Wily Ravens

The other morning I was out watering when a raven landed on the compost heap and began “talking” to me. Naturally I replied. This raven wasn’t “quorking” but making other curious and complex sounds while staring directly into my eyes and the further we got into conversation the more fascinated I became. S/he used so many vocalizations in response to whatever I was saying that I couldn’t keep track of them. This raven pointed his beak directly at me while speaking. Our mutual exchange ended when the raven flew off to join his mate, leaving me with a sense of wonder. What had we been talking about? I would have given anything to have a tape of that dialogue! One curious note: ever since that conversation these same two ravens acknowledge me with a quork whenever they fly over the house.

For anyone seriously interested in ravens I highly recommend Bernard Heinrich’s book “The Mind of the Raven.” This biologist has probably studied ravens more extensively than anyone on the planet. He believes they are the brightest avians of all. As a naturalist, and therefore a generalist, I have to say that I believe that all birds are equally intelligent, albeit in different ways, but Corvids including jays and crows do seem to have a curious edge in terms of problem solving. My neighbor Rose has been feeding the latter for years and witnessed one crow solve the problem of how to fly off with only their ripest pears! i watched a blue -jay working an ant hill with a stick.

There are three species of ravens but in this article I will be talking about Corvus corax, the common raven, which is geographically and ecologically one of the most widespread naturally occurring birds in the world. The raven is distributed throughout major portions of North America, Europe, Asia, and North Africa, and in all terrestrial biomes except tropical rain forests. The typical adult common raven, the largest of the three, measures about two feet from the tip of its bill to the tip of its tail and is a luminous coal black.

Highly gregarious, adaptable and resourceful, ravens roost and feed in pairs, or scattered flocks, sometimes numbering hundreds (or thousands) depending on the area. Typically, they migrate only short distances with a change of seasons or variability of food sources. They may welcome newcomers, inviting them to dine. They may “mob” a would-be predator or intruder to protect each other or nestlings/ fledglings. The young birds may play games including having a tug of war. For fun, they may also drop and catch objects in mid – flight or snitch and cache shiny and inedible objects in secret places, Sometimes they yank the tail of a would be predator.

Opportunistic and omnivorous, the ravens and crows feed primarily on the most abundant food source available. This could include a broad range of insects, arachnids (e.g. spiders, scorpions), reptiles, small birds, small mammals, pilfered eggs, grains and fruits as well as carrion and human refuse.

Throughout the year, the birds spend substantial time resting, preening, sunning and peering around at their surroundings. They may bathe in shallow waters, sprinklers and snow, preening extensively afterwards. Most fascinating to me is that ravens may post themselves near an ant bed, allowing the insects to crawl through their feathers, leaving a blanket of formic acid to protect them— probably a natural pesticide that eliminates parasites – and then pick the ants off and eat them!

In the spring, when breeding season arrives, raven pairs mate and bond for the year and perhaps for life. During courtship, the birds may preen each other’s head feathers and gently clasp each other’s bills. They may engage in acrobatic flight, showing off, trying to impress a prospective partner. The male and female may spread their wings and tails and fluff their feathers. In the common raven’s version of a lovers’ serenade, the two partners make gurgling, choking and knocking sounds. After mating, a pair turns to homemaking, which often becomes a family affair, with two or three “helpers” – often progeny from the previous season’s hatch – contributing to the raising of the young.

Typically, the birds build their nest on a solid platform such as the fork of a tree, the cross arms of a power pole or, sometimes, in the case of the common raven, on a ledge or crack in a cliff face. It appears that the male hauls most of the construction material to the nest site, and the female builds the nest, which she will make sturdy because she may use it again in coming years. First, she braids small branches and twigs and sometimes even bone or wire into a rough bowl shape spanning a foot and a half to several feet in diameter. Then, she lines her nest with whatever softer materials may be available—grasses, shredded bark, leaves, moss, animal fur, sheep wool, mud and maybe even rags or paper. The lined cup may span a foot in diameter and measure a few inches in depth.

After she finishes her nest, the female lays five or six generally oval-shaped greenish-colored eggs over a period of several days. While she takes primary responsibility for incubating her eggs, the male guards the nest from predators, feeds the female on her nest, and may even incubate the eggs for brief periods.

After about three weeks, the eggs begin to hatch. Babies are born blind and helpless, covered with a slight down. While the female carries most responsibility for brooding the newborn, the male and, now the helpers as well, fetch food, typically insects, grains, carrion and food scraps for the female and the new arrivals. Sometimes, the male and the helpers dip the food in water to make it softer and easier for the nestlings to swallow.

Within a couple of weeks, the young have opened their eyes and begun sprouting feathers. Within four or five weeks, they are fully feathered, and active. They begin short flights. They develop the ability to take care of themselves, but stay in the vicinity of the nest still begging their parents and the helpers for food. After a couple of months, they may leave to join other adolescents, but some may return the following year to serve their turn as helpers in raising their parents’ next brood.

The next time you see a raven strike up a conversation and see what happens Observing these birds as they go about their business of making a living is so much fun!


1. Ravens are one of the smartest animals.

When it comes to intelligence, these birds rate up there with chimpanzees and dolphins. In one logic test, the raven had to get a hanging piece of food by pulling up a bit of the string, anchoring it with its claw, and repeating until the food was in reach. Many ravens got the food on the first try, some within 30 seconds. In the wild, ravens have pushed rocks on people to keep them from climbing to their nests, stolen fish by pulling a fishermen’s line out of ice holes, and played dead beside a beaver carcass to scare other ravens away from a delicious feast.

If a raven knows another raven is watching it hide its food, it will pretend to put the food in one place while really hiding it in another. Since the other ravens are smart too, this only works sometimes.

2. Ravens can imitate human speech.

In captivity, ravens can learn to talk better than some parrots. They also mimic other noises, like car engines, toilets flushing, and animal and birdcalls. Ravens have been known to imitate wolves or foxes to attract them to carcasses that the raven isn’t capable of breaking open. When the wolf is done eating, the raven gets the leftovers.

3. Europeans often saw ravens as evil in disguise.

Many European cultures took one look at this large black bird with an intense gaze and thought it was evil. In France, people believed ravens were the souls of wicked priests, while crows were wicked nuns. In Germany, ravens were the incarnation of damned souls or sometimes Satan himself. In Sweden, ravens that croaked at night were thought to be the souls of murdered people who didn’t have proper Christian burials. And in Denmark, people believed that night ravens were exorcised spirits. It was important not to look up at them in case there was a hole in the bird’s wing, because you might look through the hole and turn into a raven yourself.

4. Ravens have been featured in many myths.

Cultures from Tibet to Greece have seen the raven as a messenger for the gods. Celtic goddesses of warfare often took the form of ravens during battles. The Viking god, Odin, had two ravens, Hugin (thought) and Munin (memory), which flew around the world every day and reported back to Odin every night about what they saw. The Chinese said ravens caused bad weather in the forests to warn people that the gods were going to pass by. And some Native American tribes honored the raven as a deity and because of its clever ways. Raven led the people to food sources and assisted hunters, Raven was also seen as a sly trickster who was also a creator god.

5. Ravens are extremely playful.

Indigenous peoples were right about the raven’s mischievous nature. Ravens have been observed in Alaska and Canada using snow-covered roofs as slides. In Maine, they have been seen rolling down snowy hills. They often play keep-away with other animals like wolves, otters, and dogs. Ravens even make toys like bears do by using sticks, pinecones, golf balls, or rocks to play with each other or alone. Sometimes they apparently taunt or mock other creatures for their own amusement.

6. Ravens do weird things with ants.

They lie in anthills and roll around so the ants swarm on them, or they chew the ants up and rub their guts on their feathers. The scientific name for this is called “anting.” Songbirds, crows, and jays do it too. Theories range from the ants acting as an insecticide and fungicide for the bird to ant secretion soothing a molting bird’s skin to the whole performance being a mild addiction. One thing seems clear, though: anting feels great if you’re a raven.

7. Ravens use “hand” gestures.

It turns out that ravens make “very sophisticated nonvocal signals,” according to researchers. In other words, they gesture to communicate. A study in Austria found that ravens point with their beaks to indicate an object to another bird, just as we do with our fingers. They also hold up an object to get another bird’s attention.

8. Ravens are adaptable.

Evolutionarily speaking, the deck is stacked in the raven’s favor. They can live in a variety of habitats, from snow to desert to mountains to forests. They are scavengers with a huge diet that includes fish, meat, seeds, fruit, carrion, and garbage. They are not above tricking animals out of their food—one raven will distract the other animal, for example, and the other will steal its food. They have few predators and live a long time: 17 years in the wild and up to 40 years in captivity.

9. Ravens show empathy for each other.

Despite their mischievous nature, ravens seem capable of feeling empathy. When a raven’s friend loses in a fight, they will seem to console the losing bird. Ravens are known to mourn their dead as so many other animals do. They also remember birds they like and will respond in a friendly way to certain birds for years after seeing them. (They also respond negatively to enemies and suspiciously to strange ravens.) Although a flock of ravens is called an “unkindness,” the birds appear to be anything but.

10. Ravens roam around in teenage gangs.

Ravens probably mate for life and live in pairs in a fixed territory. When their children reach adolescence, they leave home and join gangs, like every human mother’s worst nightmare. These flocks of young birds live and eat together until they mate and pair off. Interestingly, living among teenagers seems to be stressful for the raven. Scientists have found higher levels of stress hormones in teenage raven droppings than in the droppings of mated adults. It’s never easy being a teenage rebel!

3 thoughts on “Wily Ravens

  1. Crows are very intelligent. They come to at the appointed hour if you feed them a morsel and bring down the house if you forgot to do so on any appointed day…Great Post, Sara!


    1. Its not just crows and ravens. Whenever my hummingbird feeders are empty the hummingbirds “buzz” the house by flying back and forth in front of the windows and hovering until I refill their feeders!


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