Birds make their nests in circles,

for theirs is the same religion as ours.

quote from Black Elk, Lakota Souix shaman


I lived the Eighties in a ski lodge atop Vermont’s highest mountain where it’s common any time of year to be socked in by, not a cap cloud but solid overcast. Fog. One rainy day, through a window in the empty lodge we watched a raven solve the problem of harvesting a garbage can without falling in. This individual bird was one of a monogamous pair that had ruled that roost for so many years they’d gone gray around the eyes. No one could distinguish which was which even when they were together, so we called them both Grayfeathers. Or together, The Grayfeathers. Materializing from mist like an apparition, it alighted on the deck rail as usual and studied us through a big window. From only a few feet away it stared at us, turning left and right for a closer look with each eye. Once it felt certain we’d stay put, it hopped onto the square rim of the can and examined the dark hole between its claws.  

Its wingspan was four feet or more, the square opening ten inches on a side. Wishing for once it had arms instead of wings (?) it considered the problem from different corners and then looked us over again. If it climbed (or fell) in surely it could force a way out, but how long might that take? Not worth the risk.

The solution was ingenious. It stood with footholds on two sides of the rim, leapt straight up and spread its wings.  Flapping once as it fell feet-first into the can, it grabbed the bag with both claws, wings up.  As the pile of papery bulk below rebounded slightly the bird’s shoulders came high enough for a second flap and second leap to hoist the payload barely up and over the edge, dropping it immediately.  Now Grayfeathers was stalled, zero airspeed, wings spread but ineffectual – except for a soft plummet to the deck cushioned by a fully retractable suspension system that had never failed in continuous use over more than a decade while tripling as two amazingly strong grapples and a pair of highly articulated hands.  

Torn open and spread out, crumbs and bits of almost anything were all fair game; potato chips, orange peels, ketchup squibbed from the little packets. And from homebrought sandwiches even scraps of lettuce (not much green on our menu except some of the cheese). For an omnivore so free of scruples it was a cornucopia, but a skimpy one. Judging from the diner’s body language after picking through all the inedible trash, it was little more than an appetizer. So now what?

It flew up to perch on a favorite branch nearby, preen and watch us. Someone wondered what foods a raven might not eat. Bizarre thought. Well, we said, the mess is already made so let’s find out.

Grayfeathers ruffled but remained on its branch while one of us set goodies out on the deck rail and came back inside. It would wait a cautious few seconds, then swoop down for the pickup. We offered samples of all the schwag that ‘restaurant’ dispensed, the usual cookies and candy, and faux chicken soup whose noodles it sucked quite amusingly from the bowl. And no fooling, a burger. Well, so to speak. We laid out top and bottom buns and a raw patty of meatlike substance, and with what appeared practiced certainty our winged gourmand placed the ‘meat’ on the bottom bun and then the rounded top exactly where it also belonged. Mere chance? If you say so. My math’s not too good, but allowing for every possible combination including getting each bun right side up (not even a raven cares which side of the ‘meat’ is up), the probability is about 48/1. While this accomplishment hardly compares to those chimps that eventually typed out the Bible, it sure was fun to watch.

The final product was almost too big to get its beak around and must have grossly affected CG, but off the rail it dove, into ground effect flapping so hard we could hear the vortices whuffing from clear inside. Vanishing between trees with a properly assembled sandwich, only a minute later it had stashed the booty and was back for more.

Next we tried bread sopped in beer. Same story. Except now when it returned it seemed more eager while, oddly for a raven, also more relaxed. Hmm. Even if it hadn’t actually bibbed the booze in flight, it’s sure to have got plenty of vapor up its nostrils schlepping back to the cache, so no more of that. We couldn’t have our conniosseur navigating canopy forest IMC with a snootful.

Little was left junkfoodwise, so we tried the one green item on our menu, a pickle – and finally learned what a raven would not eat.

It perched on the rail further away than before and stood facing us instead of the bait. After fidgeting awhile it leaned toward the pickle and away, then delicately sidestepped that direction barely close enough for one wary peck. That was enough. In retreat it actually hopped backwards along the rail, eyes on that wicked pickle, then turned to glare at us with sharp disapproval and scratch us off its good humans list forever.

Until next morning anyway.

Such episodes leave us ample temptation to anthropomorphize, and I say go ahead even if it does amount to foolishness. First it’s fun. At the same time, as with every other thing in the whole world there’s always more to it than the obvious. It could be nonsense but it might not. Much of both is my guess. I don’t necessarily dig imagining human shapes in clouds, they’re awesome enough as naked facts.  (Real structures weighing countless tons flowing through the sky; imagine that, sukka!)  But seeing other creatures’ behaviors through a human lens can be more than entertaining. It may well help us better see ourselves for what we really are, or are not. Ants and bees, lions and macaws, yellowtail and zebu. We‘re all in this together, species that is. Some folks have a lot of St. Bernard in them, some a lot of horse fly.

Was Grayfeather’s manner when rejecting that pickle akin to something in our encycopediae of psychobabblish precepts? Resentment at feeling betrayed perhaps?  In the big picture it’s more important to ask such questions than to have them answered, and having asked, now I wonder what the Grayfeathers wonder about us.