Kirsteen Bell attempts to decipher overheard corvid conversations
Rarely do I wake fully in late winter before I’ve heard the raven’s call. The Velux window above our heads is open a crack, the dawn sends in a persistent and gentle krrk-krrk-krrk along with the frosty air, and I am persuaded to open my eyes. Through the window I see the still-naked birch reflecting rose-gold in the eastern light, set against a blue sky. Two ravens curl round the air into my line of vision, the east light giving a pewter shine to the underside of their wide open wings, primaries extended. I lift my face up to them in a good morning gesture, wondering if they recognise me, or even see me beneath the surface of the glass. They sail around again, uttering their throaty, guttural croak.
The books tell me that the name for the raven is onomatopoeic: the Latin name Corvus corax derives from the Greek Korax (a croaker). Indeed, the list of names given to the bird sounds very like their modulating and responsive communications: Croupy Craw, Corbie, Biadhtach, Bran, Cigfran, Feeagh, Corbeau, Crovo, Cuervo, Kolkrabe, Raaf, Korp, Korppi, Hrafu, Oreb; the names run together like the blether of the ravens now bobbing in the tree-line running east to west across my window frame. These names denote a way of looking and seeing that is attentive to what is really there. Our two-year-old son has climbed into bed beside us, and as we lie there listening to the world outside I ask him if he can say ‘raven’. He ignores my question, and replies instead to the birds, rolling his little tongue off the roof of his mouth in an impressive mimicry of the imposing black creatures that can be heard around the oak-lined edges of our croft and beyond.
As is often the case in the western Highlands, by the time we have made our way downstairs the southern sky has morphed into something altogether different through the north-facing windows. Rain has begun falling straight down in a fine curtain from clouds gathering from the west, and the loch and the hills beyond it are grey. I cannot hear the ravens now. Shards of bright yellow sunshine still slant through though, shimmering on the purple-red birch branches and beading the buff grass with occasional radiance. Against the murky backdrop a single siskin glows a vivid yellow-green in the lancing light. Our four-year-old son sits at the kitchen table, intent upon a Biff and Chip book; in the last few weeks he has been desperately trying to read. He senses the worlds that are open to him if he can only learn the language required to connect to them, and at times his frustration is palpable. I empathise entirely. I watch a carrion crow jinking about in the lower branches of a large oak that stands between our house and the loch. A few months ago I would have been double checking the bird against bird books, playing the sound of its call on my phone to compare, but through consistent attention to the presence of the corvids I am better now at distinguishing between the crow and its larger, darker cousin. In flight I imagine the crow appears less graceful, flappier and lighter than the languorous, confident raven, and I can often identify the tell-tale diamond wedge shape of the raven’s tail feathers. However, it is by their voices that I can be sure. The crow’s craaa craaa seems repetitive and dull now compared to the scale of inflection of the raven.
It wasn’t always so: learning to recognise the raven’s call has at times been a frustrating experience. It was with some relief that I read Bernard Heinrich’s account of the struggle to both identify and understand them. In Ravens in Winter he writes, ‘It is one thing to recognize the different vocalisations, still another to decipher their meaning. So far we have not made much progress even on the first’. The raven’s is a guttural language where the vowel effect seems to come from the conjoined rolling consonants being issued from deep in the throat. The range of voices I listen to has at times confounded me in my attempt to know and hear this bird. Occasionally the appearance of a buzzard raises an alarm call not
dissimilar to the electronic alarm-clock that sits by our bed. Other times I have heard an awk awk awk back and forth in varying pitch between two perched birds, two old wifies setting the world to rights as they wait in a bus stop. Sometimes the raven echoes the honk of a greylag goose, or the quack of a mallard, sometimes I hear a cross between a glug and a honk, or the glug of air captured in a drain, echoing against the pipe, knocking, resonating. Later that morning I sit outside, listening to the gruff yet tonal repetition of one of the ravens; I try writing exactly what I hear using the letters of the English alphabet. I am wondering if another language would carry the sound better when I accidentally overlay an h with a g. Stopping to look over my scrawling I am suddenly delighted.
It’s no Rosetta Stone, but the overlapping of sounds represented on the page is a small recognition of the true sound of the raven’s voice in my ears. As I attempt to get to know these ravens with whom we share the croft I start to imagine a way of listening that shares a border with communication. If nothing else, it’s a beginning.