I’ve been fascinated by the flight of birds since I was a child. I’m hardly the first young person to turn his eye to the sky and never look down again. For a thousand years, birds have inspired people to dream of human flight and, later, just over a hundred years ago, to finally build a heavier-than-air machine capable of carrying exactly one soul aloft. Just like a bird.
A kid’s passion for flight is easily kindled. Back in 1970, like millions of other people young and older, I read Richard Bach’s novella Jonathan Livingston Seagull, the tale of a gull searching for the ultimate truth through flight, and I was entranced. For me, it wasn’t so much the portrayal of the bird, but the passion for the joy of flight evident in the voice of the author and his clear passion for life in the air. The spellbinding photography by Russell Munson, who would many years later become a dear friend, added to the allure.
But as much as I loved Bach’s novella, I soon learned that the author, perhaps because he lived by the shore, pegged the wrong species as the spokes-bird for flight. For his flying metaphor, Bach should have selected the inaptly named “common” raven. There’s nothing common about them, especially when it comes to their flying skills.
In my early teens, I lived in the rocky high desert of Southern California, a place that was also home to a good-sized population of common ravens. Before long I came to love the raven, which, the more I got to know it, the more amazed by it I became. I’m still enchanted by the bird.
Along with crows and grackles, the raven belongs to the family Corvidae. Ravens are much larger than crows, weighing as much as two pounds, with a wingspan of up to four and a half feet. The subspecies in California is known as the western raven. It’s characterized by a slight, jaunty curve at the end of its beak.
Animal behavior scientists have been studying ravens for a few decades and have come to believe that they’re not only the most intelligent species of bird, but also one of the smartest animals, period. Ravens can mimic human language, use tools, fashion their own toys, engage in creative play, strategize, work in teams and develop sophisticated relationships with other birds. They’re also beautiful, dark, strong, graceful, aware and maybe even a bit cocky, though a little self-satisfaction in light of their talents is understandable.
They’re also amazing flyers, and not just for the convenience or utility of air travel. Along with a handful of other bird species, ravens commonly fly just for the fun of it.
“The winds created a sharply rising line of air along the ridge. From those rocks I’d spend hours watching the ravens, silhouettes of shimmering rainbow-feathered light riding the lift back and forth for no reason but flight.”
For a time, my favorite spectator sport was watching the ravens fly. As a teenager, I’d take a backpack and scramble hundreds of feet up into the rocks overlooking the Mojave Desert landscape, settle in, lean back against a tumbled bench of granite slabs and take in the airshow.
My favorite spot was a ridge running east and west. The prevailing southwesterly winds blew directly into the half-mile-long ridge, creating an uninterrupted line of sharply rising air, upon which the black birds would gather and play. I’d watch them for hours, silhouettes of shimmering rainbow-feathered light riding the lift back and forth for no reason but flight.
The first time I saw one do an aerobatic maneuver, a perfect Split S, I assumed it was an anomaly. It wasn’t. Soon I saw more and better tricks. I saw them do Split S’s out of loops, I saw them roll, snap roll, tumble in crazy lomcevaks and do precision formation aerobatics, including tandem lomcevaks with talons locked. Perhaps the most amazing trick that ravens perform (though I’ve never witnessed it myself) is to drop a stick from on high, then immediately tuck their wings and dive, snatching up the stick in midair before it can hit the ground. Then, stick in beak, they extend their wings, arrest the descent just barely above the deck, and climb back up to do it all again.
I try not to feel inferior as an aviator when I watch the ravens make their magic, though it’s impossible for any honest pilot not to feel that way. They can perform flying feats that no human will ever be able to replicate, regardless of what technologies we develop. And the bird does it without any help. Feathers, flesh and hollow bone, the raven does it all with the body he came into the world with. I’m not a covetous person by nature, but I do envy the raven’s gift.
Still, I probably shouldn’t be so hard on my own flying skills, as limited as they are. Ravens were born with wings. We human pilots adopt them only later in life and then, if we’re lucky, spend the rest of our time on earth learning exactly where and how a pair of wings might transport exactly one soul aloft. Just like a bird.