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Thursday, 05 January 2012 03:55

The playful raven is a Smoky Mountain favorite

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Along with plants like red spruce, Fraser fir, yellow birch, mountain maple, mountain ash, Canada Mayflower, witch-hobble, and bluebead lily, as well as animals such as the northern flying squirrels, black-capped chickadees, winter wrens, and northern water shrews, ravens are for biologists one of the “indicator” species for the sub-alpine boreal forest that extends down the spine of the southern Blue Ridge province into southwest Virginia, east Tennessee, western North Carolina, north Georgia, and the far northwest corner of South Carolina.

Ravens resemble their cousins the crows. But they are much larger, having a wingspan that can be almost four feet. Their shaggy appearance, heavy bills, and wedge-shaped tails also distinguish them from crows. In flight they don’t “flap-flap-flap” like crows. Their wing beats are deliberately graceful. Crows “caw-caw-caw” … ravens “cronk! ... cronk! … cronk!”

Ornithologist Fred Alsop, in his Birds of the Smokies (1991),” observed that “more than any other bird I know, ravens seem to delight in their abilities of flight. I have watched them fall and tumble in the skies, stooping on one another, or on other large soaring birds, executing barrel rolls and loop-the-loops as if for the pure joy of it.  It is the living symbol of the wilderness, frequenting the craggy cliffs and the silent solitude of the spruce-fir forests.”

Alsop also noted that ravens “may occasionally be found in the lower elevations in winter.” In recent years there have been ravens in and around Bryson City in some numbers during the fall and winter months.

New England ornithologist William Brewster came south in the mid-1880s looking for ravens as part of the proof that common “northern species” are also resident during the breeding season in the higher elevations of the southern mountains.

In Our Southern Highlanders (1913), longtime Smokies resident Horace Kephart noted that, “Of animal life in the mountains I was most entertained by the raven. This extraordinary bird was the first creature Noah liberated from the ark—he must have known, even at that early period of nature study, that it was the most sagacious of all winged things. Or perhaps Noah and the raven did not get on well together and he rid himself of the pest at first opportunity. Doubtless there could have been no peace aboard a craft that harbored so inquisitive and talkative a fowl. Anyway, the wild raven has been superlatively shy of man ever since the flood. Probably there is no place south of Labrador where our raven  . . . is seen so often as in the Smokies; and yet, even here, a man may haunt the tops for weeks without sight or sound of the ebon mystery—then, for a few days, they will be common. On the southeast side of the Locust Ridge, opposite Huggins Hell, between Bone Valley and the main fork of Hazel Creek, there is a ‘Raven’s Cliff’ where they winter and breed, using the same nests year after year. Occasionally one is trapped, with bloody groundhog for bait; but I have yet to meet a man who has succeeded in shooting one. If the raven’s body be elusive his tongue assuredly is not. No other animal save man has anything like his vocal range. The raven croaks, clucks, caws, chuckles, squalls, pleads, “pooh-poohs,” grunts, barks, mimics small birds, hectors, cajoles—yes, pulls a cork, whets a scythe, files a saw—with his throat. As is well known, ravens can be taught human speech, like parrots; and I am told they show the same preference for bad words—which, I think, is quite in character with their reputation as thieves and butchers. However, I may be prejudiced, seeing that the raven’s favorite dainties for his menu are the eyes of living fawns and lambs.”

In his The Mountain at the End of the Trail: A History of Whiteside Mountain (1994), Highlands resident and environmentalist Robert (Bob) Zahner observed that he and his wife, Glenda, also considered ravens — “those noisy clowns – to be their favorite birds: “Glenda and I have several raven-watching overlooks on the mountain and at the Courthouse. We discovered many years ago that a sure way to attract a couple of ravens is to sit in a very exposed spot and begin our lunch. Soon a whiff of something enticing to eat reaches one of these birds cruising along in the neighborhood, and we hears its discordant call, or croaking (more like a hoarse goose honking), far away over the ridge before we see the raven itself. Soon its mate, and sometimes its entire family, joins it in an amazing acrobatic display one would not think possible of such huge birds… It is a family joke with us that the surest way to attract a raven is to bring along sardines for lunch, for apparently a raven can sniff out a sardine from miles away. Once as we demonstrated this phenomenon to a guest, ten seconds after the sardine can was popped open, not one raven, but a dozen appeared as if by magic cavorting in the sky above us!”

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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