They flit above our heads. Their black shadows slide along sidewalks. They hop across roads and we may have to swerve to miss them. But not very often because they’re smart. The black, glossy-feathered raven, so familiar in the Northern Hemisphere that they are part of the scenery and we hardly notice them. Cousin to the crow, the raven is larger and has pointy feathers, the crow has rounded ones. Ravens don’t migrate. Instead they persevere through the winter, though sometimes they move south.
“Take me to Florida,” she cawed. “I’m freezing my tail off!”
“I can absolutely testify that ravens can mimic human speech. One spring I was alone at home and heard someone calling my husband’s name exactly the way I would call him to the phone. Later I heard “Kitty Kitty” the way I called the cat. Then, while watering plants the precocious critter sat on the water hose, checked me out and promptly hopped atop my head. For the rest of the summer he’d fetch sticks thrown by my young son and even sit atop the horse (who didn’t seem to mind at all).” — anonymous.
Humans and these opportunistic omnivores have co-existed for thousands of years. While ravens generally live from ten to fifteen years, forty-year life spans have been recorded. Young birds, like humans, move in flocks. Older birds, like some humans, mate for life and stake out a territory. In certain cultures, including the Northwest coast of the U.S., ravens have been revered as a spiritual figure or a god. In other cultures, they’re the tricksters.
Ravens have a large, complex vocabulary and like humans, they are sometimes quarrelsome but they display devotion to their families. They have few natural predators, which includes the Golden Eagle, the Eagle Owl, and, of course, man, when they become a pest. Where there are Grey Wolves ravens will follow to scavenge at the wolves’ kills.
A young raven who finds a road kill will call to other juveniles to join the feast. “Hey, dudes, party time! Just watch out for those big boxes with the wheels.”
Ravens can mimic human speech. Their thirty or so vocalizations include alarm calls, chase calls, and fight calls. One eyewitness recounts a raven who sat on his shed and barked like the man’s two Dachshunds. A bird dog?
Once, while hiking through the woods surrounding Los Alamos with my dog, I saw a raven get so angry at our presence that he tore twigs from the branch he sat on and threw them down, possibly at us? Another time I watched two ravens in a tree in Los Alamos. One was tottering. He/she finally fell to the sidewalk near traffic, and lay fluttering. The other bird flew down beside his companion, though people walked by and traffic cruised past just yards away. They have been depicted as birds of death. I wondered if the healthy one’s heart was broken over the death of his mate.
“Crows, ravens, magpies, and jays are not just feathered machines, rigidly programmed by their genetics. Instead, they are beings that, within the constraints of their molecular inheritance, make complex decisions and show every sign of enjoying a rich awareness.” — Candace Savage.
Experiments have shown ravens to be “inventors.” Which means they have the ability to solve problems instead of engaging in merely instinctive behavior. I’ve seen TV documentaries where untrained ravens have lifted food on the end of a string, a little at a time, holding down the string with a claw until the reward was within reach.
“In recent years, biologists have recognized that birds engage in play. Juvenile Common ravens are among the most playful of bird species. They have been observed to slide down snowbanks, apparently purely for fun. They even engage in games with other species, such as playing catch-me-if-you-can with wolves and dogs. Common ravens are known for spectacular aerobatic displays, such as flying in loops or interlocking talons with each other in flight.”
They are also one of a few species who make their own toys. They have been observed breaking off twigs to play with socially.
“Hey, guys, the short twig gets to play chicken with a human!”
In many Western civilizations, ravens have been known as a bird of ill omen. Strange how we humans attach mythological niches to various animals. In Sweden they’re the ghosts of murdered people; in Germany, the souls of the damned. According to Danish folklore, they’re capable of great malicious acts.
“Yeah, you know, dudes, it was so cool! I set a can of water on a string across the sidewalk an’ these two humans came by an’ you know, they knocked it over. Oh, man, I cawed my tail feathers off!”
There are eyewitness accounts of ravens dropping nuts in traffic so cars can crack them, then swooping down to eat the opened nuts. You Tube has videos of ravens that talk, whistle, and sing. One video shows a dog, a cat and a raven. It’s an uneasy alliance but they’re sort of playing together. Talk about A Peaceable Kingdom!
So next time you cross paths with a raven, perhaps instead of ignoring him as part of the scenery, you should start a conversation. Just beware of what you ask him. He may just answer “Nevermore.”