Opinion » John Rember

The Unkindness of Ravens

Bird food and other atrocities


John Rember

Since mid-November, I've caught 82 mice and seven shrews in the butter-baited trapline I've been running in the garage. That's a lot of little bodies. I've carried them all out to the north fence line and carefully balanced them on the top rail for the ravens. Our local unkindness (a group of ravens is termed an unkindness) has watched from the trees across the highway.

On every journey back to the house I've heard loud raven mutterings and the heavy whistle of raven wings. When I've turned to look, I've seen them land on the fence, and, one by one, take the mice and shrews in their beaks and fly back to their perches. They eat the dead whole, without removing the furry wrappers.

I think the ravens like me. If I'm out at the woodpile they fly a few feet over my head, croaking and craning their heads to make friendly, if creepy, eye contact. It's a small warm reminder to check my traps.

Over the winter I've realized that I'm an essential if subordinate part of the raven ecosystem. It's an ecosystem that has its roots in the farms of Chile and Mexico and California, where produce is raised and sold to Costco. Julie and I travel to Costco once a month or so and load up on fresh vegetables, which we take home and peel and trim before cooking and eating.

We put the peelings and trimmings in our compost heap, where the mice devour them. Well-fed mice have a tendency to make baby mice, and they retire to our garage to do just that. When they search for a post-coital snack, they find my buttery traps, and they can't resist.

The ravens, as clear-eyed witnesses to the time and effort and sacrifice it takes to keep them fed, occupy the top of the Sawtooth Valley food chain with a complacent certainty.

From my point of view some steps down that food chain, mice are filthy little inedible animals that leave turds all over and build reeking nests in ski boots and camp kitchen gear. Incidentally, a group of mice is termed a nest. It's also termed a mischief, which seems appropriate when you're cleaning sticks and dirt and mouse mummies out of a nesting aluminum cookset.

Mice are also cannibals. If I forget to check the traps for a few days, the uncaught mice will eat the caught ones and then make more mice with their excess calories. I suppose you could call a bunch of mouse cannibals a solipsism of mice.

Far worse are the shrews. All a shrew will leave of a trapped mouse is scattered bits of fur and bones gnawed white, and they're quick about it. When I find evidence of a shrew feast, I spend a few minutes adjusting a mousetrap to the finest of hair-triggers, and usually I'll catch a hungry shrew within a few hours. The ones I've caught this winter have been fat little smorgasborders, and I'm convinced that last November there was a whole katherine of shrews hiding behind the stack of summer tires in the garage (katherine being my suggestion for a group of shrews, as the species still lacks a collective noun).

I'm not sure that the local unkindness cares much about the violence and suffering that it takes to keep it at the top of its ecosystem. I'm pretty sure ravens are sentient but essentially reptilian beings, with a deep but conscienceless 70 million-year-old collective intelligence—one that regards humans as useful domestic help, like border collies, who can be trained to put mouse bodies on fence rails once they've been trained to plant fence posts and nail rails to them.

It has been a week or so since anything has shown up in my mousetraps, and I'm wondering if I've caught all the mice in the neighborhood. Past experience suggests that's not likely. Mice avoid the garage until cold weather hits in the fall, and we haven't had cold weather since February. The snow has melted from our driveway, and bits of green are showing in the yard. The compost heap has begun to steam a bit, a sure sign of spring. Trapping season may be over until next November, but I will keep the traps baited through April, just in case it turns cold again.

All this trapping and body counting and raven subsidizing suggests that the collective noun for humans—at least the ones who trap mice—might be murder. A murder of humans has a solid ring to it, but unfortunately crows in a group have been called a murder of crows since Shakespeare and probably before. Had the Elizabethan collective-noun-designation-committee witnessed human behavior in the last hundred years, the crows would be called a mild insult of crows, and we humans would have murder all to ourselves.

We'll have to come up with a collective noun that fits as well. Given what humanity is doing in Syria and Iraq and the Sudan and the Ukraine, a genocide of humans works. Given what we're doing to the oceans, the rain forests and the climate, an ecocide of humans works even better.

Through the eyes of the local unkindness, we might have a sequence of collective designations: a fulmination of humans, followed by a wretched excess of humans, followed by a Soylent of humans, followed by a dearth of humans. It may be unkind, but the ravens will regard our empty-windowed and open-doored nests as mouse farms. Their ecosystem might be missing a few links, and food may be harder to come by, but the unkindnesses and the mischiefs will survive.