications, I’ll let you know.

* Daily in aspiration if not in fact.

Corvid awareness

Or, there's been a murder

You might think that moving from an inner-city house to a suburban house, only about thirty or forty miles apart, you’d not see much change in the wildlife you see in the area. It’s been interesting, though, since moving, noticing the changes.

Take birds for example. In Bristol, the most common large birds were seagulls, and the most common small birds house sparrows; every house along our terrace had one or two house sparrow nests under the tiles at the edge of the roof. Occasionally a sparrowhawk would come and perch on the garden fence. The most common corvids were magpies, a family of them in most streets. When I started working from home, sitting at the window with a telegraph pole just outside it, one local magpie would regularly come to investigate me: perching on a rung of the pole at my eye-level, making eye contact and giving me a good curious look.

Here in the new house, the fauna is actually quite different. There are still seagulls, occasionally, coming up the valley; but the most frequent large birds are buzzards, slowly soaring over the neighbourhood sending all the other birds into a panic. The most common small birds are blackbirds and wagtails; pied wagtails in the garden and grey wagtails along the riverbank. In between, though, I often hear the calls of wood pigeons, but the most common birds of all are corvids of various types. I have been trying to sit down, watch them, and work out exactly which are which.

Magpies, of course, are easy to recognise, both by sight and by call. There are a few magpies here that come into the garden occasionally, but they’re not common as they were in Bristol. The most common birds here, though, are jackdaws. They arrive in pairs or in bigger flocks, and now I’ve learned to spot them, their silver heads are very recognisable. They nest here almost like pigeons do in a city, in spare ledges, under railway bridges and suchlike, as well as in more traditional spots such as in the hollow end of a sawn-off tree branch. They fill the main “medium-sized scavenger” niche taken by pigeons in a city centre.

There are, though, a few larger corvids, and these are the ones I’m having trouble with. Basically: are the larger black corvids I can see occasionally ravens, rooks or crows?

They’re probably not rooks. Rooks have pale beaks, and I haven’t seen any of those. Rooks, like jackdaws, tend to nest and travel in flocks; when I see a black bird larger than a jackdaw it’s usually on its own. Crows, then? Some of them probably are. The problem I have identifying any of these birds is: they have a distinct aversion to photography, if they spot you doing it, and I’m not someone with any specialist long lenses or other bird-photography equipment. If I see a bird from the window, in any case, by the time I’ve gone to get the SLR it’s probably flown off. If I photograph it with my phone, it’s either an indistinct black blob, or it sees me pointing my phone at it and, as you might expect, flies off. These birds, of the “indistinct black blob” category, I’m pretty sure are crows.

Crows, probably

Every so often, though, I see a much larger black bird, usually much further away. I see it sitting on the peak of a roof, in the next street, and it looks much larger than a crow should look in my approximate mental map of these things. Is it a raven? Or just a particularly big crow? The problem there is, I’ve never seen it close-up, I think. Is it just an optical illusion, the sort of thing where somebody sees a black cat crossing their path a few hundred yards away and thinks it’s a panther?

If it is a raven, I suspect there’s probably only one of it. It doesn’t visit very often, and I don’t think I’ve seen it flying. Could it just be a big crow? I suppose it could. If I don’t get any closer sightings of it, maybe that’s a sign that it really is just a mirage; that, in my hand, it would just be the size of an ordinary crow. I’m going to keep looking. There might not be any sightings, but if there is, I’ll keep you updated.

Ravens (part two)

Or, myths of the literal and the figurative

(read part one here)

I thought I’d better get around to finishing this post off, because the Tower Of London ravens are in the news again. Now that bird flu has started to make its way into Western Europe, the Ravenmaster is getting ready to move his birds into the top-quality indoor aviary mentioned previously, and the story is making its way into all the papers.* We can’t have the ravens dying on us; the fate of the country isn’t at stake.

Except, though, that the idea that the fate of the nation depends on the Tower’s ravens is all a big misunderstanding. The myth isn’t about living ravens at all. The real myth is that the fate of the nation depends on the raven god staying at the Tower. Furthermore, according to some, he already left.

The closest we have to the original superstition is in medieval Welsh myth. In Branwen, Daughter of Llyr, part of the Mabinogion, the hero Bran – “Raven” – is mortally wounded in a battle with the Irish. He tells his companions to cut off his head, and bury it on Tower Hill. The head stays alive for 87 years, but eventually the spell is broken, and they do as they were told:

[The followers of Bran] could not rest but journeyed forth with the head towards London. And they buried the head in the White Mount, and when it was buried, this was the third goodly concealment; and it was the third ill-fated disclosure when it was disinterred, insamuch as no invasion from across the sea came to this island while the head was in that concealment.**

The Iron Age people of Western Europe were big on heads and head cults. Stone heads have been found buried at various archaeological sites, and this passage is the best evidence we have as to why they were buried: they were protective talismans. Clearly, the writers of the Mabinogion believed in their power, too. They have to explain why the Welsh lost control of south-eastern Britain, when the raven god’s head was protecting them from invasion. Answer: the English only managed to invade after the head was removed. The blame for this is placed on King Arthur, who, not being superstitious himself, deliberately dug the head up in the hope of making his armies try harder. It worked, whilst Arthur himself was around; but after his death, Britain fell to the English.***

So, in short, the Tower Ravens might be a twisted survival of an ancient Welsh myth. The modern version of the story doesn’t appear in print, though, until the late 19th century, well after the Celtic Revival, and well after the Mabinogion had been published in English. Furthermore, the original story is that the promised fall of the nation has already happened; and England is the country that replaced it. If the Tower’s ravens do all leave one day, we English don’t have much to worry about; we are the people they were meant to be protecting the country from in the first place.

* and a lot of people are searching the web and coming here for more information.

** From the Charlotte Guest translation of the Mabinogion available from Project Gutenberg.

*** This part of the story isn’t in the Mabinogion; I’m taking it from Mythology Of The British Isles by Geoffrey Ashe. It’s mentioned in at least one set of Welsh Triads.

Ravens (part one)

In which a myth is researched

When I was still a student, as a researcher, I was always a bit rubbish. I’m one of those people who hoovers up random, unconnected pieces of information like anything; but when it comes to use it I can never remember where it came from. Little factoids are no good unless you can judge how true it is likely to be, and you can’t do that if you don’t know their provenance.

For example: everybody knows that the Tower of London maintains a family of ravens, for there is an ancient legend that states that should they ever leave, the Tower, the monarchy and the nation will fall. Their wings are therefore clipped, to try to lessen the risk of them wandering.* Everybody knows about the legend, and its ancient origins. Just how ancient is it, though?

There’s an article on the ravens and the current Tower Ravenmaster in the current issue of Fortean Times. It claims that it was Charles II who was first warned that the ravens must never leave the Tower; but that there is no actual evidence for their presence before the end of the 19th century. So, possibly another of those ancient traditions invented by the traditionally-minded Victorians. Possibly not, though. There is another, older myth on a similar theme; but it wasn’t about literal ravens at all. It’s a much, much older myth, and it isn’t even English.

On Sunday, after reading the FT article, I spent a good hour or two reading up about it, and writing a post about it, but accidentally deleted it in a fit of stupidity, by pressing the “reload” shortcut when I meant to type the “open new tab” shortcut. It took an hour or two because, as I said above, I can remember a lot of things, but can’t remember why. So, I spent quite a long time reading the wrong books in search of information I was sure was in there. Bah. I’m going to go and reread them now, so I can go and rewrite.**

(read part two here)

* and, incidentally, the Tower now has a well-equipped isolation aviary to which they’ll be moved if there’s a bird flu outbreak in Britain.

** and to give me an excuse to break this over-long post up into parts.