Featured Birds: Common Ravens

The Common Raven is the largest of all songbirds, is also considered by many to be the most intelligent bird in the world. Common Ravens are found throughout most of the Northern Hemisphere, featuring in the folklore and mythology of many cultures from Scandinavia and ancient Ireland and Wales to Siberia, and the Northwest coast of North America. Their large size and thick plumage protect them from the frigid cold of Arctic winters. Their over-sized bill is sturdy enough to allow them to chip into carcasses that are frozen solid.

Ravens are sociable, and usually encountered by twos, consisting of a mated pair or two “partners”—birds a year or two old that haven’t acquired a mate yet. Overall, ravens are more standoffish than their close relatives the crows. They do often roost at night in fairly large flocks, and gather at large carcasses to feed together, but these flocks are seldom as numerous as most crow gatherings are.

Each mated pair is identified with a nesting territory year-round, though it’s uncertain whether they defend it in winter. When a young, unmated raven discovers a large carcass, it will often call loudly to alert other ravens to join it. This may be done as an impulse to share the wealth but also may help overwhelm an adult pair who “owns” that territory, and may help defend the carcass against eagles, wolves, or other animals that want to claim the carcass. By calling other ravens to the site, the young one that discovered the food will get a portion it couldn’t have defended on its own.

Scientists believe that, like most other species in their family, ravens mate for life. But ravens don’t cooperate well with researchers, so scientists haven’t done many studies with marked individuals to determine how true or universal this is. Ravens are especially effective at discovering, obtaining, and defending food resources in pairs, and even before they’re old enough to have a mate, many juveniles pair up with a partner of either sex for hunting and other day-to-day activities.

Thanks to their long, maneuverable wings and tail, ravens engage in a lot of aerial acrobatics such as sudden rolls, wing-tucked dives, and playing with objects by dropping and catching them in midair. One raven was seen flying upside down for more than half a mile!

Why are ravens considered so intelligent? They have learned to exploit more novel situations than other birds. While they ignore or avoid most loud noises, some have learned to approach after a gunshot, knowing a carcass or gut pile left by a hunter may be near. They sometimes work in pairs to raid seabird colonies, with one bird distracting an incubating adult and the other waiting to grab an egg or chick as soon as it’s uncovered. They’ve been seen waiting in trees as ewes give birth, then attacking the newborn lambs.

They’ve learned how to open packages, backpacks, and the latches on many coolers to get at the food inside. In captivity, they’ve learned an impressive number of “tricks” and figured out puzzles that even some humans would have trouble with.

People often associate ravens with Halloween, in part because of Edgar Allan Poe’s famous poem, The Raven. Poe lived in several cities in the East during his lifetime, but one of the few houses he lived that is still standing is in Baltimore, where the Edgar Allan Poe Society is located, and Baltimore is the city where Poe died.

It’s Baltimore’s association with Poe that led to their football team being named the Ravens. Ravens weigh significantly more than footballs: a regulation NFL football weighs 14–15 ounces; an adult Common Raven weighs 24–58 ounces, so the scrawniest ravens could balance one and a half footballs, and the largest could balance almost four footballs.