The forest raven swayed back and forth on the upper branches of a wattle, its body twitching and turning to maintain balance, but its head as steady as its intense stare.
The raven looked straight at me, concentration rippling its facial feathers, trying to make sense of this human, stretchered, wired and dripped in a hospital bed.
I, in turn, was trying to make sense of a raven fascinated by the comings and goings in a Hobart orthopaedic hospital ward.
I should have been worried, riding the effects of anaesthesia and pain-killers after knee-replacement surgery, paranoid perhaps that this raven seemed to be paying particular attention to me in the hospital bed. Haven’t crows and ravens been portrayed throughout history as harbingers of doom? From the time of mankind’s first encounter with them eons ago, haven’t members of the corvidae family carried the nation of death on their wings? The collective noun for crows is, after all, a “murder”.
True, ravens and the crows are symbols of death, having been witness to just about every tragedy to befall mankind, and been witness to human wars in which they have feasted on the carcasses of the fallen. Throughout human history, however, the crow family members have presented another image; in some cultures, especially in ancient Scandinavia, ravens were considered wise and benevolent. The Viking god Odin had two ravens serving as his “eyes and ears”.
We tend to fall into two extreme categories when it comes to crows – we either love or hate them. I fall into the former, even though I readily accept all the propaganda from the crow haters, which in Tasmania generally includes accounts of crows plucking out the eyes of dying sheep and lambs.
Lying there in the hospital bed, I asked my wife to bring to the hospital a book on crows which had been given to me by wildlife biologist Nick Mooney. I wanted to check again on crow curiosity, especially when it came to studying the activities of humans.
You do not have to read the Gifts of the Crow to realise that, along with parrots, crows are the most intelligent of birds, an intelligence to rival that of mammals. They are, in fact, known in some scientific circles as “feathered apes”.
Research into crow intelligence, and dare I say it “emotion” which includes happiness and grief, is ongoing but crows have been found to possess many of the attributes which in Victorian times were used to separate humans from the “brute creation” of other living things.
All the same it was hard to stomach an account in the book of forest ravens in Tasmania checking on roadkill for live young in pouches. I closed the book and turned to the news on the television screen above my bed. A mass shooting in the United States, be-headings and rape in Syria, abandoned refugee children in Europe …. I decided then I wasn’t qualified to make a judgment on the dark side of crows.