Raven is one of the most important birds in Alaska

Posted: Friday, July 21, 2006

The most ubiquitous wild sound in our community is the call of the raven. The piercing "kaw, kaw" from the perch of a tree or from a tall building is as bracing as an early morning cup of coffee laden with caffeine. It is almost as if Raven is calling with a message or a reminder that even though we are here, this is still his land.

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The raven is one of the most fascinating and important birds in Alaska. I called the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to find out more about him. I spoke to Carla Hart, who is the coordinator of the watchable wildlife program. She recently worked on the creation of the network of viewing sites throughout Southeastern Alaska.

She sent me a raft of material. In the Alaska bulletin on the common raven, with the text written by Mark Schwan, he wrote the following:

"The raven is a member of the family known as Corvidae, which includes jays, crows and magpies. It is the largest species of songbird, and largest of all black birds in the world.

There is no mistaking the raucous call; the deep, resonant "kaw" is its trademark. However, it can produce an assortment of sounds. One study showed more than 30 distinct vocalizations.

Ravens first breed at 3 or 4 years and mate for life. They are very long-lived in the wild. One captive died of old age at 29 years.

They have played important roles in the cultures and mythologies of the world. They disobeyed Noah during the great flood by failing to return to the Ark after being sent to search for land.

They were used as emblems by raiding Vikings and in Norse mythology, Odin used two ravens named Thought and Memory to fly the world each day in order to inform him of what was happening.

For the ancestral Tlingit, Raven was all-important. The Tlingit and other neighboring peoples, the Haida, Tsimshean, Bella Bella, and Kwakiutl viewed the raven as the creator of the world and the bringer of daylight."

When you see the raven strut from side to side as he walks you can sense the inspiration he conferred to Tlingit dancers from long ago and even today.

They are also notorious scavengers.

When I was in the fish business in Yakutat from 1972 to 1976, I often was the chief head cutter. When a pile of fish had been unattended, perhaps next to a set net site for even a short time, the raven and his friends, the crows, set to work. They would first eat the most succulent part, the eyes, so that when I cut off the heads in the plant, I would work on an otherwise perfect salmon except for the missing orbs.

• Lifelong Alaskan Elton Engstrom is a retired fish-buyer, lawyer and legislator (1964-70) who lives in Juneau.

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