Jason of Air

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An excerpt from Kindred Spirits

Jason is the name I gave to a young raven whom I presumed to be male, based upon the crowd of bachelor buddies he hung out with, and Jason was the king of the water bowl under the pine tree in my front garden.

I had often watched Jason take flight from a branch in his pine tree, moving his wings to gain elevation until he became that wide V shape that is the hieroglyph for a soaring bird, way up in the distant thin sky. Like all ravens, he was able to powerfully perform the mechanical kind of flight that uses the pumping of his own muscles and blood; but, like eagles and hawks, he was also able to catch drafts and to soar. I’d seen him catch a draft and ride it, sometimes tumbling upside down mid-flight, or drop spiraling down and then pulling up in an impossible lift. He looked to be playing in the most carefree way imaginable, soaring on thin air, and then shouting “Look Ma, I’m faaaaaaallllling! Not really.” Yes, I imagined it would be great fun, and also a test of skill, thrilling and satisfying all at once. But can I really imagine what it is like to be a creature made for that performance?

An adult raven is about two feet long, from beak to the last nth of tail feather, and he has a wingspan of about four feet. Ravens in California average 1.72 pounds in total weight. Their twenty seven and a half ounces in imaginary distribution along their longest axis, the wing span, averages out to a bit more than a third of an ounce per inch of length. My ounces (whose total shall not distract the reader) distributed along my longest axis, heel of foot to top of head, average out to about three pounds per inch of length. I am bound to the earth by gravity, while the raven is unimaginably light on his wings. How can he possibly manage this feat of physiology, being nearly as light as air, and assembled for living high off the ground?

How can he be smart like me, with his little brain the size of a walnut? My primate brain comes in at somewhere between two and three pounds. I grew up with the common assumption that my big brain made me smarter, but I now know that scientific knowledge of his raven brain has challenged that notion. It turns out that he packs twice the number of neurons into his forebrain, the brain region associated with executive function, that I pack into mine. His cerebral closet is better organized, so he can fit more in a smaller cranial space.

But still I ask: how can he be full of feeling like me, relishing in play, as do I, and also be someone for whom mastery of a challenge is enormously satisfying, as it is for me? How can he recognize these features in someone of another species (me), as he surely does recognize my vocal play when I imitate his utterances, then vary them with increases in the number of repetitions, to which he responds in like but with a single variation for me to hear and imitate, then vary: we do go on and on this way, sometimes at length. It surprises no hearing person to know that ravens are vocal animals, but it surprises many to know that they belong to the order of oscines, the songbirds, named for their exquisite level of control of the syrinx, the vocal apparatus for making a range of vocalizations. While few would describe the cawing of crows as songlike, anyone who has observed ravens knows that they have different forms of vocalization for different purposes, from the loud caws used to draw attention to food to the guttural utterances, the clacks and rumbles of private conversation between mated pairs.

I once came upon a raven alone in a field, walking around on his bipedal ground apparatus, looking—and sounding—to me distinctly like a person talking to himself. I decided to test my impression by responding to him in my best raven vocal likeness. It was perhaps the most comical moment I have shared with a wild animal. He registered startled surprise raven-wise, raising up and cocking his head, taking a few hops in different directions, looking this way and that for the source of the intrusion into his solitary reverie.

How indeed can we share all this while living in such different bodies, and such different environments—us humans earth-bound, ravens of air?