“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
–  George Bernard Shaw

The National Aviary, located on the north side of Pittsburgh, has four bald eagles: Abby and Liberty have their own exhibit, while two others perform in shows. They’re beautiful birds; I’ve only seen two or three in the wild, but when they’re in captivity, you can really come to appreciate the contrast between the bright white of their heads with the dark brown of their bodies. They’re very nearly breathtaking; the decals on the backs of pickup trucks and the Seal of the Nation do little more than tarnish the magnificence eagles display in person.

In the mid-twentieth century, this bird that was the largest true raptor on the entire North American continent began its near-extinction experience. DDT ruined the calcium metabolism of breeding adults and caused either too-thin eggshells or outright infertility. Between that and the legal and illegal shooting of bald eagles, these creatures who used to rule the North American skies dwindled in number to 412 nesting pairs by the late 1950s. By the seventies, electrocution in power lines also registered in the top three causes of death for bald eagles. They also struggled for several decades with oil, mercury, and lead poisoning.

As a continent, we decided that bald eagles were special. They were important enough that the US and Canada agreed to protect them in the Migratory Bird Treaty of 1918, and later the rest of North America signed on as well. But by 1967, the bald eagle was on the endangered species list.

The common raven, or Corvus corax, has always been listed under “Species of Least Concern.” They are some of the most widely distributed birds, making their homes across more than seventy percent of the entire northern hemisphere. In some places, they are so populous as to be described as pests. They kill livestock and damage property and are well known and not beloved for their haunting, squawking calls. They are frequently lumped in with crows and vultures, accused of spreading disease and being an omen of malaise and even death.

However, in many fables and even religious stories, the raven was the Solomon of the animal kingdom. And in fact, ravens have proven themselves to be remarkably intelligent—there are TED talks about their problem solving abilities, their fascinating scavenging, and even their nearly unique ability to communicate with each other about objects or events that are not present during the communication.

While bald eagles’ numbers were beginning to wane, in part because of the destruction and invasion of their habitats by humans, ravens were discovering the glories of the dumpster and using their omnivorous diet to their advantage. Before humans did ravens the favor of killing off the larger, more aggressive birds, ravens might not have been able to explode in number the way they did. For thousands of years, ravens have followed closely on the heels of humans, adapting right along with their big mammalian friends and gaining quite a bit from the relationship.

When, as a species, are we going to admit that the beautiful things of this world are not reserved for us? When are we going to learn that when we label something as admirable or worthy, we are condemning it to be hunted and weakened? And when will we come to terms with the fact that the things we consider “beautiful,” “majestic,” and “regal” are just such because they bare almost no resemblance to ourselves?

The bald eagle is a magnum opus of North American zoology, measuring seven feet from wingtip to wingtip, and when one soars and screeches over the plains and prairies of the United States, it can send chills up anyone’s spine. But humans are not the eagle.

The raven knows that the world is no friend to the vulnerable, and so it finds as many ways as it can to diversify its armor, to outwit its prey, and to outlive its enemies. The raven will survive, no matter whose crops and cows it has to kill to do so.

In the dimming twilight, as autumn falls and the leaves crunch underfoot, when, from the high branches of a dying tree, you hear the ominous caw of the raven, it sends chills up your spine.

Humans are the raven.

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