On Being Watched

For the most part, the wildlife around our place regards me with either fear or wariness. Birds flutter, squirrels scurry, deer bound. The latter, admittedly, only retreat to their calculated safe distance before turning to assess my intentions, but all of them move away when they detect my presence.

Except the ravens. They don’t fly when I walk out the door. They’re not fearful, or indifferent. The ravens aren’t merely desensitized to the human comings and goings around the house, carrying on with their business as usual as we carry on with ours. Instead, it seems that we—and me, in particular—have become part of their business as usual.

A common scenario is that, a few minutes after the side door in the garage bangs after me as I walk inside, I’ll see a raven cruise past a window, gliding low over the hillside below the house. At close range, I can see the bird’s head swiveling slightly as it scans the ground below. I know what it’s looking for. We’re constantly tweaking our efforts to keep mice out of the garage, but they persist in chewing through the rubber gaskets on the bottom of the garage doors, so we haven’t yet succeeded at permanent exclusion. I don’t use poison, but I reserve the right to be territorial when it comes to rodents inside the house, so I do set traps. When I catch a mouse, I open the door and flick the little carcass over the hill, where a heavy black beak will soon snap it up.

During the winter, I feed the horses grain inside the barn, but come summertime they dine alfresco. The ravens are familiar with this routine, and at least one shows up each day, waiting atop an electric pole or a ponderosa pine while I schlep feed pans out to the pasture and wait for the horses to eat. Before I’ve reached the barn to stow the empty pans, the raven will be on the ground, gleaning dropped grain. The bird will then set out for the nest site tucked away in the woods east of the house, a full crop bulging at its neck like a goiter. Later in the summer, the young ravens will join their parents for the dinner picnic. These are extremely noisy events, with kids and parents yelling in each others’ faces as if they were auditioning for a reality TV show about families behaving badly.

I’m not keen on my status as a walking dinner bell, but I take some comfort in the fact that I’m hardly unique in being the object of corvid attention. A dozen years ago, when our house was under construction, I was regularly amused to watch the afternoon commuter traffic: ravens flying in to the house site as contractors’ pickups were driving out. The ravens sorted through the top layer in the dumpster, searching for leftovers from lunches and snacks.

Scavenging is one of those ecosystem services that occupies a blind spot for many Americans, but I think the relationship is more nuanced than ravens acting as our garbage-pickers. In his book, Mind of the Raven, biologist Bernd Heinrich reports that ravens in the Arctic don’t just follow hunting parties and wolf packs, waiting for the opportunity to scavenge at a kill, but are believed by some to act as lookouts from their vantage point in the sky, indicating the direction of game animals with a dip of a wing. I’m not a hunter, but in the regularity of my routines I might be something even better in the ravens’ eyes: reliable.

Familiarity has a way of inviting, in the human species at least, speculation about the minds of others. A few summers ago I thought I had deciphered a four-note raven call. The vocalization was distinctive and more musical that your average croak, so I figured it must mean something. When I first became aware of it, I saw a hawk or eagle nearby. Theorizing that the call signified a raptor in the area, I would scan the sky and treetops when I heard it. Those early incidents were evidently coincidence, because once I started looking, I never saw a raptor in association with the call again. Forced to revise my theory, it occurred to me that if I often heard those four notes when I was outside, then they might actually signal my presence in the area.

I admire that the ravens so openly flip the usual wildlife-human interaction by approaching rather than fleeing. I’m less at ease with being the watcher who has become the watched. It’s doubtful the ravens are quite so specific, but the possibility that they’re not just watching, but talking about me, too…I’m pretty sure I’ll never get used to that.

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