The Midnight Emperors

Raven flying over suburban park
Ravens. I know that traditionally they are a seen as a grim bird of ill omen and that many sheep farmers hate them, but I feel very drawn to ravens. I've always known the raven as a bird of wild places, companion to wolves, master of the granite cliffs and high mountains, intelligent, fierce, implacable beings.

Most of the corvids are easy to see; flocks of rooks loll and chatter in our fields, jackdaws play at the tops of church and castle towers, crows congregate on our roofs and garden fences cawing insults at passing cats and humans; but ravens know us and watch us and disdain to interact with us. Trying to watch ravens is like a game of cat and mouse, they never let you get close, but are curious beings and will not hesitate to stalk you from the air.

One winter, just a couple of years ago, I was walking a footpath that ran right through the middle of a ploughed field. It was a bleak day and the field was a high and lonely one, far above the farm huddled below in the valley. As I walked across the field I had that odd, itching sensation you get when someone is watching your back. Knowing I was alone I ignored it as long as I could, until the feeling I was being followed became too strong and I whipped round, feeling a bit foolish. But my instincts were right, as I turned, two ravens suddenly veered away and disappeared over a nearby wood. They had been following me across the open field.

People get confused between ravens and crows, but once you have seen (and heard) ravens, they are unmistakable. Crows are smaller, with a flapping flight that looks as if it takes some effort; head on, their wing tips curve up in a distinctive arc. Ravens however, are Emperors; lifting off and away with a graceful, soaring flight, they soar more than they flap and are masters of the air. Ravens will fold their wings and fall through the air, flipping onto their backs and rolling before snapping out those great wings and lifting up again, an action that seems to be executed for the sheer joy of it.

I once spent a wonderful morning watching ravens, jackdaws and crows play in the winds that blustered round an Oxfordshire wood. The the ravens and jackdaws were the most playful, the crows the noisiest. The jackdaws were lithe and quick, scooting over and around the ravens and each other, being caught by the wind and using it's invisible power to soar and dive through the sky. The ravens folded their great wings and plummeted down before flipping right-side up and soaring back to the crowd, looking like they owned the sky. How the wind blew was of no matter to them, just a convenience they could choose to use, or not.

The other difference between ravens and crows is the call. Crows caw, ravens never do. Ravens are most easily recognised through the kronking call that they make, a rumbling cough that is completely distinctive; once you learn to recognise it you will never forget it. However, ravens have many other vocalisations and are one of the most eloquent corvids in their range of calls.

I've seen ravens in deepest Wales, soaring along the edges of the mountains, in a remote quarry in Northumberland, where they were raising young in a large, messy nest and occasionally in the fields of Warwickshire and Oxfordshire. All of these sightings were brief, alerted by the deep kronk as the bird passed nearby, the sudden exciting glimpse of the midnight black shape, somehow blacker than any other bird, gliding past. A glimpse and gone.

Except. Except late last year, in my garden in deepest suburbia, I heard that unmistakable raven call.  I know my ravens, but could not believe my own ears. How would it be possible for a raven to fly near here, bordered as we are with an airport and two motorways? But then, a few days later, I heard it again and this time caught a glimpse of that occult black shape. Impossible, impossible for that bird of the wild places to be here. But then at last a proper sighting, not once but several times. It seems that the birds, two of them, are frequenting the park behind my house. It's a large one, mostly grass with a belt of pine trees at the top of it, on a rise that forms part of an escarpment running from central Birmingham out into the Warwickshire countryside. How incredible it seems, to be on my ordinary errands, a trip to the shops or to catch a bus and to see ravens! What a gift. That harbinger of wilderness soaring in our tame suburban airs.

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