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.