Guardians of the Castle

Ravens and starlings are the guardians of the castle.  

“When you do what you want, not what you wish” said the first raven. “When you no longer seek your reflection in others eyes” said the second raven. “When you see yourselves face to face” said the third raven. “Then”, the ravens intoned in unison, “you will have found what you truly seek.” ~ Adam Gidwitz

The setting is the vulture hide at Giant’s Castle located in the middle berg of the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Park World Heritage Site, a spectacular mountain range in the middle of South Africa.

The starlings were sitting in the bushes around the hide as we arrived before sunrise. The ravens were circling, flying passed,  and landing and taking off from rocky ledges close by.

For most people there would be nothing unusual about this scene but I have some context.

“Memories are contrary things; if you quit chasing them and turn your back, they often return on their own.” ~ Stephen King

I went to a boarding school about 35 miles south east of Bulawayo in Zimbabwe, called Falcon College. I arrived at the school in early 1966. As a junior everything was new, bigger and more intimidating than usual. Every Saturday evening the school showed a movie on a reel-to-reel movie projector. Not too many weeks after we arrived at the college, the movie one the Saturday evening was ‘The Birds’.  A 1963 American horror-thriller film ‘The Birds’ and produced by Alfred Hitchcock, loosely based on the 1952 story of the same name by Daphne du Maurier.

The story began in 1963, when Melanie Daniels, a young socialite known for rather racy behavior and playing pranks, meets criminal defense attorney Mitch Brenner in a San Francisco bird shop. He wanted to buy a pair of lovebirds for his sister’s eleventh birthday, but the shop had none. Mitch, knowing she was a lawyer, plays a prank on Melanie by pretending to mistake her for a salesperson. She is infuriated but intrigued by his veiled advance. She finds his weekend address in Bodega Bay, purchases a pair of lovebirds, and makes the long drive to deliver them. While he goes into the barn she sneaks the birdcage inside the Brenner family home with a note. While leaving she is attacked near shore on the town side and injured by a seagull. Melanie gets to know Mitch and his family, mother Lydia, and  younger sister Cathy. She also befriends local school teacher Annie Hayworth.

When Melanie spends the night at Annie’s house they are startled by a loud thud; a gull had killed itself by flying into the front door. At Cathy’s birthday party the next day, the guests are set upon by seagulls. The following evening, sparrows invade the Brenner home through the chimney. The next morning, Lydia, a widow who still sees to the family farmstead, pays a visit to a neighbouring farmer to discuss the unusual behavior of her chickens. Finding his eyeless corpse, pecked lifeless by birds, she flees in terror. After being comforted by Melanie and Mitch she expresses concern for Cathy’s safety at school. Melanie drives there and waits for class to end, unaware that a large flock of crows were massing in the nearby playground. Unnerved when she sees its jungle gym engulfed by the birds, she warns Annie, and they unwisely evacuate the children. The commotion stirs the crows into attacking, injuring several of the children. An amateur ornithologist dismisses the reports as fanciful and argues with Melanie over them. Shortly thereafter birds begin to attack people outside the restaurant they are in, knocking a gas station attendant unconscious while he is filling a car with fuel, which spills out onto the street. A bystander attempts to light a cigar, igniting a pool of gas and is incinerated. The explosion attracts a mass of gulls, which begin to swarm menacingly as townsfolk attempt to tackle the fire. Melanie is forced to take refuge in a phone booth. Rescued by Mitch, she returns to the restaurant, where Melanie is accused of causing the attacks, which began with her arrival. The pair return to Annie’s house and find that she has been killed by the crows while ushering Cathy to safety.

“The pattern created an association which revived a memory! I closed my eyes and was transported. The image was vivid, the feelings returned, as did the smells. I could hear the wind in the trees- I was back there again. Oh the timelessness of these memories.” ~ Mike Haworth

Melanie and the Brenners seek refuge inside the family home. It is attacked by waves of birds of many different species, which several times nearly break in through barricaded doors and windows. During a night-time lull between attacks, Melanie hears the sound of fluttering wings. Not wanting to disturb the others’ sleep, she enters the kitchen and sees the lovebirds are still. Realizing the sounds are emanating from above, she cautiously climbs the staircase and enters Cathy’s bedroom, where she finds the birds have broken through the roof. They violently attack her, trapping her in the room until Mitch comes to her rescue. She is badly injured and nearly catatonic; Mitch insists they must get her to the hospital and suggests they drive away to San Francisco. When he looks outside, it is dawn and a sea of birds ripple menacingly around the Brenner’s house as he prepares her car for their escape.

The radio reports the spread of bird attacks to nearby communities, and suggests that “the military” may be required to intervene because civil authorities are unable to combat the unexplained attacks. In the final shot, the car carrying Melanie, the Brenners, and the lovebirds slowly makes its way through a landscape in which thousands of birds are ominously perching. The plot was sourced from Wikipedia. A group of ravens is called an “unkindness” or “conspiracy,” which seems fitting, since ravens are traditionally considered creepy; and seeing many of them in one place can induce “Hitchcockian” flashbacks. A murder of crows also seems fitting in this context.

“Passages in time shall leave timeless evidence in their wake.” ~ Anthony T. Hincks.

The thing that made the movie so scary was the peculiarity of it all. Perhaps the moral of the story is beware of people bearing lovebirds as gifts. After the movie was finished we had to run back to our dorms in the pitch dark along a road with large trees on one side, with strong winds blowing their branches causing them to creak in the wind!  I still have a clear recollection of that evening over 50 years later. 

The congregation of starlings in the bushes around the hide and the ravens flying around the hide in numbers just reminded me of some of the scenes in the ‘The Birds’. Thank you Alfred Hitchcock for the memory, thankfully I was never ornithophobic ( a fear of birds)

“Look, listen, consider and then make your own mind up.” ~ Mike Haworth

Fifty five year old movies aside, many birds were attracted by the bones in front of the hide. White-necked ravens were the dominant species. They ruled the bones and even managed to fly off with some of them. There are three species of crow in south Africa, the Pied, Black and White necked raven. There is a physical difference between crows and ravens. The latter are bigger, have a larger deeper bill and make more of a croaking sound whereas the crows make more of a ‘caw-caw’ sound.

The White-necked raven has a much shorter tail than the common raven. Its  bill is large and looks laterally compressed and is deeply curved in profile giving the bird a very distinctive appearance. This bill, the largest of any passerine at 8–9 cm in length, is black with a white tip and has deep nasal grooves with only light nasal bristle covers. The White-necked raven is very similar to the Thick-billed raven found in the horn of Africa. This powerful beak enables the raven to effectively tear meat and fat off the bones. It is also strong enough to fly off with surprising large and heavy bones.

Crows and ravens are known to be highly intelligent birds and are able to use tools, form cooperative units and are able to mimic the human voice when in captivity.

We only found White-necked ravens up in the middle berg. 

Ravens are known to mate for life and live in pairs in a fixed territory. When their youngsters reach adolescence, they join gangs and these flocks of young birds live and eat together until they mate and pair off. It was quite possible that we saw a gang of adolescent ravens dominating the non-raptors around the hide. One raptor that had them scattering for cover was the Lanner falcon. It was so much faster and more agile than the ravens. It stooped on them multiple times for about half an hour and certainly had them on edge for quite a while thereafter. 

“Look at this life – all mystery and magic.” – Harry Houdini

In the early to mid morning, the ravens just sat around feeding on the fat on the bones and chasing away any other birds which wanted to join in the feast. By lunchtime and in the early afternoon, when the wind got up, the ravens started to play in the wind in what looked to be just for the sheer joy of it. There was a natural updraft on along the ridge in front of the hide and the wind gave it extra power. The ravens spent hours just frolicking way above the valley in the wind.

The ravens were good fliers showing remarkable aerobatic feats in midair.

The White-necked raven is a persistent and tenacious bird and seems to enjoy mobbing the passing Bearded vultures. On one occasion a raven dive-bombed a Bearded vulture and hit it so hard that we heard it from the hide.

Needless to say the ravens gave way to the Black-backed jackals which regularly stole the bones in front of the hide.

Red-winged starlings also loved the fat on the bones. They formed pairs and would protect one another at the bones, when the ravens were not around. These starlings have distinctive red-primary wing feathers. The male has a mainly iridescent dark blue-black plumage. The female is similar but has a greyish head and neck.

This starling is a cliff nester, breeding on rocky cliffs, outcrops and gorges. There is a pale-winged and red-winged starling found in southern Africa. The pale-winged has mainly white outer primary wing feathers with a slight orange colouring on the outmost primaries. It has a yellow eye and is found mainly in the west side and the Cape of south Africa and Namibia, whereas the red-winged starling is found mainly in the north and east of southern Africa.

Similar to other starling species, the red-winged starling is an omnivore, feeding on a wide range of seeds, berries, nectar from plants such as Aloes and  invertebrates such as the beetles. As we saw from the hide, they will also scavenge on carrion and food scraps from humans.

“I marvel at the richness, variety and unexpectedness of it all – there is more to see than you can imagine” ~ Mike Haworth

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun,


2 thoughts on “Guardians of the Castle

  1. Oh Howie – you invoke such memories. How could we ever love birds after that movie!? Keep clicking and posting -just love it buddy.

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