raven sign language

A raven swooped off into the distance like an inebriated amputee, trailing his raucous voice behind him.

A raven swooped off into the distance like an inebriated amputee, trailing his raucous voice behind him. Etched inky black against the sky, he kept folding up his right wing every few moments and tumbling downward for a couple of metres until catching himself and flying on, croaking as he went.

Ravens are such tattletales. The wilderness version of flashing neon signs, advertising cheap take-out food. Or so the raven lore goes: that the wing-tucking and tumbling is showing the way to a meal, some hapless caribou or moose whose time had come.

Sam and I stood and squinted at the dark speck carving out its erratic flightpath in the cloud-blurred light. From the east, another raven called. There was a kill out there for sure, in the direction the wing-tucking raven was headed. The businesslike bird traffic, their noisy croaks, not to mention the wolf songs a couple of days before could only mean this one thing.

As the raven vanished from sight, we walked on through the sticky snow, sweating in the heat wave the new year had slipped in on. We were dressed too warm again and kept shedding articles of clothing, leaving a scarf, a jacket, a hat draped over a branch here, a willow bush there. Snow balled up between the dogs’ toes and clung to Nooka’s long silky leg hair. Since we had the dogs with us, it seemed prudent to walk into the opposite direction from the kill, though it appeared to be at least a couple of kilometres away. But we had no wish to disturb or interfere.

Another raven flapped by overhead, then changed his mind when he spotted us, circled and landed gracefully in a tree by the trail.

“That one’s not too hungry, I guess,” commented Sam and gave a loud croak. The bird puffed out his throat and erected his ear feathers, fixed us with one beady eye and said: “Glook.”

I giggled as Sam tried to imitate the sound, butchering it badly. Maybe the raven thought it a poor performance, too, or felt compelled to do one better – he launched into a liquid series of clucking and gargling sounds, which he finished off by taking a swipe with his beak at the branch he was perched on. “Take that, you wingless ninny, and stuff it down your beakless gullet,” or so he seemed to be saying.

Sam did a few more croaks without getting a response. I tried some high-pitched screeches, the ones that young ravens are earsplittingly fond of, but only earned a withering look from the bird.

Feeling chastised for the idiocy of uttering baby sounds at a time of year when there could be no raven babies, I resorted to human language, which I have a slightly better command of.

“There’s food down there in the valley. Didn’t you see your buddy do his wing-folding stunt?”

No reply. The raven gazed off into the distance, apparently finished with his experiment in cross-species communication. I suppose we had failed miserably. We left him sitting in the tree, contemplating either his undertaker business or our lacking capacity for language, and carried on through the soft snow. I wondered aloud to Sam if the wing-folding really had anything to do with communication about a food source.

We had only seen very few ravens who did this routine when flying over to a carcass. Most of them seemed to fly the regular way, two-winged. Also, I remembered one raven from last summer who was flying fairly high, and who had kept tucking in a wing and plummeting down, then flying up and onward for a few seconds until he folded one wing again – on and on until he was out of sight, without there being anything dead in the woods that we knew of or even any other ravens in the area. Maybe the folding of one wing while flying is only like one syllable or one word and can mean different things in different contexts, Sam suggested.

It’s hard to figure out these clues, much as somebody walking down the trail behind us would be puzzled by the bits of clothing we had hung up in the trees. We retrieved them on our way home, Hansel and Gretel-like, finding our way back to where our lunch was waiting: moose stew with semi-fresh carrots and potatoes. Something well worth folding a wing for.

Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters of the Yukon River south of Whitehorse.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: Are they coming?

One of COVID-19’s big economic questions is whether it will prompt a… Continue reading

Yukon MP Larry Bagnell, along with Yukon health and education delegates, announce a new medical research initiative via a Zoom conference on Jan. 21. (Screen shot)
New medical research unit at Yukon University launched

The SPOR SUPPORT Unit will implement patient-first research practices

Yukon First Nation Education Directorate members Bill Bennett, community engagement coordinator and Mobile Therapeutic Unit team lead, left, and Katherine Alexander, director of policy and analytics, speak to the News about the Mobile Therapeutic Unit that will provide education and health support to students in the communities. (yfned.ca)
Mobile Therapeutic Unit will bring education, health support to Indigenous rural students

The mobile unit will begin travelling to communities in the coming weeks

Premier Sandy Silver, left, and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley, speak during a live stream in Whitehorse on January 20, about the new swish and gargle COVID-19 tests. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Swish and spit COVID-19 test now available in Yukon

Vaccination efforts continue in Whitehorse and smaller communities in the territory

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police detachment in Faro photgraphed in 2016. Faro will receive a new RCMP detachment in 2022, replacing the decades-old building currently accommodating officers. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
Faro RCMP tagged for new detachment

Faro will receive a new RCMP detachment in 2022, replacing the decades-old… Continue reading

In a Jan. 18 announcement, the Yukon government said the shingles vaccine is now being publicly funded for Yukoners between age 65 and 70, while the HPV vaccine program has been expanded to all Yukoners up to and including age 26. (1213rf.com)
Changes made to shingles, HPV vaccine programs

Pharmacists in the Yukon can now provide the shingles vaccine and the… Continue reading

Parking attendant Const. Ouellet puts a parking ticket on the windshield of a vehicle in downtown Whitehorse on Dec. 6, 2018. The City of Whitehorse is hoping to write of nearly $300,000 in outstanding fees, bylaw fines and court fees, $20,225 of which is attributed to parking fines issued to non-Yukon license plates. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
City of Whitehorse could write off nearly $300,000

The City of Whitehorse could write off $294,345 in outstanding fees, bylaw… Continue reading

Grants available to address gender-based violence

Organizations could receive up to $200,000

In this illustration, artist-journalist Charles Fripp reveals the human side of tragedy on the Stikine trail to the Klondike in 1898. A man chases his partner around the tent with an axe, while a third man follows, attempting to intervene. (The Daily Graphic/July 27, 1898)
History Hunter: Charles Fripp — gold rush artist

The Alaskan coastal town of Wrangell was ill-equipped for the tide of… Continue reading

A man walks passed the polling place sign at city hall in Whitehorse on Oct. 18, 2018. While Whitehorse Mayor Dan Curtis is now setting his sights on the upcoming territorial election, other members of council are still pondering their election plans for the coming year. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Councillors undecided on election plans

Municipal vote set for Oct. 21

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decicions made by Whitehorse city council this week.

A file photo of grizzly bear along the highway outside Dawson City. Yukon conservation officers euthanized a grizzly bear Jan. 15 that was originally sighted near Braeburn. (Alistair Maitland/Yukon News file)
Male grizzly euthanized near Braeburn

Yukon conservation officers have euthanized a grizzly bear that was originally sighted… Continue reading

Most Read