Birds of Prey on Christmas Day

It snowed all night. By dawn on Christmas, there was a good ten inches to shovel from the driveway and sidewalks. It was around 15 degrees and still snowing lightly. Perfect for snowshoeing.

Mid-afternoon I drove a few miles to an old mining trail. The Subaru fishtailed in the deep snow to a stop a couple yards off the paved road, off far enough to not hinder other traffic, but not so far I couldn't get back on it with a little luck. I had a shovel and could dig out if the county snow plow came by and walled me off, but likely the driver would let the road go until the next day when people had to go back to work. Hopefully he was home with his family, sipping eggnog.

When I got out of the car and cleared a spot to cinch on my snow shoes, I heard ravens cawing in the distance somewhere up the hill. A few were flying in circles, looking like grey ghosts in the snow. I had run on paved road a couple days earlier and heard lots of ravens then too. Usually it is pretty quiet up there in the winter, with few birds to be found. Something unusual was going on.

I remembered reading a very entertaining and informative book by biologist Bernd Heinrich entitled "Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds." After reading this book, you never think of corvids (the crow family, of which ravens are the largest) the same way again. These birds are very smart and able to communicate information, emotions and even intentions. They have developed very sophisticated relationships with other predators and raptors, who make the kills from which they feed. Once while hiking in Grand Teton National Park, my wife and I saw two coyotes traipsing through a meadow, followed ten yards above and behind by two ravens, looping back and forth. As the coyotes passed out of view, the ravens disappeared with them.

I got my poles, got Zorro (my dog) leashed and clipped to a belt around my waist, locked the car, and we headed up. The trail was perfect. No one had been up since the heavy snow had come. Here and there were the dimpled patterns of old deer or elk tracks, but no tire tracks, no footprints.

The sound of the ravens got steadily louder as I trudged up the first of several climbs on this trail. When as I got to the top, I saw a few ravens above on a juniper. They were really carrying on. Zorro had his nose lifted to smell the air and pulled in the direction of the cawing. I clacked my snowshoes together to knock off a clump of snow under my heel and suddenly the sky blossomed with ravens, rising up and swirling in every direction against the grey sky. I couldn't count them fast enough. Then I realized one of the birds flying well above me was a bald eagle. I watched it sail away, then as turned back another bald eagle soared by in the direction of the first. Usually I spotted eagles in the barren cottonwoods along the creek in the valley below, not up there. Very strange.

A lot of ravens stayed perched in the trees up on the hillside forty yards away. I was curious what had generated such a gathering. Zorro pulled hard in their direction. He smelled something. We followed a unpacked trail that broke off the main trail and curved into an arroyo on the hillside.

As we rounded the bend, we stopped in our tracks. A huge golden eagle stood atop the bloody carcass of a cow elk, ripping meat from the ribcage. The carcass lay in a ten foot circle of packed snow, littered with bits of red flesh and entrails. The eagle was so absorbed in feeding that it didn't notice us. But after fifteen seconds it saw us. It stared at us, as if trying to decide if it was willing to surrender the carcass.

Then it panicked. Flapping bent wings, it tried unsuccessfully to run up the hill, slipping and flopping in the deep snow. Then it ran back our direction on the firm snowpack, opened its wings a full six or seven feet, and hopping, gradually got airborne. It flew so close to my head that I had to duck to the side, like George Bush dodging the shoe thrown by the Iraqi journalist. Its fierce yellow eyes glanced at me as it passed a couple feet over my head and sailed away.

I looked around. All of a sudden it was quiet. Every bird was gone. It was just me and Zorro. The elk had been completely eviscerated. All the meat had been picked off the ribs and spine, though most of the neck and head were still intact. The skin was in a pile next to the carcass. Missing were the front and hindquarters. I wondered if a poacher had killed this animal just before the heavy snow came.

When I got back to the house after our trek, I excitedly told my wife about what I saw. I recalled a book we both enjoyed in college: "The Teachings of Don Juan" by Carlos Castenda.He claimed to have spent time with a Yaqui shaman in northern Mexico and learned how to, among other things, turn himself into a crow. I felt there was something mystical about seeing all those birds of prey in one place at one time. Half joking (half not) I told her that I wondered if these birds were trying to tell me something, if they were shamans.

She looked at me skeptically, then said, "Probably not. It's winter. Those birds are hungry. There was something to eat."

Maybe so. But either way, to me it was a Christmas miracle.

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