The scene on the highway’s exit ramp caught me off guard. A woman, in her sixties perhaps, with glasses and frizzy brown hair, dressed in sneakers, jeans, and a sweatshirt, stood near her parked truck, transfixed by something in the grass. Bicycling closer, I noticed the object of her attention was a bird plump as a chicken and glossy as tar. Fascinated by all wildlife and fond of aerobatic clowns in particular, I stopped on the gravel shoulder.

The raven’s left wing dragged; feather tips skimmed the grass. 

“It’s injured,” the woman offered. “I’m trying to take it to a vet.”

I asked if she needed a hand, and she went to the truck, returning with a sweatshirt. Oblivious to the streaking of traffic and pain, the bird focused on the more imminent threat. Each time the woman approached, it hopped beyond reach, tucking the hurt wing close to its body, as a person would a dislocated arm. Circling, I distracted it long enough for the woman to throw the shirt over it. She stooped, nimbly, and scooped up the raven before it could wiggle free.

We walked to her truck, and I opened the door.

“Would you like to come to the vet?” she asked. “You could hold it while I drive.”

I wedged my bike and backpack full of groceries into the truck and got in.

My accomplice, Margaret, told me how she had once trapped a raven by accident when she still lived in her village up north. She had been setting snares to catch rabbits; to her surprise a raven stepped into one of her loops. She released it and, getting stabbed, came to respect the bird’s grit and imposing bill.

Research for a school paper she had to write turned up little scientific information about corvid-human interaction, but Margaret unearthed a wealth of raven lore, knowledge rooted deeply in time, accounts and beliefs that branched far beyond North America into Siberia and Europe. In the mythology of her own people, the Gwich’in of the Yukon and northeast Alaska, Raven acted as trickster and transformer. In the course of his exploits, he often suffered violence or deformity, comparable to the bird I was cradling. In the “Distant Time,” he created not only humans, but also animals, some of which looked after people as guardian spirits. His benevolence is believed to assume the form of actual ravens that guide hunters to fresh wolf kills, moose or caribou, the bounty of which feeds entire families. Villagers in Alaska pay close attention to the living environment, and a raven rolling onto its back in midair is “dropping a package of meat,” announcing good fortune for the observant.

Colorful beaded mittens
Beaded Gwich’in mitts in the traditional floral style made by Joanne (Blackfox) Njootli from Old Crow, circa 1970. Courtesy Government of Yukon

Between raven stories nestled Margaret’s confession that she was a recovering alcoholic. She hinted at divorce, at a step or adoptive parent. Her children and grandchildren lived as far away as Tucson, and she rarely saw them. Beadworking had given her strength to pull through. “It keeps my hands and mind busy all the time,” she said. She talked about her style, how she kept seeing images and patterns in nature,
which she then translated into folk art.

When we finally reached the clinic, the raven felt heavy and warm, like a fresh bread loaf or swaddled, if damaged, foundling.

There was an entrance for dogs and another for cats, but none for birds. While a receptionist had Margaret fill out some paperwork, my arms tired and I braced them on the Formica counter. The raven squirmed again and let out a rusty squawk; I tried to maintain a good grip, mindful not to break feathers or injure it even more. Before long, a veterinarian’s assistant took it into another room. She returned to hand Margaret her soiled sweatshirt.

“I’ll have to wash this,” Margaret said calmly.

“What will become of the bird?” I asked the receptionist before we left.

“The vet will see what she can do,” she said. “We’ll check with a rehabilitation place here in town, and when the bird is ready it will be released where you found it.”

Back at the truck, Margaret volunteered to drive me home. On the way there, we talked some more. I wondered aloud if it was even legal to pick up wildlife (learning later of the required permit and setup for keeping wild animals). “Let ’em come find me, if they want,” was all she said. Before I stepped from the truck, Margaret showed me photos of her traditional yet innovative beadwork, paraphernalia of many-hued glass that she sold at church bazaars: garlands offsetting inspirational poems, necklaces culminating in bear pendants, tanned-hide discs blushing with floral designs, and wall hangings embroidered with the sign of her adopted faith. I asked for her phone number in case I ever needed a customized gift.

The next day, I rang the clinic to inquire about the patient’s condition. As the result of heavy trauma, typically caused by collisions with cars or windowpanes, the raven had broken a wing bone and dislocated a shoulder and would never fly again. Without the use of a wing, it would starve or fall to the next predator crossing its path. The vet was still trying to contact the only certified bird rehabilitator in town.

I called again the following day, a Sunday. The receptionist kept me in a limbo of Muzak laced with commercials. When she came back on the line, she informed me that the bird had been put down. I pictured the vet thrusting a syringe through the iridescent mantle into warm flesh I had held. Jet-black button eyes had lost their luster, and I wished for one less story to tell.

When I phoned Margaret at work the next morning, she had already heard about the mercy killing. “Too bad,” she said while I gripped the receiver. Regret and compassion colored her voice, an entire life’s weight resting upon those two words.


Michael Engelhard is the author of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon. An inveterate cabin dweller, he lives in Fairbanks and works as a wilderness guide. Read more of his work at michaelengelhard.com and read Ice Bear here.

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