There are always ravens down at the Whitemud Ravine. Sometimes you only hear them, but they are typically not difficult to spot as they soar high above the ravine. I do not like the name “Common Raven” as I find it demeaning. Yes they are common as in abundant and easy to find, but they are not common as in an “ordinary” bird. They are undoubtedly one of the smartest bird around in these neck of the woods. They are also capable of an extraordinary repertoire of vocalizations. On a few occasions I have heard sounds in the forest that sounded like whistles or dripping water only to find, to my great surprise, that it was a raven vocalizing.
On New Year’s Day, superstitious birder-watchers like to say, the very first bird you see is an omen for the future. This is a twist on the traditional Chinese zodiac – which assign each year to an animal, like the Year of the Dragon, or Rat – and it’s amazingly reliable. One year I woke up on January 1, glanced outside, and saw a Black-capped Chickadee, a nice, friendly creature everybody likes. That was a fantastic year. The next New Year, my first bird was a European Starling, a despised North American invader that poops on parked cars and habitually kills bluebirds just because it can. Compared to the Year of the Chickadee, The Year of the Starling was pretty much a write-off.
Fortunately in these neck of the woods we do not get many European Starlings. Ironically the only place where I have seen starlings in Alberta was where I was least expecting to find them, at Elk Island National Park. We do, however, have a lot of Black-capped Chickadees and as it turns out my first bird of 2020 was indeed a Black-capped Chickadee. So while this did not come as a surprise, I am quite content with this well-deserving bird getting the honor of being the first bird of the year and of the decade. I did not take a picture of the chickadees (sorry chickadees)…, after all I see them everyday and everywhere, specially in the winter. Things get better, however. The second bird I saw this year was a flock of Common Ravens. The name “common” really does not make justice to these intelligent and magnificent birds. This was the first picture of a bird of 2020. I would say that a Black-capped Chickadee followed by ravens is a very good omen indeed, if you believe in such things. Things get even more better(er). The third bird of the year was…, drum roll please…, a Bald Eagle! Yes you read that right. I spotted the mythical Whitemud Creek Bald Eagle on my morning walk today. As I came out of the forest, there it was soaring over the tree tops like it was no big deal. Well, it is a big deal. Everyone who has spend some time with the birds down at the Whitemud Creek has hear about The Bald Eagle, but few people has seen it. This was the second time that I spotted it. The first time was a fraction of a second glance of it as it flashed between the tree tops, majestic and serene, yet elusive and mythical. On this windy cold winter day I came across it again. It was soaring high above the creek and was unmistakable. This was the third species of the year and the second species I photographed. A Black-capped Chickadee, followed by a Common Raven and then a Bald Eagle undoubtedly must be a very very good omen indeed, if you believe in such things. It was an exciting morning and my only conundrum is what to call the year. Technically it should be The Year of the Chickadee, but one could also make a case for calling it The Year of the Raven or even The Year of the Bald Eagle (at least photographically speaking). I will, however, to be fair to the chickadees, call it The Year of the Chickadee, which I think holds promise of great things to come in the next 12 months. Long live the chickadee, and the raven and the Bald Eagle!
There are many cultural depictions of black birds, such as ravens and crows, that associate these birds with ill omen and death. Clearly these are figments of peoples’ imaginations. Black birds are highly intelligent, uber cool, and ecologically important as they are ubiquitous, globally distributed and take on the roles of predator, prey and scavenger, all in one. This picture from Jasper National Park is emblematic of some of those darker cultural depictions that these birds sometimes are associated with. At first glance there may not be any apparent death or ill omen here, but upon closer inspection, the rust coloured needles of the surrounding pine forest, tell a different story. These “red tops” have succumbed to the mountain pine beetle. Over the last several decades this beetle has ravaged the pine forests of British Columbia, and more recently it has spread into Alberta. The underlaying reasons for this multi-decade epidemic are complex and multifarious with books written about it. Without getting into details, the ultimate causes of this cataclysmic epidemic can all be attributed human arrogance, misguided policies, science illiteracy and greed.
Enough doom and gloom. Black birds are not always associated with ill omen and foreboding. In Native American culture the raven is viewed as a creature of metamorphosis, symbolizing change or transformation. I like to view this lone black bird as exactly that, a sign of the ongoing metamorphosis of the forests of western Canada. Right now it might be difficult to see beyond the destruction, but nature will prevail and out of the ashes of the red tops ecological succession will create new ecosystems and new opportunities that only time will tell. Personally, I am looking forward to the wild flowers that are expected to be one of the early colonizer.
As far as this one particular black bird hanging out in a forest of mountain pine beetle killed trees. The question is, is it a crow or a raven? As in American Crow vs. Common Raven. Typically the movement and vocalizations would give it away, but this fellow did neither. It just sat there. My first though was that the “curved bill” suggests it would be a raven. A consult with the folks at Edmonton Nature Club zeroed in on the overall shape and proportions being more consistent with a crow. In the end I am on the fence with this one.