The ravens of Pangnirtung

Published May 1, 1998

INHABITANTS OF THIS COMMUNITY have an intensive love-hate relationship with a black-plumaged, omnivorous, corvine denizen who takes up residence here between December and June each year. To the ornithologist, the transient intruder would be recognized as Corvus corax, but to the rest of us, this is the common raven. From my observations, however, I venture to assert that this bird is neither ordinary nor vulgar.

Mature ravens have a three-foot wingspan and seem capable of joining their migrating cousins on the long journey to more clement pastures. Their decision to remain in this locale may presuppose a knowledge of the availability of food and of the relatively benign attitude towards them by another non-migratory species – humans.

When I arrived in Pangnirtung in September 1991, the hamlet was involved in a substantial construction project including every household. Each home was building a large wooden receptacle with a hinged lid, intended to contain garbage for pick-up. I enquired about the necessity for these containers, particularly as the inexpensive and ubiquitous 40-gallon oil drum had previously served this purpose well. The answer I received: “The ravens!”

For a number of years, apparently, the open drums had provided a substantial smorgasbord. Plastic bags were no challenge to the conical-billed bird, which would rove from drum to drum, leaving remnants of each householder’s lifestyle scattered around the metal cylinder. One rumoured fear was that the ravens would expose secret drinkers in this otherwise dry community.

And so that easily accessible source of sustenance was denied these winged scavengers. Many people exulted in the belief that the ravens would be forced to abandon the hamlet and take their antisocial habits elsewhere. Once again, caribou meat and fish could be hung outside to dry without the need for constant surveillance by young members of families acting as mobile scarecrows.

But, though other members of the avifauna might be willing to desert human company, not so these purple-sheered, shaggy-throated, feathered vertebrates. Once they decided to cohabit, they were going to remain faithful, much to the dismay of their less than enthusiastic cohabitants.

In an Arctic community of 300 families, there is a large canine population to be fed regularly and substantially with fish, seal and caribou. To this formerly neglected food supply, the raven colony now turned its collective wits. Though this animal matter is not easily obtainable, and its acquisition is fraught with danger, it is wholly nutritional. No clutter of soft drink cans, bits of cereal boxes and assorted used tissues clinging to it.

The ravens have perfected a way of sharing in the dogs’ meals, in temperatures that can plunge to -40C. Two or three ravens sit atop the power poles that straddle the town. When someone takes food to his dog, a sentinel gives a low, hoarse, throaty cry that carries far in the clear cold air. Within moments, as many as 10 birds are on the snowy ground preparing their strategy. The dog is restrained by a length of rope or chain, the ravens remaining just outside his reach. One seems to deliberately draw the dog’s attention so that when the dog darts in that direction, three or four birds will quickly flutter in to try to drag off the caribou leg or some smaller morsel. Their patience frequently pays off, and a clatter of ravens will distribute the spoil a couple of metres away from the hungry dog.

In more heroic times, the arctic raven would be an object of myth. Today, Corvus corax is merely a feature of reality. Rev. Roy Bowkett is principal of the Arthur Turner Training School, Pangnirtung, NWT.


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