Country diary: riveting ravens in silhouette

Buxton, Derbyshire: The deep black of their outline was a true measure of this strangely undark night

Lightwood is well used by dog walkers and seldom a place you can have all to yourself until well after dusk. During the recent snow, however, with all its glorious ambient glow, the witching hour – when the darkness, solitude and arrival of Lightwood’s roosting ravens converge – was put back to an even later slot.

At 5pm there was still a residual apricot layer on the western horizon and from the snow across the woodland floor emanated an almost pink-white light. It had the strength to reveal each tree as a chiselled silhouette and even the boot- and paw-impressed paths were threads of grey in the wider blanket.

The two ravens cleaved the valley and passed at low elevation, almost as if to avoid any projection of their flight outlines upon the starlit inky blue overhead. The contact calls were soft, and mingled soon with the relentless drawn-out churn of Hogshaw Brook, but I could hear the shuffling sounds of the birds as they settled into the pine canopy close to their nest tree.

I imagined their day in this whitened landscape. Snow, of course, is no enemy to ravens. Their survival skills kit them out even for the high Arctic, where they routinely draw up fishing lines from unattended ice holes to steal the catch. The kills made by other predators – foxes or eagles – supply them with rich pickings. Arctic wolf cubs emerge blinking into a world of perpetual daylight and the unfailing attentiveness of black birds.

One study indicated that wolves lost up to 20kg of meat a day to ravens, but the theft declines when they operate in packs and John Marzluff (In the Company of Crows and Ravens) suggests that ravens may have been instrumental in shaping the highly sociable lifestyles of all wolves.

I adjusted my position to watch the roosting birds, and if their hunched silhouettes offered no profound insights, at least the deep black of their outline was a true measure of this strangely undark night. The company of ravens also yielded this warming thought in a frozen land: such is their breeding season that the nest above my head could be lined with brown-scribbled blue eggs in just a few weeks.

• This article was amended on 15 December 2020 to correct the location from Buxton, Norfolk to Buxton, Derbyshire.


Mark Cocker

The GuardianTramp

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