Raven

(This column was first published in the October 25, 1999 Buffalo News.)

    Last week was, I have been told, National Raven Week.

    I have no idea who comes up with these designations and, in fact, I suspect that this particular week is somehow designed to be self-serving. That it just happens to come up shortly after the publication of Bernd Heinrich's wonderful new book, The Mind of the Raven, may have something to do with it.

    Whatever the reason, National Raven Week gives me the opportunity to tell about my raven encounter.

    Before I share that story, however, I note here that this is the time of year when, according to retired St. Bonaventure ornithologist Steve Eaton, ravens are most often seen in Western New York. At this season these normally reclusive birds occasionally venture out of their usual deep woods isolation in Allegany State Park to scavenge the remains of butchered deer carcasses left by hunters.

    Back to my raven adventure.

    About ten years ago my wife and I joined my brother and our children for a family reunion in the Rocky Mountains west of Denver. We spent a week in a mountain lodge at Keystone. It was a week almost exclusively devoted to cooking, eating and screaming grandchildren. I avoided two of those three activities -- you can easily guess which -- by wandering out on my own to look for birds.

    Most of those hikes provided me with pleasant experiences in country largely new to me. I added several birds to my life list: among them a dipper, that remarkable semi-aquatic bird that dashes in and out of turbulent streams, and a lesser goldfinch, an even more beautiful, miniature cousin of our eastern species.

    But I was particularly interested in seeking out those rare grouse of the high mountains -- ptarmigans. These birds are a tough find. In winter they are almost pure white to match the snow and in summer they molt into plumage so similar to that of the thin vegetation of the high country that they are nearly impossible to pick out.

    A guide to the region indicated that the 12,000 foot Loveland Pass was a good place to look for ptarmigans so I drove there early one morning in hopes of spotting them.

    I parked at the pass and hiked up a steep trail. There were no trees and the views in the early morning sunlight were spectacular. But I spent most of my time focusing binoculars on the low shrubbery looking for ptarmigan.

    Suddenly I was startled by the hoarse cruck of a raven. I turned and there he was, almost within reach. He was easily distinguished from his crow cousins by his call, his larger size and his even more outsized bill. How remarkable, I remember thinking. I have never, before or after that time, seen a raven other than in the distance, yet here was this big bird strutting among the rocks a dozen feet away.

    I watched him for several minutes. All that time he circled around me maintaining that same minimum distance. What in the world was he doing?

    After enjoying several minutes of this odd two-step I climbed on up the trail to continue my fruitless search for those mountain grouse. Not only did I have no luck but I found as I turned back toward the car that I had lost my glasses. I searched everywhere for them and I even went back to the lodge, gathered the family and returned to have them help me scour that hillside. No luck.

    Finally I realized where those glasses went.

    Somewhere high in the Rockies is a raven's nest adorned with bifocal picture windows.-- Gerry Rising