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A Guide’s Notes – Settling Ancient Disputes

October 25, 2015 | Heather Chrystie

Today’s wildlife highlight reminded me of an old First Nations story, that explains the origins of a feud between the snowy owl and the raven.

The story goes that both birds started out pure, shining white like the snow, but the smart raven suggested to the vain owl that they should paint one another to become more beautiful.  The owl agreed, and so the raven set to painting a beautiful speckled pattern on the plumage of the owl.  The owl was so pleased with the result that he admired himself for a while before in turn painting an elaborate pattern on the raven.  However, when the owl finished he realized that he’d made the raven more beautiful than he himself was.  In disgust, he quickly tipped the whole bucket of paint over the unsuspecting raven, leaving him as black as pitch, and causing much chagrin on the side of the raven.

Today on the tundra near Churchill Manitoba it was the charismatic snowy owl, standing on the bare ground, who drew our attention.  Snowy owls are beautiful, haughty creatures and this one was standing tall and proud, alert and watching.  As we observed, the owl swiveled his head with that superb nonchalance that owls have for contortionism, and shuffled his feet around to face the other way too.  Why?  The answer was quickly apparent as a huge raven promptly swept down and alighted on the ground right beside the owl, glossy black feathers contrasting sharply with speckled white plumage.

The raven was clearly anticipating stealing some scraps of food from the owl, maybe settling that ancient grudge, but the owl in turn was having none of Corvid corax’s impertinence.  They strutted around each other interspersing spectacular aloofness with occasional cuffing of powerful wings, the owl hissing with a menace that certainly would have sent me running, but caused no perceptible concern to the raven.

This unforced interaction between two spectacular birds was a special sighting that awoke our minds with curiosity and awe, and kept us entranced for quite some time.  We saw plenty of polar bears today too, but today our greatest wonder wasn’t actually to do with the King of the Arctic!