Birds of a Feather

Browsing in Native Alaskan trading posts and chatting with folks, I was surprised to learn that eagles and ravens were called “lovebirds” by the Tlingit Native Americans. Many carvings and paintings depicted them together, as in this photo of a moose antler totem pole: the eagle above with spread wings perched on top of the raven below.

“How could these two possibly be “lovebirds” when I watched them fight in the sky day after day?” I asked the Tlingit shop owners, friendly young people eager to share their culture.

While in Alaska, I strained my neck peering in every direction, mostly up, to watch steely-eyed eagles. They loved the tops of trees and telephone poles and I happily listened to their chortling and whistling sounds for hours. One startled me in the middle of a river, perched on a snag, apparently eager to be close to the fish. As I floated by on an inflated raft, I called out, “Hi, Buddy,” with delighted surprise.

Eagles seem to be hoarders, constantly adding to their gigantic nests weighing up to one and one-half tons. Known to mate for life, a biologist told me that actually, they return to the same humongous nest each year and mate with whoever’s there. They’re more committed to their house, than to a partner. I know human couples like that.

I also saw a lot of ravens in Alaska, widely considered to be a pest. But I loved their nearness and bold personalities. They seemed to watch every move humans made and flew close, mingling with people, cawing at us and each other in a language I could imagine learning.

As I watched them in Alaska, eagles and ravens looked like natural enemies, engaging in airborne battles like World War II Spitfires and Messerschmitts. Often I’d see a group of ravens dive-bomb a single eagle in aerial acrobatics, probably protecting their eggs and young from the doubtless hungry eagle who watched the agitated raven horde with seemingly majestic indifference.

When I asked the Tlingit shop-owners about these warring “lovebirds,” they laughed and explained. 

“The Tlingit have two main clans, the Eagle and the Raven. We’re forbidden to marry within our own clan, who are considered to be close cousins. But an Eagle can marry a Raven and vice versa. That’s why we call them ‘love birds.’ Yeah, they’ll probably fight, but that’s nature’s way, for birds and humans both.”

Ah, I soaked in profound Native American wisdom. I’d always assumed a good relationship precluded arguments. But that approach hadn’t worked out for me so far. Like the lovebirds, maybe I should give squabbling a try.

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