I have just had lunch with a raven. In this nature-writing life, it’s the kind of thing that happens when you take your lunch for a walk.
And taking lunch for a walk (as opposed to, say, half an hour between writing shifts with a plate of soup and a crossword) is always easy to justify to yourself.
This is even if it consumes three midday hours because you end up sharing it with a raven and lunch has just served you up something quite unforeseen to write about – and that is the nature of the job, after all.
The first proper snow had been piling in on the mountains for several days and once the sun had got to work on a hard frost, I decided the day deserved better than soup and a crossword. I would take lunch for a walk where I could see the mountains.
My nearest mountain-watching place of choice is a low ridge, a topographical no-man’s-land between Lowlands and Highlands.
It is mostly forested but I know a way through that puts snowy, sunlit mountains at the far end of every gap in the trees. And given that the natives include pine martens, foxes, red squirrels, buzzards, crossbills, siskins, jays and (the new kids on the block) nuthatches, plus red and roe deer, there was always the chance that something would show up to prolong lunch.
What showed up was the raven.
A wide open area just below the ridge is recovering after felling operations. Not only have the fellers left stands of pine and larch and still-standing deadwood, they have also opened up an old footpath that tiptoes discreetly away from the main forest track.
A mile along the path, I stopped on a still and sunny acre on top of the ridge, sat on a tree stump and unpacked lunch. Then I heard the raven.
The voice was a soft, hoarse contralto, well-short of the characteristic, all-out, far-carrying “kruuk!” and I had trouble finding the source. But then it moved to a broken branch on a dead tree about a quarter of a mile away and I found it as it fussily adjusted its stance.
Then it called again.
Ravens are among the easier birds to mimic. They are also among the most eager call-and-response enthusiasts. So I called back while I watched through binoculars and saw its head turn in my direction.
Soon we were chatting away in variations on a theme of “koo”, “kroo”, kroo-kroo” and an occasional lower-pitched “kaak”, which I found trickier to emulate.
Years ago, I met a university biologist on the Canadian side of the border with Alaska and he told me about ravens.
He said a colleague had studied a group of them for many years and concluded they have the widest vocabulary in all nature after human beings.
He also found every bird had one unique call that no other bird used. But when one bird died, all the others flew around for days using the unique call of the missing birds, as if they were looking for it, a search party.
Armed with this knowledge, I often wonder when I talk back to ravens whether they have any idea what I’m saying. Obviously, I have no idea what I’m saying.
The raven on the dead tree flew suddenly, disappearing behind a screen of spruces. I turned back to my lunch but seconds later I heard the rasp of wingbeats behind my back and spun round to see the raven swerve away from a flight path which would have come very low over my head.
It perched again on the top of a bare larch, this time about 150 yards away. The conversation resumed and this time, the raven’s vocabulary was notably more varied.
But it was suddenly restless and flew again, to a branch on a larch which had been blown over but had snagged among its neighbours at an angle of about 60 degrees. It was now no more than 50 yards away.
Again, the conversation resumed. How long all this might have lasted I will never know, because suddenly the far-off voice of a second raven sounded and everything changed.
It arrived in a two-way chorus of non-stop raven voices and perched in a nearby larch. But the first raven flew again and my guess is that this time it perched where it could watch us both at once.
I have no idea, of course, whether both ravens were including me in the conversation (for I continued to call). I do know that they were holding a conversation and I was not.
I left them to it. As I passed close to the first raven’s tree I waved an arm and called loudly, a gesture that said, “until the next time and thanks for your company”.
I’m pretty sure it got the message.