Common Raven – an oxymoron?

Photo by Omar Runolfsson @Creative Commons

Photo by Omar Runolfsson @Flickr Creative Commons

My only up-close encounter with a raven was several years ago while hiking to the top of a mountain. Stopping to sit on a rock and rest, I looked over and saw one of these super-large black birds perched, not 20 feet away, on a limb jutting out over a cliff. From its high perch, the raven could see the Maury River and the surrounding valley below. We watched each other for several minutes, neither uttering a sound, until his curiosity was satisfied and he launched himself from his perch and soared out over the valley.

Even now, many years later, one of the greatest pleasures I get to experience living in the Blue Ridge is watching a raven flying overhead on easy, flowing wingbeats, filling the empty spaces of the valley with an echoing croak. Surveying its domain, from the Alleghenies to the west and the Blue Ridge to the east, and all the ridges and valleys in between, the raven is master of the skies.

Perhaps no bird is so widely recognized or enters our consciousness as permeated in legend or folklore as the Common Raven. Native Americans of the Northwest revere ravens as being the creator of earth, moon, sun, and stars, but also regard it a trickster and cheater. Poets and authors of Western cultures have used the raven to symbolize death and evil and portrayed them as harbingers of doom. Other than possibly the American Crow, no other bird is steeped in so much mystery, myth, and misinformation.

In reality, ravens are curious, playful, and clever. Thanks to the efforts of researchers and ornithologists, we now know a lot more about this secretive species, and one thing is certain – there is nothing common or ordinary about the Common Raven. Wonderful books have been written about ravens that give us new insight into their habits and social dynamics. Books such as Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds (Bernd Heinrich), Bird Brains: The Intelligence of Crows, Ravens, Magpies, and Jays (Candace Savage), and In the Company of Crows and Ravens (John M. Marzluff ) allow us to peek into the complex world of the raven.

Even the most devout bird watchers don’t often realize that the raven displays ability in problem solving, as well as other cognitive processes such as imitation and insight. One experiment designed to evaluate these processes involved a piece of meat attached to a string hanging from a perch. To reach the food, the bird needed to stand on the perch, pull the string up a little at a time, and step on the loops to gradually shorten the string. Four of the five Common Ravens used in the test succeeded. (source: Wikipedia.org)

Ravens also have a playful side that few of us will ever get to see because of their shyness around humans and preference for roosting and nesting in inaccessible areas. There are reports of them making their own “toys,” breaking off twigs to play with other ravens. Their play often involves inventive behaviors such as sliding down inclines on their belly, repeatedly dropping sticks while in flight then catching them in mid-air, hanging upside down by one or two feet, snow “bathing,” giving vocal monologues, and playing “tug-of-war” or “king-of-the-hill” with other ravens. (source: Cornell Lab of Ornithology).

Last week I noticed two ravens flying overhead that were engaged in behavior I hadn’t seen before. One bird bumped into the other bird, which fell off to the side, then returned to bump the first bird. It went back and forth like this, the two birds jostling each other until they were out of sight. At first I thought it was a raven chasing an intruder out of its territory, but usually such altercations are over rather quickly. I now believe the two birds were a mated pair or family members just having fun doing what ravens do.

Ravens, like their crow cousins, have a reputation for being noisy. In fact, I usually hear their raucous calls before I see them when they leave their roosts in the morning and fly out over the valley in search of food. Most times, I see only one raven, but if flying with a mate, the pair will exchange calls back and forth while hunting.

National Park Service photo

Ravens always seem to have a lot to say. – National Park Service photo

Common Ravens have the greatest variety of calls than perhaps any other animal in the world except human beings. Most of the 30 categories of vocalization recorded are used between pairs and their offspring and include alarm calls, chase calls, and flight calls. Non-vocal sounds include wing whistles and bill snapping. If one of the pair is lost, its mate reproduces the calls of its lost partner to encourage its return. They can mimic other birds, and when raised in captivity can even be taught words. (source: Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

It seems an unfortunate injustice indeed to choose the word “common” to identify such an extraordinary creature as the unCommon Raven.

Wisdom begins with putting the right name on a thing.
(Old Chinese Proverb)

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32 thoughts on “Common Raven – an oxymoron?

  1. Very interesting post! We met a raven while hiking in the Grand Canyon, gave the bird some treats from our lunch, which younger daughter complained about — saying “don’t feed the wildlife”. When we returned to the campsite after a long hike, the raven was nearby, and gear from one backpack was strewn about the campsite. It was my daughter’s pack that was ransacked. Yes, they are smart!

    • I think most animals are smarter that we give them credit for – which is kind of the point of this post. Maybe we could change the Common Raven to Mensa Raven.:)

    • Thanks, Deb. No, I hadn’t seen that study, but I read about a guy who fed crows everyday when he got home from work. He had to go away on a job assignment for a year or so and when he got back into town, the crows recognized his car at a local gas station, flew down to greet him, and followed him home. Pretty cool, huh?

      • Crows ARE cool!
        (Dunno why humans seem to feel they have the market cornered on intelligence; )

  2. We had a crow with a broken wing who could only sit in a tree. As neighbors watched, other crows brought him food regularly. Eventually, he disappeared and I like to think he survived and flies free these days. They care for one another through instinct I guess.

    • Crows have a strong family bond and young ones often stay with their parents as “helpers” to raise the next year’s offspring. They can be very altruistic with their own.

  3. Interesting and informative! I’ve read a couple of Bernd Heinrich books…I think one of them was about an owl he kept. He also talked a lot about crows and ravens and how incredible they are. We don’t have ravens in Seattle, but tons of crows, and although most people don’t like them, I find them fascinating. In “Crow Planet” by Lyanda Haupt, she tells of watching crows at an outdoor concert, certain that they were listening and watching the show! It made me laugh because I’ve seen them doing the same thing. Birds are so wonderful!

    • Thank you, Denise. Heinrich is a wonderful writer and animal lover. The first book I read was A Year in the Maine Woods. We need more writers like him that can convey the message that animals are smart and we can learn from them. I believe the crows were watching the concert – I’ve had phoebes follow me around the farm and the most nosy birds in the world, House Wrens, keep tabs on me while I’m working in the garden.

  4. I’d love to see a raven, don’t see them on the Oregon Coast, but we do have crows. Crows are opportunists…they have learned to live alongside humans. Occasionally we’ll see crows pecking dog food in the back of someone’s pickup in a parking lot. Now that is smart!!

    • Thank you. I just wish I was 20 again so I could trek up in the mountains with my binoculars and spy on them- but I guess I’m relegated to taking out my Heinrich books and re-reading about their antics.

  5. Very interesting post about Ravens. They are fascinating birds. Just a little FYI – did you know that there is an old legend about Ravens and The Tower of London? It was thought that if the Ravens who lived in and around the grounds ever left a great calamity would befall England? To this day, Ravens are kept at the The Tower (in the grounds, not in the Tower itself!) properly looked after, fed etc. and hop around quite freely in the grounds to ensure that this never happens! One one visit there some years ago my young son and daughter were actually able to feed one of them. It is hard to appreciate just how big they are until close up!

  6. Thanks for that little tidbit, Sherri. One more example of the folklore and history surrounding the raven. I enjoyed your posts about the robins there.

    • Thanks Jo Ann and I’m glad you have enjoyed reading about my Sweet Robin! I haven’t seen him for a few days, but I’m sure he will make an appearance again soon!

  7. Great post! I’m very fond of crows and ravens; I sometimes think that watching crows do their thing is the only way I cope with living in a city. I think I even managed to catch a glimpse of a raven once in a mountain forest. In the Company of Crows and Ravens is on my bookshelf and my reading list — thanks for reminding me about it!

    • Thanks. I wish I had time to read all the books I want to read. Mind of the Raven has been sitting out on my desk for months!

  8. Ravens are awesome. I’ve given evening programs on them in national parks for six years. This past summer, a visitor came up to me at the end of my talk, waiting politely for others to finish with their questions. When he was the only one left, he crossed his arms and gruffly said, “I don’t like ravens.” I started to reply that I was sad I hadn’t won him over, or something along those lines, but he interrupted: “I don’t like any animal that’s smarter than me.” He turned and stalked off.

    I laughed aloud, delighted, but to this day I’m not entirely sure how serious he was….

    • I’ve been to many lectures and there’s always one individual that wants to challenge or surprise the lecturer – maybe he was simply stating the truth. 🙂 I regret that I can only enjoy ravens from afar.

    • Thanks for the link, Bill. Ravens are amazing! About the only look I get at ravens is seeing them fly overhead, but I get plenty of enjoyment from the crows who spend more time in the “flatlands.”

  9. Thanks, Tracy. Other than flying above, I don’t get to see many of these amazing birds. Guess I’ll just have to be happy watching the crows – we have plenty of them!

  10. Fantastic photo! Ravens are so intelligent and wary! Congratulations on getting so close. I enjoyed reading your informative post too. They are marvelous creatures. 🙂

    • Glad you enjoyed it, Alison. I had done a lot of posts on “backyard” birds so I thought I’d pick a lesser-known one, but it seems people already know about the intelligence of ravens and the rest of the crow family.

      On Sat, Feb 2, 2013 at 6:54 AM, Wood and Field

  11. Enjoyed reading your post about the raven.We have a raven living in the woods surrounding our summer cottage and whenever he flies over the house he kind of “talks” to us in his croaking way like saying “Hi guys, how’re you doing?” As soon as he has passed he stops croaking.
    Our summer house is also situated in a rather bear tight area and the sound of irritating croaking from ravens could mean that there is a bear nearby.

    • Ravens are often found where there are carnivorous predators like wolves (and some bears). They watch them and move in later to eat the leftovers.

  12. My only personal encounter with ravens (sadly) has been in a California State Park parking lot, where I suspect the ravens recognized me immediately as a bird feeder, corvid lover and general pushover and walked right over to check me out and see if I had anything to share. I have had fleeting glimpses of Ravens in my travels, but they have never really been close enough to photograph. Thanks for sharing these great images. I have a friend who lives in Northern Minnesota and she sees ravens constantly. I have to make do with their Crow cousins, but I am never tired of reading about or interacting with these clever creatures. And yes, they do recognize us individually, so attuned is their ability to do so linked to their survival among us.

    • Thanks for your comment, Lisa. I don’t really have a lot of contact with ravens either; like you, I have more up close encounters with crows. I am so impressed with what I’ve been learning about the corvids that I think my next post will be about crow intelligence – there are so many interesting crow stories out there that it will be hard to keep from writing a book!

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