Raven’s Wake

Everbody is a wonderin’ what and where they all came from,

Everyone is worrying’ ’bout where

They’re gonna go when the whole thing’s done

But no one knows for certain and so it’s all the same to me

I think I’ll just the mystery be.

~Iris DeMent, Let the Mystery Be

Do other beings mourn like humans do?

Those dog and cat owners would answer in the affirmative. What about other animals. Can a newt morn? Do snakes ever get depressed? How about birds? Can you really tell if a bird is in mourning. Ravens are always wearing black.

On the way to get coffee this morning, I saw something that might provide an answer or simply create more questions.

On the sidewalk was a dead raven, lying face down. At least that is what I took it for at first, in the dim, morning light. In reality is was a feathered raven figurine that a neighbor must have used as a Halloween decoration. There was black string trailing behind. The “raven” was set out on the sidewalk with the trash.

I picked up coffee at the local coffee shop, which is seven blocks away. I took a different route home and I noticed that the two ravens perched on a power pole, had their attention directed to the north. They both flew off to the north, with purpose, calling.

I walked a block further and as I came to the intersection of Noriega and 26th Avenue, I could hear the eruptions of crows and ravens one block over.

I headed north on 26th to see what was going on. As I neared the intersection with Moraga, there was a swarming cloud of about 50 ravens and crows, circling above the intersection. They were all calling, which seemed intense and heightened than the corvid norm. I knew what had drawn their attention.

It’s always a fool’s game to try and put human thoughts or feelings into the heads of other animals, partly because we will never truly know how another being is feeling or thinking (some would say that understanding other human beings can be just as obscure) and also it seems highly hubristic to put your own thoughts and feelings in to the mind of an animal, especially a wild animal.

From my observation, the mixed murder of ravens and crows were calling up an alarm, so much so that the neighbor on the corner was looking out her window to see what the commotion was all about. This alarm was calling in all corvids within earshot.

I told her that a dead raven was on the corner and this had attracted the attention of the corvids. When I took a closer look at the “raven” I realized that it was just a faux bird.

As I’ve noted before, with experiences with nature observations, that you may never know the “why” but that is the mystery of the natural world. There are things in nature that we may never know and I am fine with not knowing. Indeed that is why I continue to seek out these experiences, whether they on the streets of San Francisco or the deep forests of northern Maine.

So after the murder/congress of crows and raven dispersed and their calls became less frequent, a few crows and ravens perched nearby on power lines and poles. What were they thinking? Were they mourning the death of the “raven” on the cold, wet sidewalk?

Or could they simply be “rubbernecking” by the side of the road?

Whatever they were really doing or thinking, I think I’ll just let the mystery be.

The corvid wake is coming to a close. Many of the members had dispersed, some flying west while others perched on nearby power lines and poles.

County Birding

As I slowly creep towards 600 ABA birds on my life list I have looked for other birding challenges in my home state of California.

California is a great place to bird because it has just over 600 species that have been found here, only Texas ranks higher in species total. It is also one of the most populated states which means more traffic, higher housing prices, and more expensive lattes but is also means more birders in the field, reporting more birds!

My latest challenge has been to increase my species totals by county. Three counties are the focus of my challenges: San Francisco (were I live), San Mateo (where I work), and Santa Cruz (where I relax). The goal for each county is to see 200 species in each county. Which means that previously a bird that is being seen in San Mateo County ( a black vulture, for instance) that I had already seen (in the Everglades, for instance), then I was less likely to chase it. But now I gave myself the challenge that if a rarity showed up in one of my three target counties, I would give chase, even if the bird was already on my ABA life list.

Which brings me to the subject of my featured sketch: the California thrasher (Toxostom redivivum). As the name implies, this mimid is endemic to California and I have seen this sometimes illusive and sulky bird in the North and East Bay Area and in Joshua Tree. In fact in it’s range it is listed as “common and widespread”. Normally if one is reported, I wouldn’t go but when one wintering individual was reported on a hillside off of  Diamond Heights in San Francisco, I grabbed my bins, and headed east! A California thrasher in San Francisco is considered rare for the county. A new bird to add to my City List was only 15 minutes away!


A journal spread about my issues with thrashers, from Joshua tree.

So 15 minutes later I was on the sidewalk on Diamond Heights, peering into the dense bushes on the hillside. Nothing. I looked up to the west and saw a large congress of ravens, circling over Twin Peaks. Before the 1980’s the common raven was not so common in San Francisco. Their population has risen since that time and they are now very common on the west side of San Francisco. Could the same thing be happening to the California thrasher? Too early to tell.

After twenty minutes of searching I was still having no luck. And then off to my left I heard the unmistakable song of California’s coastal thrasher. I ran over and found the bird singing, perched on top of a bush. I had great views of the songster for over five minutes before it finally dove down into the bushes.

A new San Francisco City and County bird!