Famous raven from Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge

A raven.
A raven.

MY REMARKS last week on ravens has prompted me to re-read Dickens. Perhaps the most famous raven of all was Grip, in Barnaby Rudge.

‘I’m a Devil. I’m a Polly. I’m a kettle. I’m a Protestant. No Popery’ croaked Grip to his master. ‘Never say die. Bow wow wow. Keep up your spirits. Halloa. We’ll all have tea’.

‘Grip conducted himself in a thoughtful, deep, and mysterious manner’. He played by himself in the stables pretending to hide treasures under the straw. If he caught anyone watching this game he would look vacantly up into the sky, returning to whisper secrets when alone.

Soon he wanted company again and would entice Barnaby into conversation by laying his head on the ground, looking at his master sideways, and when he had got that attention jumping upwards and flapping his wings and barking.

He would then make an extraordinary noise like the sudden popping of a champagne cork. You can often hear this peculiar noise yourself with ravens today. Just how they do this I do not know but it seems vocal, not pneumatic.

Some bird books record the noise simply as a ‘metallic tok’. Ravens can also toot and then remind me of Mr Toad in his motor. Back in the late winter I listened to a raven singing away to itself at the top of a large fir tree near the Sussex/Hampshire border. It croaked quietly and privately to itself. Then it chuckled and squeaked and once or twice whistled like a little blackbird. It clucked like a chicken, and said tut-tut several times. Then it pulled the cork and flew away.

I once travelled through the Pamire mountains of Afghanistan and saw occasional ravens watching us. Nothing to the experience of an English traveller in 1875.

However, Dr Henderson reported several ravens following his camp, even living in, together with chickens which laid the expedition’s eggs. ‘They could be relied upon to steal any food left lying around’ he wrote.

‘They would even upset milk pots and try to sup the contents. At the greatest altitudes and through the driest deserts half a dozen ravens were always with us. Some even travelled the whole way from Leh to the city of Yarkand.’

According to my world atlas that is a distance of 290 miles from Kashmir over the Karakorams down into Sikiang Province. Did they ever find their way back? Easily, I should think. Birds think nothing of vast distances.

In 1929 Dr Konrad Lorenz, world authority on animal behaviour reared a family of orphaned ravens which thought he was mother.

One survivor whose name was Roah used to love going for bicycle rides with Lorenz, yapping like a spaniel when he saw the bike and waiting along their usual path, wondering why ‘mother’ didn’t fly up into the sky too. It even found Lorenz at a distance of six miles when he had escaped the pet to go sailing on the Danube instead of cycling.

Richard Williamson