Bird for the ages The raven: Revered, feared and despised, the raven's place in history stretches from cave-man days to a 1940s rhythm and blues band and, now, to Baltimore 1996.

March 30, 1996|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF Sun research librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

Maybe it's the evocative, iridescent black and purple feathers. Or its tendency in earlier times closely to track wandering tribes of humans, who always could be counted on to discard a tasty morsel.

Whether for appearance or familiarity, the raven -- a giant, ill-mannered cousin of the crow -- has a long and prominent role in culture, from Viking theology to an influential rhythm and blues band in the 1940s. Raven images have been found painted on grottos in Europe and etched into bone tools of paleolithic men.

Today the prototypical blackbird suffers from what any good spin doctor could diagnose as a serious image problem. Dirty. Brooding. Noisy. Road-kill pecking.

But it wasn't always that way. And it's not accurate. At least the first two, insists Bill Trautman, a raven- handling ranger with the state Forest and Park Service who considers the birds beautiful, bright and honorable.

"You can see their intelligence just by how they look around. A hawk or owl will look right through you, but a raven is always looking around. And they get into everything," he said.

They can live for 25 years, and inhabit the same nest, year-round, with the same partner, all their adult lives. They are fiercely protective of their young.

Yes, they pick apart road kill and other dead animals. But they are well-armed with powerful beaks and sharp claws and can take out a living mouse or other prey when the opportunity arises (the word raven comes from the Middle English "ravin," to plunder or prey).

They are not to be trifled with: a raven can be 27 inches from beak to tail, and span more than four feet between wing tips.

They were once common throughout Maryland, but the destruction of the large forested areas they favor has confined them to the state's westernmost four counties.

It's not that they dislike humans; in fact, they tended to stay close to people before people began building streets, plowing farms and doing other things that drove away animals the birds )) feasted on, said Dave Brinker, a wildlife ecologist and ornithologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

"They used to follow Indian tribes or buffalo herds. They also followed armies, which I think led to a lot of the legends," Brinker said.

Among Native Americans, ravens had a reputation for mischief and craftiness, swooping in and stealing food. But there was a lot of respect too, and ravens were often honored at the top of totem poles as gods, credited by some tribes with creating the earth, moon, sun -- even people.

Viking warriors considered the raven a battle bird. William the Conqueror carried a sacred raven standard, according to Bernd Heinrich's ode to ravens, "Ravens in Winter" (Random, 1991).

In London, their population grew to nuisance proportions after the fire of 1666, when they gorged on the dead. The king launched an extermination program -- but only after ordering a small flock be kept at the Tower of London. A Yeoman Raven Master still tends a flock at the tower, according to Heinrich.

Edgar Allan Poe used the bird's menacing appearance and traditional association with fate as a metaphor in his poem "The Raven." Considered a classic of American literature, the poem details a man's painful realization that his dead lover, and the happy days they shared, will not return.

Poe, who lived in Baltimore for four years as an aspiring writer, happened to be passing through town in 1849 on his way to New York when he fell into a stupor of mysterious origin and died. He is buried at Westminster Churchyard.

"I'm sure he's in his grave right now with his thumb up," said Jeff Jerome, curator of Baltimore's Poe House and Museum at 203 North Amity.

As a struggling, free-lance writer, Poe was often seeking publicity to sell his works and would be delighted to see himself immortalized by the marketing machine that is the NFL, Jerome said.

Although he cast the bird as a dark and somewhat sinister figure, Poe gave ravens a major boost in popular culture that finally hit pay dirt yesterday.

At the University of Virginia, where Poe attended classes for a semester before his stepfather learned of the 17-year-old's chronic gambling and cut off his money, Poe's name is everywhere.

There is a Poe Professorship in the English Department, a Poe Room at the student union. Honored students, alumni and faculty have, since 1904, been given membership in the Raven Society.

A rhythm and blues band from New York called The Ravens was formed in 1945 and is considered an originator of the doo-wop genre. Among The Ravens' hits: top-selling versions of "Old Man River" and "White Christmas."

Many years later a Baltimore band called Ravyns briefly struck it big with a few hits, including "Raised on Radio," which was used on the soundtrack of the 1982 movie "Fast Times at Ridgemont High."

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