Smart & Unappreciated: the Raven

Nov 16, 2017

One of the smartest birds in North America is also one of our least appreciated. In this episode of Wildlife Matters, the Masked Biologist shares some information about the raven.

This time of year, with the leaves on the ground and brown, and the trees mostly bare, it is a lot easier to see into the woods. Many of our migratory bird species have left, but there are some visible year-round residents remaining, such as ravens. Ravens are known around the northern half of the globe. I have seen references to ravens in Bible stories, European tales and fables, Native American legends and classical literature. In all of these, the raven’s role is that of an extremely clever creature. It usually accompanies or assists man, notably in times of war, impending doom, or certain peril. Possibly this is due to the bird’s adaptive learning, where it identifies the sounds or activities of humans that lead to food. It could also have something to do with the bird’s diet, which includes carrion (dead animals), or its documented close association with wolf packs.

There is something unsettling about a raven. Measuring 24 inches long, the raven is the largest member of the corvid family, which also includes crows, jays, and magpies. In addition to its massive size, it has a thick, black knifelike beak, black feet, and black shiny eyes. It has a thick collar of neck feathers, which like all its other feathers are coal black. It has a call which I can only describe as “gronk.”  Finally, it clearly is not shy of humans, often willing to fly above or perch near people.

Ravens build a huge, clumsy-looking nest of large sticks up to three feet long, located high up on a rock ledge, cliff, or in a tall tree. The eggs are colorful—olive, green, or blue, mottled with darker spots, purple, or brown. The chicks are ugly and featherless upon hatching. The birds defend their territory throughout nesting and raising young, but these territories dissolve when ravens flock up during the winter, forming a flock with the unfortunate moniker of “an unkindness of ravens.” Ravens are long-lived birds, and have been documented living over fifteen years in captivity. They don’t migrate, which has its trade-offs; they have a lot less life energy expended in flight, and they avoid the associated hazards. However, they have to survive extreme cold and struggle to compete with other meat-eaters for whatever carrion can be found. 

Ravens are considered to be among the most intelligent of birds. I recall reading about a study where a piece of meat was hung from a string tied to a stick that went across a cylinder (like a garbage can). The study was to determine whether ravens could figure out how to get the piece of meat, and how long it took. The ravens quickly and easily retrieved the meat. The author had to change the study to determine which of two methods the birds were more likely to use. One method was to pull a length of string in their bill, grab it with their foot, reach down and grab more with the beak, and repeat until they have the meat. The other method was to grab the string with its foot and shuffle sideways, inching along the stick, keeping the string grasped with each step until the meat was up to the stick. Both methods took significant problem solving, and were done easily and repeatedly by multiple wild ravens.

We have ravens across the Northwoods. You may not have noticed them; maybe you thought they were crows. Ravens were here with the Native Americans, the European settlers, and the lumberjacks. Forests are an important component of their habitat, so with our forests, our wolf packs, and our deer, I expect our ravens will continue to do well.

Striving to make new things familiar and familiar things new, this is the Masked Biologist coming to you from the heart of Wisconsin’s great Northwoods.