BY JENSEN EDWARDS
On John Palliser’s 1859 map of southern BC and Alberta appears the French phrase Lodge-des-corbeaux, roughly translated as crow’s nest or raven’s nest. Corbeaux is ambiguous. But had the Scottish explorer consulted a French-speaking ornithologist, the region would have in all likelihood been named the raven’s nest instead.
According to ornithologists, the Crowsnest Pass is a mistranslation that would have been easily rectified by looking at where the two blackbird species prefer to live. Crows, experts say, rarely stray from human settlements, whereas ravens are more often found in the wilderness. And given that there were few substantial towns in the region in the mid-1800s, the blackbirds in the area explored by Palliser would have likely been ravens. Hence, raven’s nest.
What’s in a name?
Palliser wasn’t the first to make the crow-raven error. According to the same ornithological reasoning, Edgar Allen Poe conflated the two species over a decade earlier in his 1845 poem “The Raven.” In fact, Encyclopaedia Britannica scholar Gregory McNamee writes that in the poem, “the city-dwelling Poe would have answered the door not to a raven but to a crow.”
But what sort of poem would that have been? After all, a raven is unique, statuesque and dignified; a crow is commonplace, boring and the afterthought of who or whatever created its more regal cousin. A gathering of ravens is merely called an unkindness; a collection of crows is much more ominous: it’s a murder.
While crows fascinate us with their use of tools, they can terrify us with their craftiness. Author Lyanda Lynn Haupt explains the uneasy feeling the blackbirds bring. It’s “not a they-might-dive-bomb-your-head sort of disconcerting,” she writes, but rather “an understated, intangible, evocative sort of unease.”
That sort of “evocative unease” is familiar. Whether it’s Hitchcock-level nightmares about swarming birds or just the slight cringe whenever a crow flies overhead with the fear you may get pooped on, people tend to get unsettled by crows. We see them as clever, sometime as conniving, and perhaps, we see them as just a little too much like us.
‘Little humans in black suits’
If you’re like amateur birder Dawn Snydmiller and “spend inordinate amounts of time on the deck watching crows,” you begin to look past the negative associations projected on crows and see the birds as individuals within the group.
Snydmiller first saw distinctive personalities within the birds 15 years ago when she looked out the kitchen window of her Calgary home and saw three crows at her bird bath. “They were all just sitting there like they were at some sort of hot tub party,” she says.
Before the hot tub party, “the only thought I gave to crows was that they were here,” she says, “and the robins hated them.” They were a mass of nuisance and bother, “just birds in the background.” But today, the amateur birder imagines her feathery neighbours as much more, “little humans in black suits” she calls them. She sees them as individuals.
Being in a fairly rural place, Snydmiller’s vacation property in Yahk doesn’t offer the same crow-watching opportunities as her home in Calgary. But slowly and surely, she says, more are showing up to entertain her.
“About five or six years ago,” she says, “there were more people coming to the resort and the crows had come to realize, I suppose, that they had some humans to exploit.” Now, she says, crows are nesting in larger numbers in the community. Snydmiller welcomes her new neighbours.
Two hours’ drive northwest of Yahk, you’ll find Oneley hopping around the Uphill neighbourhood of Nelson. He’s only got one foot, hence his name. The bird’s left leg juts sharply backwards, coming to a knobbly end where his ankle ought to be.
What happened to Oneley’s leg? Was he born without it? Did he lose it in a fight? How does he feel about being different from other crows? Is he just a bird and these questions are a waste of time?
Regardless of your answer to the last question, you realize that the closer you get, the more the story of Oneley is revealed, just like the crows in Snydmiller’s back yard. When you begin to see the distinctions, you can’t help but project personality.
Palliser’s ornithologically inaccurate mistranslation that became “Crowsnest Pass” may be somewhat appropriate then, with the right projection of meaning.
See, were he to name it Ravensnest Pass, the region would have carried literary connotations of solitude like Poe’s poetic bird. As Crowsnest Pass, however, it signifies community and uniqueness together — a fitting description for the people and the place itself.