Thursday, August 5

Of Gophers, Ravens and Salmon

We call them gophers, but they are really arctic ground squirrels. Their population is cyclical, and for a few years we will see almost none, and then the population will surge again. This is an upsurge year, and I know that because I am seeing more and more of them dead on the road. One of their favorite burrowing places seems to be the soft shoulders of the roadway, and we will often see them standing alert on the edge of the road as we drive by, and once in a while one will dart across the roadway just as a car is passing. Usually they make it across, but sometimes they don't.

Yesterday I saw a raven carry a whole road killed gopher in his mouth as he flew away. I suppose the raven would have kept dining on his carrion delight in the middle of the street if my car hadn't come, but when he saw the approaching vehicle, he picked up the gopher's head with his beak and flew to the roadside with the rest of the body dangling out. I suppose he considered this dinner simply too delicious to chance losing it as the car passed.

Pictures of ravens often make them seem perfectly ruffled and quite dignified, but I've never seen one that looked in the least bit elegant. In real life they look like the master dumpster divers that they are: big, rumpled, messy, and just a little crazed. Somehow the story of Elijah has a whole different feel when I consider that his ravens were probably much like the ones I know, with cunning, beady eyes and a penchant for garbage.

And just where did they get the meat and bread they brought him? I once watched a raven fly away with a whole big block of cheddar cheese taken from the grocery bags in the back of a pickup truck parked in the Qwanlin Mall. Did Elijah's ravens take someone's groceries? Or had they scavenged from the city dump? When I was a kid and I heard that story I assumed the bread and meat were miraculously created by God just for the ravens to bring to Elijah--and maybe they were--but having lived a little closer to real ravens, I now know that of all God's creatures, ravens might be the most likely to find good food during a drought.

Yes, what ravens lack in beauty they make up for in brains. So intelligent that they have time left over for play. Sometimes they drop pebbles from the top of the clay cliffs just to watch them roll down to the bottom. Harassing dogs by mimicking barking is another favorite amusement. I've heard (but don't quote me on this!) that in experiments, ravens have actually made hooking tools to retrieve goodies from the bottoms of bottles. They are the nutty geniuses of the bird world.

Now, without a graceful segue, I'm moving on to the subject of salmon. The river is so high and so turbulently powerful this year that I had wondered a little whether many of the spawning salmon would make it back. They swim 2000 miles upstream--all without eating--to make it here, so they are not at their strongest when they reach the rapids. But stronger eddies and more rapids, it seems, are no big deal to spawning salmon. Eighteen had already gone through the fish ladder at the dam when I was there last Friday, and I assume there have been many more by now. I've been thinking of taking pictures at the fish ladder to show you a little bit of how it works and what the salmon look like when they get there. I might still do that. Two thousand miles those chinook swim, just to spawn and die, so they deserve a photo or two, don't you think?

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