This 1930s painting by Philip Rickman shows the last raven in Sussex (at that time) perched on Suicide’s Leap above the gaping void of Beachy Head.
Was it waiting for trade? When the chalky ledge fell down in 1937 the ravens remained for a while and were unmolested during the war, but had gone completely by 1950.
Now over the past few years thankfully they have returned. There are at least about 20 pairs breeding in the county. We see and hear them now and again but I was amazed to see one actually displaying over my home here in the woods on December 7, the earliest I have ever known.
First, a pair flew side-by-side across the sky, their long wings dipping like black oars. I probably wouldn’t have noticed them if they hadn’t made one of their 50 different calls as they talked to one another. Then the male returned, full of the joys of spring, singing a lovely squeaky song like someone (perhaps with a sore throat) attempting a high C in Allegri’s Miserere.
With that he rolled upside down, shut his wings and fell like a brick, pulling out of that corkscrew puzzle 20ft above the branches.
I expect his mate for life was properly impressed and began thinking about that pile of old twigs and dead grass, rabbit fur and string, atop the tallest fir in the forest.
If all goes well she will shuffle down onto her four blotchy green, blue, grey eggs in mid-February and the young will be off on their travels as the first swift returns from Africa in early May.
About 5,000 pairs of ravens live in the UK. Life is not so easy for them on grouse moors, but Wales and the south-west leave them in peace.
The easiest place to see them of course is in the Tower of London where they protect the Monarch and our country of Great Britain and must never be allowed to disappear because that will spell doom for us all.
They are easy to tame and understand humans, as Dickens described in Barnaby Rudge, the ‘infernal character’ Grip.
“He makes me go where he will,” said Barnaby. “He’s the master, I’m the man.”
I’d love to have one as a pet. When I was out on my Bowhill walk last week I spotted one sitting high up in a tree. When I attempted some of his vocabulary and called to him, the bird was immediately curious and answered, wondering if I could amuse him as he followed me for a few minutes, hopping through the branches and moving from tree to tree.
Birds are not robots, programmed with inbuilt reflexes as was once thought. And ravens have the most highly developed hyperstriatum in the forebrain, the largest brain size of any bird. They can count and make complex decisions. This was once common knowledge. Hugin and Munin (Thought and Memory) were Odin’s two raven companions and world news gatherers according to mythology.
They never miss a trick, these largest of all black birds. They can survive in the Arizona desert, the Arctic, the Himalayas: high and low, cold or hot. We should respect them.
They are also the garbage cleaners, getting rid of dead bodies and rubbish, cleaning up after us, and making a cheerful living out of it.
In the tower, the Raven Master, an important post since the time of Charles II, feeds them six ounces of meat a day, just that, plus a few biscuits (bird type not choccy creamy fancy ones). And see what they do for the tourist industry: famous all over the world, they draw the punters in. May they live forever.