Britain’s ravens are doing very nicely. Numbers have increased by 45 per cent since 1995, Joe Shute informs us, and we can now lay claim to more than 12,000 breeding pairs. As the figures soar, so does the cultural interest, and Shute adds to the literature with the usual blend of fascination and rhapsody. We have always, Shute writes, ‘attempted to explain ourselves through this soulful bird’ (whatever ‘soulful’ is supposed to mean in an avian context), and the raven is the reliable ‘bellwether for the fortunes of our nation’. Shute wonders what this ‘bird of augury’ sees ‘for our own dark times’.
Well, not too much, I shouldn’t have thought. Ravens, like all the corvids, are extremely intelligent – a fact ably explored in Shute’s book – but in the larger scheme of things they remain, well, bird-brained. It seems odd to ask ‘what depth of memory lies in those obsidian eyes?’. This isn’t to say that humanity’s ability to inscribe the raven with meaning should be dismissed: it is a cultural and anthropological topic well worth exploring, and Shute has much of value to say about how the bird has come to embody ‘our best and worst impulses’ and to symbolise ‘our deepest fears’. He also captures our ambivalent attitude towards ravens (a trope that permeates the mythology surrounding the bird): sometimes it is a sign of hope, sometimes the harbinger of death.
The book is at its best, however, when it abandons the epic themes and simply treats ravens as unusually interesting birds. Shute is charmed by the raven’s ‘soaring aerial displays’ and declares that ‘to say they utter mere “kronks” is a fabulously underwhelming description of a raven’s kaleidoscopic range.’ Quite right too.
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