Each kind of bird has a name for its gathering. Geese have “gaggles,” seagulls “flocks.” Ravens come in “unkindnesses.” Until now I did not fully understand the meaning of the term. I swear they were scowling at me.
There is a folk poem that goes: To see one raven is lucky, ’tis true, but it’s certain misfortune to light upon two, and meeting with three is the devil. In that case, what exactly was I looking at here?
After a minute of all of us doing nothing, I began moving toward the ravens, but very slowly. The nearest birds seemed to become agitated. A few hopped onto their toes and petulantly flexed their wings, which opened like huge hands, feathers spread like fingers. They grumbled and cawed, their tones crass, brought up from deep in their throats. I thought I could not possibly be a threat to them, so high upon their ledges. Why were they getting upset? But I knew why. I did not belong among them.
Voices turned rough and vulgar. They were talking, making some kind of announcement. I listened for words, any hint of familiarity, but all I heard was a darkening dome of sound closing over my head.
They began diving from perches, opening their deep black wings to catch the air. My pace faltered. Voices became riotous, even more demanding as ravens crossed the canyon back and forth, landing on the opposite side only to launch back into the air straight above me. Soon I was dizzied by their cacophony, the air filled with wheeling ravens.
Ravens are mobbers. They frequently gang up on invaders, generally the likes of hawks, eagles, or owls, pecking the back of the head, getting in their faces and screaming. They even attack one another if a particular raven, or a minority of ravens, gets out of line. They are skilled at delivering torment, combining sound, motion, and direct attack with open talons from all angles to drive out or at least befuddle a trespasser. These displays lie within the context of sophisticated territorial boundaries ravens adhere to. The boundaries are layered between individual ravens, pairs, families, regional gatherings, and associated raven groups living nearby. They have hierarchies, tiers of organization: families, unions, gangs, and enemies. I was bumbling right into the middle of their assembly.
“Listen to us! ” cried the ravens.
“I don’t speak your language,” I called out, exasperated.
Hearing my voice, the ravens became only more infuriated. I was disoriented, watching them dive around me, and I could barely stand. Flashes of sky showed through ragged wings. I stumbled and found myself on my knees in the sand.
“Listen to us! ” they kept crying. “This is not your place!”
At least that is what I thought they were saying. What else was I to think? I felt something the size and weight of a pebble hit my back. I looked behind me. Another raven flew in, and with a quick motion, transferring a pebble from its talon to its beak, it let a small projectile fly into the air. The pebble barely missed me, leaving a dimple in the sand near my knee.
I stared up, astonished. I’d seen this before, a raven pelting me when I came too close to its nest. But there was no nest here, at least not one guarded by so many individuals. Something else was being protected in this canyon.
The only thing I saw out of place was a stone in the middle of the wash. It was the size of a human hand, and something about its placement seemed peculiar, as if it had been recently set down, not yet embedded into the sand around it. Under it was a feather. That was all that caught my eye, not enough to sway my attention away from the ravens. I stood and slowly backed away. It was nothing like fearing for my life. I did not even think about having to fight off these ravens bare-handed. Such an image was too ludicrous: me flailing bloody hands against them, picking up rocks and pegging ravens out of the air to save myself. That was not going to happen, I was pretty sure. But what did I know about the secret lives of ravens?