Ravens in Devon

I SUPPOSE most people remember, from their childhood days, the story of Elijah in the wilderness being fed by ravens. From the hazes of childhood I recall a picture of an old man with a beard, holding up one arm, and two black birds flying down to him. In early youth, whenever the picture came into my mind, I thought vaguely of the birds bringing berries, or wild grapes. It was possible that the hermit had tamed two young birds, and that stray visitors saw him take the food from the ravens, and perhaps put it between his lips for the birds to retake. A charming picture of the old philosopher and visionary in his retreat — one of his lighter moments. But as for birds feeding him seriously, it was absurd. Why should two birds of the Crow family bring food to a human being?

But to-day I am not sure that the feeding of Elijah was a mere fable, embodied into the history of a desert nomadic tribe. My son, looking over my shoulder as I write, informs me that the ravens brought bread and meat to Elijah twice a day, at morning and evening. How about that? Berries might have been dropped accidentally by the birds, and the starving Elijah comforted by the thought that Providence was with him; and afterwards the story got about, and became part of the tribal folklore. But bread and meat, regularly twice a day! What does one think about that?

One spring, a year or two ago, a pair of ravens built a nest in the fork of an oak tree. In April, when the young ravens were out of the nest, a fledgling was picked up on the ground below. It appeared to be deserted by its parents, and so the finder put it, not without trepidation for the big beak which the bird opened in fear, into a basket and took it home. The raven very soon became tame and followed its mistress, croaking for food, and flying to perch on her head or shoulder. It grew into a large heavy bird, which bullied everything about the farm.

The raven would hide in the branches of a tree, and when it saw a cat returning with a rabbit it would fly down when the cat had passed, and let out a low-pitched krok-krok. Immediately the cat would drop the rabbit and flee. The first time the raven encountered it, the tomcat growled and spat and showed fight; but one dab of the raven’s beak, gravely administered as though it were merely a rebuke for bad manners, sent the cat flying. Thereafter, when it heard the low, warning krok-krok, the cat would drop its rabbit and slink away.

But after a while, when it saw that the raven meant nothing personal, as it were, the cat merely dropped its rabbit and sat by while the raven killed it with blows of its beak and then picked out its favorite delicacy — the eyes. Afterwards, the cat could have the rabbit. Eventually the cat not only brought every rabbit it caught to the raven, but learned to obey the krok-krok call to proceed to the warrens to stalk and catch a rabbit for its corvine master! At any rate, that is what appeared to happen. There was a spaniel dog in the farmyard, chained to a barrel lying on its side — the dog’s kennel. The wretched dog often used to bark, begging to be released from its prison. It barked furiously whenever it saw the raven approaching, for it was afraid of the bird. And no wonder! The raven used to steal its bones while the dog was asleep, and place them just outside the arc of movement made by the chained animal. Then it would tap the dog on the pate and hop back, making noises just like the dog growling. It used to bow and open its wings, and squint along its five-inch black beak, set with black bristles, obviously daring the dog to come near and attack it. The dog did that but once — when the raven dug a little hole between its nostrils. The bird became such a bully that its master threatened to shoot it, for it was, he said, spoiling his dog, which became afraid to leave the barrel and begin its dinner when the raven was near.

With human beings the raven was wary and inoffensive, although it trusted its mistress, who had first fed it. Something happened, however, in its second season, which almost caused the farmer to carry out his threat. And that was the disappearance of his ducklings. The first brood were picked up and swallowed, despite the agitated clucking of the hen foster-mother. The second brood were shut up in a stable with the hen. But the raven discovered a drain beside the door, and after peering within and cocking its head first on one side, then the other, as though listening intently, stepped back and thought. A bird thinking, exclaims the scientific reader. Well, let us continue the three-dimensional description. The raven stepped back and stared at the drain hole. After staring for some moments, it went forward with its feathers fluffed out, as though it were a hen, and, crouching by the hole, clucked like the hen when she was calling her fosterlings. Down the hole a duckling waddled, and was picked up and swallowed. Cluck-cluck-cluck, and another duckling appeared and disappeared.

After that, the raven was caught and put into a wire-netting cage built on grass near the house. It spent much of its time quizzing other birds in the sky. One morning, early, its mistress saw a wild pair of ravens by the cage. And during the winter she observed it passing bits of food through the netting to one or another of the wild ravens. It was a time of hard weather, and the ground was frozen. When the spring came, she watched the caged bird again passing beakfuls of its plentiful larder to the wild birds. They flew off with full craws, westwards, in the direction of the headland where they had a nest. They returned for food, again and again.

When their young were flown — towards the end of April — the old pair began to dig a tunnel under the bottom of the wire netting. The tame raven’s mistress feared they might be going to kill her pet, for this had been the fate of a tame raven in a neighboring valley. Her husband persuaded her to wait and see what happened. He would n’t be sorry, anyway.

The tame raven did no work in the scheme for its liberation. It merely watched. Was it afraid? Was it dreading the moment when the two wilder, stronger birds would fall upon it and knock its head off? At last the tunnel was finished. The wild ravens croaked, and the tame raven crept forth — free. After talking together, the trio flew off towards the sea.

The tame raven remained away for some time, and its cage was left on the grass.

One morning the farmer’s wife saw it back again in the cage. It croaked a welcome to her.

And that is all I know about the bird. But I no longer think to myself about the story of Elijah being fed with meat and bread by a pair of ravens as being a fable. I see no reason why it should not be literally true.