Having fresh snowfall is a bit like getting a local newspaper delivery: I learn about things going on in the neighborhood I wouldn’t otherwise know. Tracks on the fresh sheet of snow spread across the arena last month were like a headline, albeit one in a script I couldn’t read. But given that the track set appeared to have dropped from the sky—no trail in, no trail out—I knew that the language was avian, not mammalian. On closer examination, I learned that the author was a large bird. The tracks were almost three inches long, with dragging nails that joined one mark to the next like the pen strokes connecting letters in cursive writing. Here and there, dense scribbles tore through the clean sheet of snow to the underlying sand of the arena.
I was thinking owl, imagining the hunter dropping down onto an unsuspecting vole or mouse burrowing under the surface of the snow. A niggling protest from the back of my mind pointed out that there weren’t any rodent burrows evident where the bird had been, even though such excavations were obvious elsewhere. I pushed the thought away, along with the obnoxiously reasonable question of why an owl would wander around rather than striking and lifting off.
Another set of tracks appeared in front of the house a day or two later. There, too, the visitor left doodles and rummaged down into the snow in spots. The snow’s surface was crusted by then, hard enough to hold up the bird and capture impressions of the knobby joints of its feet. Many of the footprints showed an asymmetry in the alignment of the middle toe.
Back in the house, I checked my Peterson Guide to animal tracks. The author, Olaus Murie, concedes that birds merit only “some passing attention” in a guide devoted principally to animals, but the field sketches, complete with the offset middle toe, suggested a raven rather than an owl. I was more than a bit disappointed, and turned to the internet hoping to have my preferred preconception confirmed, but there too the evidence pointed to family Corvidae rather than Strigidae (typical owls) or Tytonidae (barn owls). I learned that owl feet (and hence their tracks) are zygodactyl; that is, comprised of a pair of toes pointing forward and a pair pointing back, although one ostensibly backward-pointing toe tends to jut out to the side. Ravens’ feet are anisodactyl: three toes out front and one to the back.
I’m not going to lie. I was disappointed. How cool it had been to think we’d been visited—twice!—under cover of dark by a shadowy silent predator.
But no. Just ravens.
Rationalizing my dismissiveness, I told myself that I liked the owl storyline better because owls are more rare. Corvus corax, the common raven is…well, common: I see them pretty much every day. This fact alone should have tipped me off that the track sets would almost certainly be left by a raven and not an owl, but such is the nature of bias. We see what we prefer, not what is real, or most likely.
I suppose I might have learned something new if the headline written on the arena had indeed announced a visit from an owl, but it’s more likely that, with my theory confirmed, I would have closed the mental book on the topic. As it was, uncertainty held my attention.
In researching the tracks, I learned a few new things (zygodactyl, anisodactyl); was reminded of some others (I watch ravens, but the ravens also watch me; they don’t hop with feet parallel but use a walking gait—and do so quite a bit for an animal capable of flight); and began to wonder about yet other things (why dig in those spots? Food, most likely, but perhaps not; perhaps, literally, just poking around? If a raven wrote a blog, what would it blog about?)
Postscript: unless you are willing to piddle away a day, don’t start looking for information on Corvids online. Ravens are smart. Crows hold grudges and attend funerals, Clark’s nutcrackers have capacious memory skills, and gray jays will make you rethink the uses of saliva.