Bird brains and trickster tales

raven flyingZoologists often refer to ravens as the “brains of the bird world.” To the First Nations people of the northwest coast, Raven is the “Trickster,” a sometimes greedy, sometimes cunning, sometimes joke-playing figure, who tried to steal the sun and released the first humans from a clam shell. Bill Reid's ravenThe Trickster’s ordinary raven counterparts have similar traits. Among loggers of the westcoast, ravens are well-known as crafty lunch-stealers (who always know in which part of a bag a lunch is hidden and are expert at opening lunch boxes and zippers or sawing through canvas with their beaks) and have also been known to play tricks on humans.

My dad has worked in forests up and down the B.C. coast for the past fifty years (first as a timber cruiser, then as a log scaler) and has had many encounters with ravens. When CBC radio announced its “raven contest” a few weeks ago, honouring the birth date of Haida artist Bill Reid and calling for stories, poems and songs about ravens, I immediately called my dad. Here is the story I wrote, based on a couple of my dad’s real encounters with ravens in the Queen Charlotte Islands:

Last Laugh

The sun was just rising over the trees as a small motor boat made its way out to the log boom resting on the calm water of Juskatla Inlet. On shore, a raven called, the sound masked by the drone of the motor.

The boat tied up at one end of the boom, and two men climbed out, gripping the log with the spikes of their caulk boots and using their long scaling rules for balance. By the time the sun was well over the trees, the scalers had worked their way to the opposite end of the boom.

“Look at that,” one of the men called, as he straightened his back for a rest, beginning to think of lunch.

At the top of a tall cedar on the near shore, a raven let out a loud squawk, then dropped as if shot. The bird spiralled down while the men watched. At the last moment before hitting the ground, the raven swooped up, flew straight back to the top of the tree and did the stunt again.

The men shook their heads and laughed.

“Damn stupid bird.”

They were wrong.

 Later, back at the boat, hungry for the lunches they’d stashed safely in their gear bags, the men stopped and stared. The canvas bags sat in the bottom of the boat, flaps open, zippers gaping. A quick search revealed the lunches were gone.

On shore, two well-satisfied ravens cawed. In Juskatla, ravens always work in pairs.

* * *

log scaler
raven in tree

[Note: the raven photos were taken by my husband at Cowichan Bay, the carving is by Bill Reid and depicts the story of Raven releasing the first humans from a clam shell, the bottom left photo is of my dad scaling logs in 1962. To read the poem that won the CBC Raven contest go to: www.cbc.ca/bc/features/billreid/index.html#grandprize]

2 Responses to “Bird brains and trickster tales”

  1. Crafty Green Poet Says:

    This reminds me of baboons in Zimbabwe unzipping people’s tents, opening their rucksacks, taking out the food, fastening the rucksacks back up, leaving and zipping the tent back up. I would certainly never underestimate the intelligence of crows or primates!

  2. Http://pinterest.com Says:

    Sliderule

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