The Raven's Nest


AFTER all, the Rosicrucians were an ignorant lot. They spent their days over alembics, cucurbits, and crucibles; yet they grew old. In our days many men — and a few women — have discovered the Elixir of Youth, but never indoors. The prescription is a simple one. Mix a hobby with plenty of skyair, shake well, and take twice a week. I know a railroad official who retired when he was seventy. ‘He’ll die soon,’ observed his friends kindly. Instead, he began to collect native orchids from all points of the compass. Now he is too busy tramping over mountains and through woods and marshes even to think of dying. At any rate, he will not have time until he has found the ram’s head and the crane’s-bill orchids and has finished his monograph on the Habenaria. He will never grow old. Neither will that other friend of mine who collects fresh-water pearls, or the one who makes me visit black-snake and rattlesnake dens with him every spring, or those others who spend their time in collecting butterflies, beetles, wasps, and similar bric-à-brac. As for the four abandoned oölogists who have hunted with me for years, they will be young at a hundred. They rank high in their respective callings. Yet from February, when the great horned owl begins its nest, until the goldfinch lays her white eggs in July, the four spend every holiday and vacation hunting bird’s nests.

Personally I collect only notes, outof-door secrets, and little everyday adventures. Bird-songs, flower-fields, and friendships with the wild-folk mean far more to me than cabinets of pierced eggs, dried flowers, stuffed birds, and tanned skins. Nor am I much of a hunter. When it comes to slaughtering defenseless animals with high-powered guns, I prefer a position in an abattoir. One can kill more animals in a day, and with less exertion. Yet my collecting and sporting friends make allowances for my vagaries, and take me along with them on their journeyings. Wherefore it happened that in early March I received a telegram: ‘Raven’s nest located. Come if you are man enough.’

Now a middle-aged lawyer and the father of a family has no business ravening along the icy and inaccessible cliffs which that gifted fowl prefers for nursery purposes. I have, however, a maxim of Thoreau which I furbish up for just such occasions. ‘A man sits as many risks as he runs,’ wrote that wanderer in the woods. Accordingly the next morning found me two hundred miles to the north, plodding through a driving snowstorm toward Seven Mountains, with the only man in recent years who has found the nest of a northern raven in Pennsylvania.

For fifteen freezing miles we clambered over and around three of the Seven. By the middle of the afternoon we reached a cliff hidden behind thickets of rhododendron. In the meantime the snow had changed to a lashing rain, probably the coldest that has ever fallen on the North American continent. As we ploughed through the slush, the black rhododendron stems twisted around us like wet rubber, and the hollow green leaves funneled ice-water down our backs and into our ears.

Breaking through the last of the thickets, we at length reached a little brook which ran along the foot of the cliff. A hundred feet above, out from the middle of the cliff, stretched a long tongue of rock. Over this the cliff arched like a roof, with a space between which widened toward the tip of the tongue. In a niche above this cleft a dark mass showed dimly through the rain.

‘The nest!’ muttered the Collector hoarsely, pouring a pint or so of rainwater down my neck from his hatbrim as he bent toward me.

I stared with all my eyes, at last one of the chosen few to see the nest of a Pennsylvania raven. It was made of large sticks. The fresh-broken ends and the droppings on the cliff-side showed that it was a recent one. There were no signs of either of the birds. We solemnly removed our coats and sweaters and prepared for the worst. To me the cliffs looked much like the Matterhorn, only slipperier. The Collector, however, was most reassuring. He told me that the going looked worse than it really was, and that anyway, if I did fall, death would be so nearly instantaneous as to involve little if any suffering.

Thus encouraged, I followed him gruntingly up a path which had evidently been made by a chamois or an ibex. At last I found myself perched on a shelf of stone about the width of my hand. The Collector, who was above me on an even smaller foothold, took this opportunity to tell me that the rare Allegheny cave-rat was found on this cliff, and nearly fell off his perch trying to point out to me a crevice where he had once seen the mass of sticks, stones, leaves, feathers, and bones with which these versatile animals barricade their passageways.

I refused to turn my head. That day I was risking my life for ravens, not rats. Above us was the long, rough tongue of rock. Below, a far hundred feet, the brook wound its way through snow-covered boulders. Again the Collector led the way. Hooking both arms over the tongue of rock above him, he drew himself up until his chest rested on the edge, and then, sliding toward the precipice, managed to wriggle up in some miraculous way without slipping off. From the top of the tongue he clambered up to the niche where the nest was, calling down to me to follow. Accordingly, I left my shelf and hung sprawlingly on the tongue; but there was no room to push my way up between it and the rock-roof above.

‘Throw your legs straight out,’ counseled the Collector from above, ‘and let yourself slide.’

I tried conscientiously, but it was impossible. My sedentary, unadventurous legs simply would not whirl out into space. At last, under the jeers of my friend, I shut my eyes and, kicking out mightily, found myself sliding toward eternity. Just before I reached it, under the Collector’s bellowed instructions, I thrust my left arm up as far as I could — and found a hand-hold on the slippery rock. After getting my breath, I managed to wriggle up through the crevice and lay safe on the top of the tongue. The niche above was not large enough for us both, so the Collector came down while I took his place. I was lashed by a freezing rain, my numb hands were cut and bleeding, and there were ten weary miles still ahead. Yet that moment was worth all that it cost. There is an indescribable fascination and triumph in sharing a secret with the wild-folk, which can be understood only by the initiate. The living naturalists who had looked into the home of the northern raven in Pennsylvania could be counted on the thumb and first three fingers of one hand. At last the little finger belonged to me.

The deep cup of the nest was about one foot in diameter and over a yard across on the outside. It was firmly anchored on the shelf of rock, the structure being built into the crevices, and made entirely of dead oak branches, some of them fully three quarters of an inch in diameter. It looked from a distance like an enormous crow’s nest. The cup itself was some six inches deep, and lined with red and white deer-hair and some long black hairs which were probably those of a skunk. Inside, it had a little damp green moss, while the rim was made of green birch twigs bruised and hackled by the beaks of the builders. On this day, March 9, 1918, there were no eggs, although in a previous year the Collector had found two as early as February 25, when the cliffs were covered with snow; and on March 5 of another year he collected a full set of five fresh ones which I afterwards examined in his collection. The birds had built a nest the year before without laying. This fact, with the absence of eggs this year, convinced the Collector that the birds were sterile from age. During the last years of their long life, which is supposed to approach a century, a pair of ravens will sometimes with pathetic pains build nest after nest which is never occupied by eggs. The Collector promised to show me a set, however, the next day in another nest.

At last, it was time to start down. The Collector, who was waiting on his shelf, warned me that the descent was more difficult than the climb which I had just lived through, as it was necessary to slide some six feet backwards to the shelf from which we started. As I looked down the cliff-side, I decided to remain with the ravens. It was not until the Collector promised most solemnly to catch me, that I at last let go and found myself back on the shelf with him. Then came another wonderful moment. ‘ Crrruck, crrruck, crrruck,’ sounded hoarsely from the valley below — a note like that of a deep-voiced crow with a bad cold.

‘Hurry!’ urged the Collector, ‘it’s one of the old birds coming back.’

I claimed to have hurried as much as any man of my age could be expected to do; but by the time I had reached the path, the wary raven had disappeared. I clambered down the cliff while the Collector reproached me for my senile slowness. We stopped to rest at the foot of the cliff, and I was just telling him that Cornishmen hate the raven because to their ears he always cries, ‘ Corpse, corpse,’ when suddenly the bird itself came back again. It flew across the valley and alighted on a treetop by the opposite cliff, looking like a monster crow, being about one third longer. One might mistake a crow for a raven, but never a raven for a crow. If there be any doubt about the bird, it is always safe to set it down as a crow.

The flight of the raven, which consisted of two flaps and a soar, and its long tail resembling that of an enormous grackle, were its most evident fieldmarks.

For long we sat and watched the wary birds, until, chilled through by the driving rain, we started to cover the ten miles that lay between us and the house of Squire McMahon, a mountain friend of the Collector, where we planned to pass the night. On the way the Collector told me that he saw his first raven while wandering through the mountains in the spring of 1909, and how he trailed and hunted and watched, until, in 1910, he found the first nest. Since then he had found twelve. His system was a simple one. Selecting from a gazetteer a list of mountain villages with wild names, such as Bear Creek, Paddy’s Mountain, and Panther Run, he would write to the postmasters for the names of noted hunters and woodsmen. From them he would secure more or less accurate information about the haunts of ravens, which usually frequent only the loneliest and most inaccessible parts of the mountains.

The trail led through deep forests and up and across mountains, and was so covered with ice and snow as to be difficult going. At one point the Collector showed me a place where he had been walking years ago when he became suddenly conscious that he was being followed by something or somebody. At a point where the trail doubled on itself, he ran back swiftly and silently, just in time to see a bay-lynx, which had been trailing him as those big cats sometimes will, dive into a nearby thicket. Anon he cheered the way with snake-stories, for Seven Mountains in summer swarm with rattlesnakes and copperheads.

By the time he had finished it was dark, and I thought with a great longing of food and fire — especially fire. It did not seem possible to be so cold and still live. In the very nick of time, for me at least, we caught sight of the lamplight streaming from the windows of the Squire’s house. Dripping, chilled, tired, and starving, we burst into Mrs. McMahon’s immaculate kitchen and were treated by the old couple like a pair of long-lost sons. In less than two minutes our waterlogged shoes were off, our wet coats and sogged sweaters spread out to dry, and we sat huddled over a glowing stove while Mrs. McMahon fried fish, made griddle-cakes, and brewed hot tea simultaneously, and with a swiftness that just saved two lives. We ate and ate and ate and ate, and then in a huge feather-bed we slept and slept and slept and slept. Long after I have forgotten the difference between a tort and a contract, or whether A. Edward Newton or Marie Corelli wrote the Amenities, that dinner and that sleep will stand out in my memory.


The next morning we started off again in a driving snowstorm, to look at another nest some ten miles farther on. The first bird we met was a prairie horned-lark flying over the valley with its curious tossing, mounting flight, like a bunch of thistledown. It differs from the more common horned or shore lark by having a white instead of a yellow throat and eye-line; and it nests in the mountain meadows in upper Pennsylvania, while its larger brother breeds in the far north.

Noon found us at a deer-camp. Through the uncurtained windows we could see the mounted body of a golden eagle which, after stalking and destroying one by one a whole flock of wild turkeys, had come to an ignoble end while gorged on the carcass of a dead deer. The man who captured it by throwing his coat over its head thought at first that it was a turkey buzzard, which southern bird, curiously enough, finds its way through the valleys up to these northern mountains. In fact, the Collector once found a buzzard’s nest just across a ravine from the nest of a raven.

Beyond the camp, on the other side of a rushing torrent, we found another raven’s nest swaying in the gale in the very top of a slender forty-foot white pine, the only raven’s nest the Collector had ever found in a tree. It was deserted; and we reached home late that night with frost-bitten faces and ears, nor any sight of the eggs of the northern raven.

The next day we took a train and traveled forty miles down stream, to where, on a cliff overhanging the river, a pair of ravens had nested for the last fifty years. There we found numerous old nests, but never a trace of any that were fresh. There too we found a magnificent wild turkey hanging dead in a little apple tree; it had come to a miserable end by catching the toes of one foot between two twigs in such a way that it could not release itself. The bright red color of its legs distinguished it from a tame turkey. The Collector confided to me that the ambition of his life was to find the nest of a wild turkey, which is the rarest of all Pennsylvania nests. Next to it from a collecting standpoint come the nests of the northern raven, pileated woodpecker, and Blackburnian warbler, in the order named.


March 12, 1919, found me on another raven-hunt with the Collector. Before sunrise I was dropped from a sleeper at a little mountain station set in a hill-country full of broad fields, swift streams, and leafless trees, flanked with dark belts of pines and hemlocks. Beyond the hills was raven-land, lonely, wind-swept, full of lavender and misty purple mountains, with now and then a gap showing in their ramparts. It was in these gaps that the ravens nested, always on the north side, farthest from the sun.

Near by was Treaster’s Valley, which old Dan Treaster won from a pack of black wolves before the Revolution. When he lay a-dying three quarters of a century later, the wailing howl of a wolf-pack sounded outside his cabin, although wolves had been gone from the Valley for fifty years. Old Dan sat up with the death-sweat on his forehead and grinned. ‘They’ve come to see me off,’ he whispered, and fell back dead.

They bred hunters in that Valley. Peter Penz the Indian fighter, who celebrated his ninetieth birthday by killing a red bear, came from there. So did Jacob Quiggle, who killed a maned panther one winter night, under the light of a wind-swept moon, with his famous gun, Black Sam. Over on Panther’s Run not ten miles away lived Solomon Miller, who shot the last woodbison, and died at the age of eightyeight, clapping his hands and shouting the chorus of a hunting-song.

As the light began to show in the eastern sky came the first bird-notes of the day. The caw of a crow, a snatch of song-sparrow melody, the chirp of a robin, the fluted alto notes of a bluebird, and the squeal of a red-tailed hawk sounded before the sun came up.

A change of trains, and I met the Collector, as enthusiastic as ever. Already that year he had found six ravens’ nests with eggs in them; but the one he had promised to show me was the best of the lot. It was located in Poe’s Gap, where local tradition hath it that the poet wooed, not unsuccessfully, a mountain girl, and wrote ‘The Raven’ in her cabin.

On the way to the Gap we heard and saw nineteen different kinds of birds, including siskin, fox-sparrows, and killdeer, and saw a buzzard sail on blackfringed wings over the peaks. On a farmer’s barn we saw a goshawk nailed, its blue-gray back and finely penciled breast unmistakable even after the winter storms.

As we entered the Gap, patches of snow showed here and there, and a mad mountain-brook of foaming gray water came frothing and raging to meet us. When we were full two hundred and fifty yards away from the nest, the female raven flapped and soared away. The nest itself was only thirty feet from the ground, on a shelf protected by a protruding ledge, some ten feet down from the top of the cliffs. Rigging a rope to a tree, I managed to swarm up and look at last on the eggs of a northern raven. They were three in number, a full clutch. The number ranges from three to five, very rarely six. The eggs themselves were half as large again as those of a crow and all different in coloration. One was light blue flecked and speckled with brown and lavender; another was heavily marked with lavender and greenish-brown; while the last was of a solid greenish-brown color.

The nest itself faced the Gap, and from it one could look clear across the forest to the settled country beyond, while behind the cliff stretched a range of low, unexplored mountains. The nest itself was made of smaller sticks than the one I had seen over at Seven Mountains, and had a double lining of brown and white deer-hair, a fresh lining having been laid over that of the year before. As we climbed to the nest the ravens soared near, giving only the hoarse ‘ Crrruck.’ They have also a soft love-note, which cannot be heard fifty yards away and sounds something like the syllables ‘Ga-gl-gl-gli.’ As they soared near us, their plumage shone like black glass, and we could see the long tapered feathers of the neck swell whenever either of them croaked. They had a peculiar trick of gliding side by side and suddenly touching wings, overlapping each other for an instant.

While we watched them, a red-tailed hawk unwarily approached the Gap. In an instant the male raven was upon him, and there was a sharp fight. The Buteo was not to be driven away easily, but made brave play with beak and talons; but he never had a chance. The raven glided round and round him with wonderful speed and smoothness, driving in blow after blow with his heavy, punishing beak, until the hawk was glad to escape.

For long and long I watched the dark, wise mysterious birds circle through the blue sky. As I sat in their eyrie, I could look far, far across the forests and the ranges of hills, to where the ploughed fields began. Perhaps the poet had looked from that same ravencliff before he went back to break his heart among the tame folk, and wished that he could stay in wild-folk land, where he belonged.