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Nevermore

July 9, 2010

The common raven is an uncommon bird in many important respects. Elegant and chic, clad completely in black, it is the largest bird in the largest avian order, the perching birds, passerines. The common raven is one of the most widely distributed of all birds, being found across all continents of the northern hemisphere. Within this range they may be observed at elevations between sea level and 21,000 feet. Strong superb flyers, when observed at a distance they are commonly confused with raptors as they easily play on the wind.

The most extraordinary and endearing – or frustrating – attribute of the common raven is its intelligence. The keen eye of early man reflects this intellect as one surveys aboriginal mythology and observes the various roles of raven, a creator to some groups, a trickster to others, a god to many. Contemporary animal behaviorists agree that ravens think. Their behaviors go far beyond the hard-wired habits of most other birds. Common ravens demonstrate cognitive abilities such as the use of tools and problem solving, reasoning, imitation, and insight. Ravens play. They make toys of twigs, conifer cones, and rocks. They taunt, tease, and torment each other and other birds and animals, often for no reason more apparent than they seem to enjoy it. They also possess the ability to manipulate other, larger animals to do work for them, such as calling coyotes, wolves, and bears to the site of carcasses ravens themselves cannot open.

This intelligence is reflected in their social behavior. Most commonly found alone or in pairs, one occasionally sees groups of ravens consisting of fifty to one hundred or more birds congregated in the same field, on the same fence or sprinkler line, or in several adjacent trees. It is thought that these congregations may serve several purposes, including the sharing of information about food sources. A recent study asks an additional intriguing question of raven behavior. Entitled “Do Ravens Show Consolation? Responses to Distressed Others” the authors conclude that their work “suggest that ravens may be responsive to the emotional needs of others.”

Ravens regularly criss-cross the skies above my home, especially in summer. I find them on all of my breeding bird survey routes and also in my Christmas Bird Count areas. Few birds are more enriching or entertaining to watch. My fondness for the common raven is reflected in the following hijacked lines, with apologies to Ed Poe and any taxonomists:

And neither the angels in heaven above
Nor the demons down under the sea,
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Corvus corvax principali’.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Rosemary Allen permalink
    July 11, 2010 10:38 am

    Your title caught my attention and your article jogged my remembrances of raven encounters. In my life they always seem to show up at key moments. Ravens have held my fascination for years. Once while out in Humboldt County in California I remember being greeted (or announced) by a raven when I entered and exited a coastal forest. Their voice was quite loud and stayed with me throughout the day…a touchstone for reflection.

  2. Lu Giddings permalink
    July 13, 2010 1:05 am

    hi Rosemary,

    the story I planned to tell – but didn’t – involved an encounter with a large flock of ravens in a shallow desert canyon. There were over a hundred birds that I could see, perched on the rocks and the junipers at the top of the walls. I approached slowly, along a very old road overgrown with chest-high sage. Most of the birds eyed me cautiously, but a group of 10-15 took to the air and began to escort me as I moved toward the flock. These “sentinel birds” circled overhead, more or less silently – unusual for ravens. And with each step I took toward the flock, my escort came closer and closer as they wheeled above me. By the time I had taken a few dozen slow, careful steps they were coming close enough to hear the wind whip through their feathers as they approached. They didn’t make much noise, and they never came directly at me. But their intent was perfectly clear. And taking their hint, as I slowly retreated, the birds continued to circle above me but higher and higher, until I reached that magic distance at which I was no longer a threat and they returned to their perches. I’ve never seen this behavior described in print and have mentioned it to a few field biologists who have never heard of it either. There’s so much we don’t know.

    I enjoy your blogs. Thanks for the comment.

    Lu

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