I am always prepared for the impossible from ravens. Animals of omens and nevermores, they rule the desert, able to reach every crack and ledge while I am restricted to the ground as if wearing chains.
Of all bird species, Corvus corax, the raven, is considered the most ingenious. In one experiment with ravens it was soundly demonstrated that they have the ability to follow another’s gaze— e.g., you glance at a peanut with interest, and a raven turns to see what you’re looking at. This is a skill documented among only the smartest animals, especially those with tight social networks like wolves and primates.
Ravens are the largest of the corvids, a group of birds whose behavior tops the avian IQ test. The test is based on the number of novel feeding behaviors any bird species exhibits, derived from two thousand observations in the wild published over seventy-five years. Corvids — magpies, crows, jays, and ravens — employ more adaptations and innovations than any other bird. Ravens pull up baited fishing lines by stepping on the line, reeling in slack with their beaks, stepping on the line again, and finally pulling in the fish. They poke sticks into bug holes, bend wire to hook meat from between cracks, unzip backpacks, and open ice chests.
Interacting in hierarchical, packlike fashion, ravens are known to cooperate with wolves. They circle injured or weak animals, alerting wolves to the presence of prey. In turn, wolves tear open carcasses and leave bones to be picked. Ravens also capture their own small prey, clubbing mice with rocks or sticks, snatching up snakes and dropping them out of the sky, or pecking smaller birds into lumps of feathers and blood.
But do they fly through stone? Staring at the place where the raven had been, I stood still, mystified. I admit that for a second I thought it had truly transmogrified before my eyes. As I looked closer, though, I began to see the raven’s hoax. A thin shadow line appeared near the bottom of the cliff among skirts of fallen boulders. The shadow was a canyon mouth, a narrow crack opening into bedrock, narrowest canyon I’d seen for miles. Ravens know every turn in this confounding country, arches and canyons, every trick of stone. This one had slipped through a back door.
Having nothing better to do this morning, I decided to follow. I walked across sand washes and brittle earth, and the canyon opened wider before me. I heard something to my back. I turned and spotted three more ravens as they dropped over a nearby cliff edge. They were effusive, chatting with one another in guttural voices as they passed into the basin’s airspace. Two nearly touched wing tips, and the third lagged about twenty yards behind. As soon as they saw me, they went silent. What was I doing here? Staring at me as they passed, they vanished between overlapping cliff walls ahead of me, heading wherever the first raven had gone.
I follow ravens out here, almost out of habit. They lead me from place to place, vanishing in this Byzantine terrain, unknown cloak and-dagger affairs taking them around a thousand corners. I see ten or fifteen ravens flying to the same point on the horizon, and I have only imagined what they are doing when they get there, these smart, scavenging birds, pickpockets and tricksters. Theirs, I imagine, is a secret union, a lost tribe of ravens hidden from the eyes of men.
The canyon turned out to be much larger than I had thought, its bookended walls rising three or four hundred feet. I walked inside, following a slim dry wash at the bottom. I began to shrink, my sense of scale recalibrated by fallen boulders as big as buildings. The passage skinnied down to a narrow space where yet another raven shot over my head, startled to see me, wings beating to get past. It swerved around a turn, out of sight.
The sky became small, canyon-tightened. I thought that soon I would come upon a handful of ravens picking apart a fallen bighorn sheep or some other piece of death the desert left out for them. I lightened my step so they would not hear me. But they did hear me. They knew I was coming, and they all stared down the canyon so that when I walked into view, I stopped in my tracks. Ravens were everywhere, a parliament of them convened on both canyon walls, shoulders drawn, wings pulled against their bodies. They were large-bodied birds, each silent, each perched on a ledge or boulder tip. No one moved, even to ruffle feathers. Speechless, I began counting, and stopped at fifteen, leaving most uncounted. It was a crowd. A mob.