The Bird that Inspired Poe’s “The Raven”

Raven in flight. Joe Pell / Flickr
Raven in flight. Joe Pell / Flickr

Kayla Desroches/KMXT

Today is Halloween, and many a middle-schooler will remember their teachers pulling out a classic holiday poem to read on this day: “The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe. What is it about ravens that’s so fascinating or frightening?


Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

That’s a well-known line from Edgar Allen Poe’s poem “the Raven,” which also happens to be a common bird here in Kodiak.

Ravens often blamed for being the harbinger of death, especially by some nineteenth century poets, but Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge bird biologist Robin Corcoran explains how other cultures see them as figures of mischief.

“The Native American groups in the Pacific Northwest revered the raven as a god. I don’t know about that in particular but I think they also had this idea of them being similar to a coyote, like a trickster. In mythology for Native Americans, it seems like they’re a creator and the same time also a trickster.”

She says ravens are highly intelligent and also playful.

“I think we equate animals who have the free time to play with being intelligent. I’ve seen them here in Kodiak playing on snow fields, sliding down snow fields by the Horizon dock. That slide there, that rocky area. On a windy day when I do a hike on Spruce Cape, the windiest of days they’ll be out just catching the wind right on the beach at Spruce Cape. It’s fun to watch them.”

Corcoran has a guess for where the raven’s literary reputation comes from.

“I think it’s their appearance and their voice. That silky, beautiful, iridescent black plumage and that black eye. I think it’s that and that deep caw that’s kind of a haunting voice.”

She says ravens are actually considered songbirds.

“A lot of the songbirds don’t sing the really pretty songs. Songbirds have over time developed the ability to sing in different ways. The corvids, which ravens belong to along with the crows and the jays, they’re more primitive as far as songbirds are considered so they don’t make as melodious a song as some of the more passerines.”

But what ravens lack in musical talent, they more than make up for in vocal skill. Corcoran says they have the ability to speak, which means it’s very possible there was once a raven who could say ‘nevermore.’

Whether we want one rapping, tapping, or entreating entrance at our chamber door is another matter.

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