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Exploring the San Juan Islands: Embracing the Wild with Raven

Positioned in front of a sizable window that gazes out to the northeast, my source of inspiration overlooks a landscape adorned with nearby madrones and conifers that gradually yield to a panoramic spectacle of sunrises, ridges of numerous islands intermittently bathed in sunlight or veiled in clouds, the bone-white ascent of the moon, and the grandeur of Mt. Baker. One particular winter morning unfolded in a cloak of cloud-shrouded tranquility at our secluded abode on Mt. Dallas. The enveloping embrace of thick fog exudes a soothing, almost enchanting quality akin to a painting reminiscent of the Sung Dynasty in ancient China.

The initial guttural cries appear to emanate from every direction and no direction simultaneously, heralding the departure of our local assembly of ravens as they take flight from their lofty roost tree near the house, vanishing into the misty gray expanse. These glossy black avians commence their quest for sustenance with an array of vocalizations as they glide towards the farmlands below. On other occasions, mornings beckon them to engage in playful antics as they soar skyward on gusty winds or thermal updrafts. Their acrobatic barrel rolls, a behavior seldom observed among other avian species, seem to lack a discernible purpose. Diverse calls, challenging to replicate, serve as a constant reminder of their ubiquitous presence; they ascend in spirals into the distance with rhythmic wing beats akin to swimming through the air, then ascend alongside eagles or circling vultures, their vocalizations echoing over vast distances. Stealth does not align with the raven’s nature.

For more than six decades, my life has been enriched by encounters with common ravens in various habitats across the mountainous regions of the western United States – from the vibrant cliffs of New Mexico and Arizona to the barren northern slopes of Alaska. Their aerial prowess, inventive vocal expressions, inquisitiveness, learned behaviors, and resilient survival instincts never fail to captivate my interest. Highly adaptable, common ravens thrive in environments ranging from deserts to tundras on every continent except Antarctica, rendering them one of the most widespread and conspicuous creatures on the planet. They have even been spotted amidst the snowy expanse of the Denali massif, scavenging around climbing camps in the thin, oxygen-depleted air high above their natural habitat.

In the wild, ravens typically reside in small, scattered family units, yet they are drawn to landfills and areas of human habitation due to the abundance of resources, particularly during the winter months. In my view, such associations detract from their intrinsic essence. Large congregations of ravens pillaging dumpsters, taunting tethered dogs, pilfering golf balls or windshield wipers, and splattering unsecured truck beds in Fairbanks do not evoke the same admiration as observing modest clans thriving in the untamed expanses of Alaska. Regardless of your location, no matter how remote the wilderness may seem, they inevitably materialize, driven by curiosity and the prospect of a culinary reward.

I hold them in high regard as one of my preferred creatures. The profound blackness of their plumage remains an evolutionary enigma. While I have encountered two gray ravens in their natural habitat, an albino specimen has never crossed my path. They have alerted me during subsistence hunting endeavors, particularly while pursuing caribou in the undulating tundra uplands on multiple occasions. I consistently express my enduring respect by rewarding them, whether in the field or at home, with offal from butchering or discarded fish as a token of appreciation. Their vivacious existence rejuvenates me daily and serves as a tether to the natural world, particularly in this environment where the array of terrestrial fauna is notably diminished.