For the Birds Radio Program: Calpurnia the Raven

Original Air Date: Oct. 31, 1988

On this Halloween, Laura Erickson talks about a raven that doesn’t fit the spooky stereotype. (3:40)

Duration: 3′43″


(Recording of a Common Raven)

Last week a game warden from the Minnesota D.N.R. brought me a raven that had been hit by a car. Calpurnia wasn’t in as bad shape as she might have been: she’s badly emaciated, with her sternum jutting out of her chest, she has a concussion, one of her eyes is swollen and possibly sightless, apparently from some internal hemorrhaging, and she has a sprained wing. She also has a terrible case of lice. Bird lice don’t spread to humans–they don’t even spread to birds of other species, so the lice aren’t a problem to anyone but her. Her concussion has made her docile and gentle–I didn’t even need to wear gloves when I handled her, which is a bad sign. But she sure liked it when I picked the lice off her–she made soft croaks that sounded like she was purring and rubbed her head on my finger, seemingly showing her appreciation.

I could tell she’s a female because her wing measures a little over 16 inches–a male’s wing is at least 18 inches from the bend to the tip. She’s a beautiful bird, with the typical pointed neck feathers that give a raven its shaggy appearance, and the thick bill with feathered nostrils that gives the raven so noble a bearing.

I named her Calpurnia, not after Caesar’s wife, but after the cook in To Kill a Mockingbird, because she’s intelligent, gentle, and opinionated, with beauty and dignity, and she deserves far better from life than to live under the domination of white people. But after four days of caring for her without seeing any real improvement in her head injury, I sent her down to the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in St. Paul, where she’ll be under the care of expert veterinarians, with a better promise of eventual freedom to fly and touch the sky again.

Ravens are glorious birds. They are the largest of all songbirds, and are second to none in their aerial acrobatic ability. I’ve read accounts of a Peregrine Falcon chasing a raven, and the raven turning on its back in the air to fight back and win. They are birds of true wilderness, nesting on lonely cliffs and crags, yet paradoxically they can also live in towns, where they often come in winter to eat garbage and find roadkills. Ravens are protected by law, although some of them have been shot this year during the crow season. If any listeners know of ravens that were shot in Minnesota this summer or fall, please let me know.

The beauty of ravens has contributed to their strong presence in mythology. Tony Angell, who wrote the book Ravens, Crows, Magpies, and Jays, says that Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest viewed Raven as the god who brought light and order. He is a powerful prankster who emerged from the antediluvian past bringing light from the one who would have kept the world in darkness. After bringing light, Raven created fresh water, land, the tides, fair weather, salmon, and human life. To acknowledge his authority, Raven is called “Real Chief” by the Haida, and the “Great Inventor” and “One Whose Voice Is to Be Obeyed” by the Bella Bella.

Ravens are also the most intelligent birds known. There is good scientific evidence that they can count at least to six or eight, which is no mean feat in an election year when none of the candidates seem capable of putting two and two together.

(Recording of a Common Raven)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”