A Hard Lesson to Learn

This morning, things are quiet on our street. These past few weeks, it hasn’t been so.

Caw, caw, caw, caw, caw!
A raven sits in the plum tree in front of our house, ferociously scolding anyone and everyone who ventures by: cats, dogs, pedestrians, other birds. Nothing escapes her notice; no one escapes her tongue.

“Why’s it so noisy?” asks our son.

“It’s probably a mommy raven, trying to protect her nest”.


“Well, don’t we do what we can to protect you?”


This suffices for now. His just-shy-of-five-year-old curiosity momentarily satisfied, our son goes back to his Playmobil pirates and Legos. Later that evening, we hear him making cawing noises with one of the parrots from his pirate set.

Caw, caw, stay away! Leave my nest alone! Caw!

It’s an expressionistic rendition, to be sure – but it works. We leave him to his play.

Caw, caw, caw, caw, caw!
A week later, we’re winding down after a busy Friday of preparing for our son’s birthday party. His grandmother has come up from Portland, bringing with her his cousin. Three years older and big for his age, he towers over our son as they sit together on our couch listening to bedtime stories.

Tonight, the scolding is different. Harsher, more urgent, it comes from our backyard. I go out on our back deck. The evening sky is still bright – the joys of May in the northern latitudes of Seattle – and I hear crashing in the trees a couple of yards over. The raven flies at the trees, cawing, crowing, berating. Then I see them: two fat raccoons, trying hard to get away from their own personal harpy. They bounce along, crashing from branch to branch, scrambling over fences, eager to escape the bird’s wrath. Their hurried rush is in vain. She is on them, at them, harassing them at every turn.

“Boys! Come quick!” I shout. Pajama feet shuffle quickly out to the deck. “What? What?” they want to know.

I crouch down and point to the brush that runs along the fences that separate the tiny back yards in our neighborhood. The raccoons come bounding through the branches right where I’m pointing. Thinking themselves momentarily safe, they slow down to a fat, wobbly jog. They pad along the fence line, taking a breather as they cross the open yard on the other side of our chainlink fence.

They are so wrong.

The raven asks for no quarter, and gives none in return. The raccoons flatten their ears and pick up the pace again, ducking their heads as the raven swoops in again and again. Hunched forward to avoid her attacks, they look absolutely ridiculous with their bushy tails lying as flat behind them as they can manage. They crash off again, darting back into the brush.

The show over, the two boys go back inside. “Takes a trickster to know a trickster…” I half-mutter as I follow them in.

Caw, caw, caw, caw, caw!
We are having our front steps repaired. The man we’ve hired is an excellent craftsman from Russia. I can’t tell if it’s his accent or what, but he has the driest sense of humor I’ve ever encountered. The first evening of the job, he was cleaning up as I walked up the sidewalk.

“I was not expecting orchestra.” He points at the raven. “For eight hours, it has been brack-brack-brack.” He makes opening and closing motions with his hand, like a bird’s beak. “I go now. You have earplugs for tomorrow? Yes?” It is a joke without a trace of a smile, like summer lightning, flickering across the sky without thunder. If you aren’t paying attention, you’ll miss it, or write it off as a trick of perception.

The next morning, there is no doubt when our carpenter arrives.

“Ah, good. I see my helper is already here.” he says, setting down his tools. By the time he finishes the job, he’s complained about the raven so much that I suspect we’re going to be charged a raven premium. It couldn’t have been that bad – he tells us to call him when the rest of our steps need to be replaced. “You paint this, yes? Three, four coats of paint. And primer. Otherwise… pfffbt.” He mimes something caving in.

Yes. We paint this.

Caw, caw, caw, caw, caw!
The raw cedar and oak of the newly-repaired steps have been glaring accusingly at me every time I walked up the front walk this week. Yes. We paint this. Next weekend.

Right now though, it is time for coffee and the Saturday paper.

I open the door, and immediately see what the ruckus of the past several weeks has been about: a fledgling raven is sitting on our front porch. Mom (for that is how we’ve come to think of the adult, even before seeing this baby) dials it all the way up to eleven, daring me to harm her offspring. I call for our son to come to the door, and close it so we’ll mostly be out of sight of the mother.

“What is it, dad?”

I crouch down to be at his height and point through the crack at the baby. “Look – that’s what she’s been fussing about all week…” It sits there, not making a sound, its bright eyes blinking at us. We watch one another for a while – the only sounds made are the occasional car swooshing by on its way to Lake Union, and Mom’s incessant warnings.

“Why’s it on our porch?”

“She pushed it out of the nest.”

“Why’d she do that?”

“That’s how they teach them to fly… When they think their babies are ready, they push them out.”

“How’s it going to get back to the nest?”

“It’s going to have to fly there.”

“What happens if it can’t?”

“Well, unfortunately it’ll probably get hit by a car or get eaten by a cat.”


I can hear the wheels turning as he processes that one.

“Let’s go back to breakfast” he says. We close the door.

Caw, caw, caw, caw!

Up the block, a Sunday morning jogger feels Mom’s wrath. Up the block? We can only guess that the baby is making some progress.

That evening, we hear from one of our neighbors that the baby has an injured wing and that they tried to feed it but couldn’t. We can still hear Mom hovering nearby as night falls.

Caw, caw, caw, caw!

I’m taking some trash out this morning when I see the baby lying in the gutter.

I go inside and come back with a trash bag. Instantly, I become the focus of Mom’s rage, the tempo and pitch of her crowing rising the closer I get to her baby.

It surprises me with its softness, which I can feel through the trash bag. Its baby feathers are more like inky down than the sharp, bristly quills I had expected. Its head lolls about, its eyes closed. There is a huge bare patch on the underside of one wing – probably the original injury. Its legs are red with raw, exposed flesh – these are new.

Mom dives at my head, and takes a perch on the telephone lines overhead, still screaming at me. Sorry, Mom. I’m not the predator here…

It probably got hit by a car, or got run over by someone who didn’t realize it had taken shelter under their tires. I think back to us watching it on our porch. It had been so quiet, sitting, blinking at us, not making a sound. Good when hiding from predators. Not so good with people or cars.

It sags limply in my hands as I cradle it in the trash bag. It’s bigger than I thought it would be – about a third the size of an adult. I look for any hint of life: a blink, a twitch, a shallow breath.

Nothing. It’s still warm, but not as warm as a live bird. One of its legs juts out stiffly, awkwardly, a grotesque counterbalance to the dangling head and beak. Raw pinkish-red skin shows in sharp contrast to the fluffy black feathers, broken white ends of pinfeathers clinging to the edges of wounds. Specks of brown and white bird shit fleck its feathers.

Mom still screams at me, futilely.

Sorry Mom.

She swoops at my head again as I get up and walk to our trashcans. She follows me until I step through the gates at the bottom of our driveway and she sits on our neighbor’s roof, cawing still, but not coming closer.

I give the baby one last exam, hoping against hope for a sign that it is alive. I get what I expect: nothing. The body is still warm, but cooling. I bundle it up in the bag, tying it tight. We’re supposed to get warm weather this week…

Mom keeps her distance as I return to our front porch empty-handed. She is still crying out her warnings, her curses; black avian imprecations flying as her baby never will.

Sorry Mom.

She flies away, and everything is still.

Back inside our house, it is quiet. I wash my hands and listen – the contrast is striking. Mom was louder than I’d heard her before as I disposed of her baby.

I can’t say I blame her. Maybe it’s just a trick of my ears, but after weeks of crowing and cawing, the silence is overwhelming

I wonder if our son will notice.

I wonder what questions he’ll ask if he does.

As I dry my hands, I know what the questions will be.

I don’t know what the answers are, though.