one for the birds1

It lay in the snow just like an open necklace: a series of perfect snow angels, made by ravens.

It lay in the snow just like an open necklace: a series of perfect snow angels, made by ravens. The two sets of warty bird feet tracks, stencilled like a delicate chain, came at each other from opposite directions, and were linked in the middle by the indentations of both ravens pitching forward into the snow step after step with their wings outstretched. The two centre snow angels, from where the birds must have taken to the air, overlapped ever so slightly.

I smiled at this piece of completely symmetric snow art that our raven couple had placed right by the compost pile. One separate snow angel, maybe a test image, was off to the side: wings, tail, torso and head rendering the image of a raven in flight. As I put another fistful of dog fur on the compost, I wondered if the birds admired their creation from up in the air. It looked like a token of joy that our neighbours had left behind on their last compost pile raid, although it was more likely the simple difficulty of getting airborne from soft snow that had created the snow angels.

Now that their nest building efforts are in full swing, they’ve been coming by every day to sift through the coffee grounds and tea bags on our compost pile for food and upholstery material. Conveniently, our dogs are shedding their soft woolly undercoats, so I’ve been obliging the ravens by putting fluffy balls of brushed-out dog fur out there for them. The nest that last year was fashioned in a sprawling low bungalow style now has taken on alarming skyscraper proportions as the ravens keep building it taller and taller. Sam has already started to wonder if the endless supply of luxurious, if smelly, dog fur might not spur them on in their building efforts past all reason.

But I can’t help myself sneaking nesting materials and also a treat like an egg, a bit of dog food, on the compost pile for them every now and then. On their way to the nest, the ravens often stop on the dead crown of a tall spruce by our cabin to cache some of the soft nest padding and call out to each other, to the world in general in their smokey whisky voices.

Swaying gently in the breeze, the ravens tuck the enormous tufts of fur that they grabbed from the compost underneath their feet, pluck out a small sample and hold it in their beak for a while, seemingly lost in thought as they survey their kingdom. After a while, they shove the fur in between the maze of small branches until eventually the perfect amount is left over for the flight to their nest.

When there are no new offerings on the compost, the ravens march like royalty through the snowy garden over to the chicken coop, while our poultry scatter and huddle like so many peasants in their little shack. Maybe it is a corvid experiment in cause and effect: if they walk once around the greenhouse, if they make snow angels, will more soft dog fur appear on the compost? What action of theirs might lead to dog fur plus an egg?

Strangely, the grey jays that have been frequenting our dish water disposal site steer clear of the compost, preferring apparently to peck at the sodden crumbs we rinsed out of our pots and pans. Maybe they’ve investigated the compost earlier and found it lacking or they prefer to keep their distance from the ravens. Since we don’t have a bird feeder, this whole feeding of the ravens and jays is a bit of a novelty still. Our jays seem to be somewhat slow learners: when I repeatedly tossed them some dog kibble, only one out of the three birds took an interest in it and eagerly ate and cached it, while the other two looked on without much interest.

We are waiting now for the ravens to get on with their egg-laying and brooding business. I like to imagine how the pimply naked young will snuggle deep into the dog wool, comfy and warm in their skyscraper nest, until they are old enough to raise their heads over the rim and look with wonder at the expanse of forests, the mountains framing in their world.

Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters of the Yukon

River south of Whitehorse.