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Pacific Flyway: For the Consideration of Birds

Posted by Craig Neff on September 02, 2011
raven close-up in Yellowstone picture
Photo credit
Photo: Craig Neff
Photo caption
A raven explores.

Road Journals Blog—The raven landed on our rental car, strutted across the hood, and stopped to stare in at us. He (or she) seemed to be angling for a mention in my Via story about bird migration. Problem is, ravens aren’t migrants, and they’re so common that few people get much thrill out of them. What’s more boring to look at than an all-black bird?

I try to look at it a different way. As a writer, I try to search for the extraordinary within the ordinary, or the ordinary within the extraordinary. Or maybe both. Years ago I read a magazine article about basketball star Julius Erving, one of the most graceful and gifted players in history. As I recall the lead of story, the writer hilariously described riding in the front passenger seat, fearing for his life, as Erving jerked and swerved his car around like a 15-year-old taking his first lesson. I loved the image: This god of the basketball realm was a klutz of a driver!

In several days of driving through Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Utah for my birding story, I saw plenty of common birds—ravens, magpies, Canada geese and others—but found myself with the time and space to consider that each species is unique and extraordinary. (What were all those Canada geese doing lined up on the edge of that long waterfall in Idaho Falls, anyway?)

The raven that stood on our hood in Wyoming, assuming he's a typical specimen, produces as many as 30 vocal sounds and is one of the most intelligent birds in the world, capable of problem-solving and living within a complex social network. (If this piques your interest, check out the book Mind of the Raven, by one of my favorite nature writers, biologist Bernd Heinrich, who as a graduate student at UCLA in the 1960s wanted to do research on ravens but was jokingly advised not to study any animal smarter than he.)

There are interesting tales behind every bird you pass as you speed down the highway. Describe as ordinary the familiar Western scrub-jay? No way. Call a raven boring? Nevermore!

Craig Neff wrote the cover story for the September/October 2011 issue of Via about the Pacific Flyway bird migration route.

This blog post was first published in September 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.