Ravens: Playful Tricksters of the Sky
2017-02-06 13:34:26.000 – Taylor Regan, Weather Observer
Few creatures make their permanent home upon the summit of Mount Washington. Even we observers only pull (roughly) one week stints up here, before heading down the rambling mountain road to our “week off” homes. We often say that Marty the cat rules the summit, being the only full-time resident of the Observatory, but in reality, had he no warm shelter, brimming with treats and near-continual head scratches, Marty would not reside up here either.
The summit is remote and mysterious, shrouded by clouds nearly 70% of the time and plagued by frequent high winds and driving precipitation. Its location on the map subjects it to a confluence of storm tracks, hurricane-force winds, and blasts of Arctic air. The summit cone is considered an Alpine zone, and has terrain similar to the Arctic tundra, nearly 1000 miles northward. It is a forbidding place, and one that is inhospitable to all but the most persuasive and persistent of life.
It is here, among the crags and boulders that make up our beloved “Rockpile” that the common raven happily comes to play. These cliff-nesting birds frolic about the summit on crystal clear days, delighting in the racing winds and in following the contours of the mountain as they gracefully zip along with the currents, performing acrobatic flips and rolls midair.
These massive birds are jet-black from beak to claw, and are highly adaptable to varying terrain. They can nest on cliffs and up to treeline on mountain sides, and can be territorial, especially when breeding. Ravens are believed to mate for life, and while preferring to socialize in pairs, have been known to join forces, particularly in winter, to pursue larger prey.
The raven features prominently in the fabric of many different cultures. Many Native American tribes hold the raven to be the creator of light, as well as a trickster, acting mainly in self-interest, even while bestowing good things upon the people. Given that ravens may dine on carrion, they have adopted a foreboding aura, branding them to some as a bird of ill-omen. Edgar Allen Poe immortalized the raven as a harbinger of dark introspection in his poem, “The Raven.” Conversely, in England, six ravens live in captivity at the Tower of London, with legend holding that, should the ravens leave the tower; the Crown will fall, taking Britain with it.
What about on the summit of Mount Washington? On days when the sky is a forlorn shade of gray, the blue sky cloaked in a mask of overcast, where shadows, despite the hour, are not cast, I half expect the utterance “nevermore” to break forth through the fog. But the truth is that the ravens here are playful. They shed their stigma of being an ill-omen and brighten the day of any observer who happens to witness their antics. And after many days on the summit, enrobed in thick fog and hidden from sunlight, the appearance of the ravens upon a break in the clouds is a welcome and warming sight.
Several times, I have been out on the observation deck or wandering the immediate summit, snapping pictures of sunrise, when a raven will soar by overhead. They say that ravens are among the most intelligent of birds, and I often find that as I swivel my camera to try and snag a picture, the raven will playfully drop out of view. Wistfully, I return my camera to the sunrise, only to have the raven return aloft with a raspy croak. This game of tag persists for several minutes until either I am driven inside by the cold or the raven thinks of a more interesting pursuit.
Ravens playing in the winds at sunset.
Taylor Regan, Weather Observer