“Did ever raven sing so like a lark, / That gives sweet tidings of the sun’s uprise?” Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus

October 18, 2015 at 10:42 pm (books, Nature, Scotland)

Gods  In John Lister-Kaye’s Gods of the Morning, these lines appear above the chapter entitled, “The Gods of High Places” (chapter 8).

Lister-Kaye – i.e. Sir John Philip Lister Lister-Kaye, 8th Baronet OBE – is inordinately fond of crows, rooks, ravens – those avian species subsumed under the genus Corvus. He studies them at Aigas, the Field Study Center in the Scottish Highlands which he founded in 1977. He lives and works there; it is his calling and his life’s work. What a lucky man! (You can read in the Wikipedia entry how he made this “luck” happen.)

There is nothing dull about a raven. As glossy as a midnight puddle, bigger than a buzzard, with a bill like a poleaxe and the eyes of an eagle, its brain is as sharp and quick as a whiplash. Surfing the high mountain winds, ravens tumble with the ease and grace of trapeze artists, and their basso profondo calls are sonorous, rich and resonant, gifting portent to the solemn gods of high places. Ravens surround us at Aigas, and they nest early.

Most of us consider crows a sort of nuisance bird, and anyway too common to be of any great interest. Lister-Kaye gently seeks to disabuse us of that notion.

The advent of wildlife tourism as an economic force, legal protection and a wider conservation understanding has permitted raven numbers to increase and the birds to nest at least in some areas, unmolested. They are now part of our daily lives. I listen out for the guttural ‘cronk, cronk’ as they pass overhead every day. If a solitary black bird rows into view (rooks are almost never solitary), I stop what I’m doing to look for the wedge-shaped tail or to get the measure of its bulk to distinguish it from carrion or hooded crows. As the years have flicked by, their daily appearance here, their criss-crossing of the glen from high moor to hill, has become predictable, a reassuring norm, something we note with pleasure, and a characterful addition to our resident avifauna.

Confident of that interest, as a chunky silhouette crosses or that unmistakable plunking call reverberates from the woods, I don’t hesitate to point and call to my friends and field centre colleagues, ‘Ha! Raven!’, yet I find myself still wary of my audience. Those farmers and crofters aplenty who charge ravens with killing lambs and many, not just old-school, gamekeepers are quick to condemn all crows, but especially hoodies and ravens, and will still do their utmost to kill them. ‘The croaking raven doth bellow for revenge.’ (Hamlet, Act III, scene ii.)

As you’ve already no doubt noted, Shakespeare makes frequent mention of the raven. My favorite instance of this occurs in MacBeth, when Lady MacBeth gives vent to her ghoulish pleasure at Duncan’s arrival:

The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements.
As a chill-inducing harbinger of “insidious intent,” these lines have few equals in literature.
Ravens play a significant role in various mythologies, especially those of Celtic origin. I think for many of us, though, the image of the raven summons up remembrance of the famous poem by Edgar Allan Poe.  It turns out that when you do a Google image search for “Raven Poe,” you come up with some rather memorable visuals. Here are a few:
by Gustave Dore

by Gustave Dore



I’ll close with a photo taken by my son Ben Davis at Jackson Hole, Wyoming, a nature lover’s paradise that probably has some aspects in common with the Aigas Field Centre.


[Click to enlarge]


  1. southernfrances said,

    I love crows, and the several golden hawks that trust me enough to swoop and grab fresh meat I put out for them in winter even as I linger on the deck. This deck abounds with avian life particularly in winter. Their beauty and intelligence are humbling. I know they talk to each other. Amazing to watch them.
    Two species of vulture tap tap on my roof every morning. No scrap of food or bone goes unused around here. Nature abounds with wonders. I will rush to read this book, Roberta.

  2. kdwisni said,

    A naturalist at Yosemite told us that the park ravens were clever enough to wait until visiting cyclists and bikers parked and walked into the Welcome Center. Then they swooped down and somehow managed to get into the saddlebags to feast on the contents. Pretty funny if it’s not YOUR lunch being eaten!

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