Dark Wings, Dark Words

This crossroads of different seasons is an exciting time. Spring is already here, winter is now far away, but Game of Thrones is coming. The return of the pop-culture phenomenon is just as eagerly awaited as the warmer temperatures arriving at this time of year. It seems that everywhere you turn you see more GoT: exclusive clips on the internet, huge, flashy posters, and endless speculation about the happenings in the upcoming episodes. I was pretty late to the party on watching the show, but last year I finally got hooked on the twisted events in Westeros.

Animal imagery features prominently in the series, with most houses claiming a creature as their representative sigil. Direwolves, lions, dragons, stags, krakens, and a lone mockingbird are among the players in the titular political game. Another animal heavily associated with the show is the raven. Within the narrative, the ebony birds act similar to carrier pigeons, delivering missives between castles. Several characters have some spoilerific associations with the clever corvids, who are more highly-regarded than the crows that are also commonly mentioned. When Game of Thrones season rolls around, I strangely seem to find ravens everywhere, and their presence isn’t limited to the ubiquitous advertisements.

This post was set in motion as I was walking home from the Lynbrook train station after work. A few blocks from home, I heard two guttural squawks ringing through the air. I froze in place. Although ravens and crows appear vaguely similar in looks, voice is one of the many distinctive identifiers. This wasn’t the classic, harsh caw of an American Crow or the nasal ah-huh of a Fish Crow. The call clearly came from a larger, tougher bird that is far less common in these parts. I scanned for the source of the noise, but found no sign of the raven. I continued home, pleased with the surprise, and headed out to Hempstead Lake. After finding the local birds, I decided to check Valley Stream State Park and follow up on a few reports that had just come in. Parking on the side streets, I walked up the trail at Hendrickson towards my destination. A sudden commotion drew my attention to a shadow that had appeared on the roof of a building neighboring the park.

Discovering a second raven in the same afternoon would’ve been unheard of on Long Island a few years ago, but these crafty birds have been exploring new territory and applying their adaptability all over New York. A small murder of Fish Crows had raised an alarm, divebombing the visitor in an effort to scare it off just as they would an owl or hawk. Despite the family resemblance, crows know that ravens will plunder food and raid nests if given the chance. The larger bird ducked under the swooping attackers, raising demonic feather tufts and responding with hoarse croaks and wooden, bell-like notes.

Having endured enough abuse from its smaller cousins, the raven launched into the air with a flurry of feathers. In flight, the differences between crows and ravens become much more apparent. Crows are smaller, sleeker, and fly with deep, rowing wingbeats. The slimmer beak and shorter, fan-shaped tail make them look a bit more petite. Ravens are as large as Red-tailed Hawks, and their soaring, wheeling flight is on par with any raptor. Shaggy feathers, a heavy, powerful bill, and wedge-shaped tail feathers add up to a rugged, burly appearance compared to crows. This individual dipped low and flew in my direction, croaking at its pursuers. The crows half-heartedly harassed it a bit longer before breaking off their assault and leaving it to fly west in peace.

I’ve had countless encounter with these fascinating birds throughout my travels, and they have joined the highest ranks of my absolute favorite birds. The Common Raven is found across the Northern Hemisphere, and the species is far more numerous in the northern and western parts of our continent. I first met the giant songbirds on family camping trips out west, becoming well-acquainted with them on upstate hikes and during my time in Alaska. They are one of the most intelligent and adaptable birds in the world, showing cognitive abilities on par with primates and cetaceans. Experiments have demonstrated that ravens are capable of mastering novel challenges using basic logic rather than pure instinct, and they have complex communication systems to share information and cooperate with each other. Tool use, spatial memory, self-awareness, human facial recognition, and complex social interactions have all been noted within the corvid family. Ravens are the biggest and some of the brightest of the bunch, and their playful, curious attitudes endear them to many nature lovers. It’s always a pleasure to see them, and sightings increase in regularity as these resourceful omnivores make themselves at home in the New York City area.

On a less monochromatic note, I connected with another bird of interest during my visit to Valley Stream. Brendan had reported catching a brief glimpse a colorful traveler that heralds the coming migration madness: a Neotropical warbler. Forget the half-hardy Pines and Palms that barely retreat south in winter, or even the Black-and-whites and Black-throated Greens that can still be found in the extreme southern states. We’re talking about the long-distance migrants streaming northwards from the Caribbean and beyond, the dazzling, gem-bright birds that return en masse to delight expectant birders throughout North America. While sweeping the brushy stream where the sighting was reported, I bumped into fellow birders Bobby B., Michael, and Michele. We spent some time exploring the woods together, and we found some surprisingly good activity. Thrushes, woodpeckers, and sparrows were seen throughout the park, and I spied my first Chimney Swift of the year flying high overhead. A pair of Great Blue Herons circled northward, and Mallards descended to roost in the stream overnight. The other birders eventually left, but I continued my circuit of the area as the light faded. A series of excited chip notes got my attention, and I pished hoping to lure the calling bird out of hiding. The sounds came closer, and I spotted movement in the leaves. Yellow. Yellow and olive and black: a brilliant male Hooded Warbler. The curious bird flaunted his striking plumage as he foraged in the fading light, providing me with great looks to close the day and kick off migration. Spring has arrived.


Year List Update, April 20 – 266 Species (+ Chimney Swift, Hooded Warbler)

About timhealz

A recent graduate (Cornell '14) and lifelong explorer cataloging my thoughts and travels.
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2 Responses to Dark Wings, Dark Words

  1. Pingback: The Clash at Hempstead | Studying Life

  2. Pingback: Chit-Chat | Studying Life

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