Ravens, crows and jays make up the corvid familiy, arguably the most intelligent of birds. We may honor the bald eagle as our national symbol, but compared to any corvid, the eagle is definitely a bird brain. Ravens in particular, based on their omnivorous adaptability to almost any environment, their fascination with colorful toys and glittery objects, their use of natural tools, and their remarkably diverse repertoire of sounds and vocalizations, appear to be exceptionally intelligent. In fact, ravens remind me of us, human beings, creatures with no formidable anatomical weapons, like claws or serious teeth, but large brains to help us figure out how to fashion tools and strategies to help us get whatever we need.
Wherever wolves hunt, ravens are present, scavenging prey, and sometimes leading upwind wolves to potential prey, or to carcasses too frozen or tough for even the ravens’ heavy, pick-like beaks to penetrate.
scavenge wolf kills, but steal up to one third of a carcass, by
carrying away chunks of meat, caching and hiding them both from the
their fellow ravens. A fascinating study suggested that, since an adult
can, by itself, kill any prey smaller than a small moose, the real
wolves hunt in packs, is to minimize the portion of a carcass lost to
And while it may seem that wolves have the short end of this symbiotic
relationship with ravens, idle wolves and ravens have been observed
together, with ravens pulling on wolf tails, and wolf pups chasing
and skeptical. In several studies conducted at Yellowstone
Park, where carcasses were randomly left for ravens, it showed
them to be
initially hesitant, waiting to observe conspecifics or other scavengers
first, but when following a wolf pack, they usually began feeding
immediately after, and sometimes alongside. Ravens are so clever,
observed pulling fishing lines out of winter fishing holes, using a
stabilize the line, while using the bill to pull to pull the line up.
Ravens are better vocal mimics than parrots, as they can express sounds with both deeper and higher tones. One of our ravens, Rikki Raven, not only learned to perfectly mimic my laugh, but when performing menial tasks, I often walk around listening to audible books on the iPhone in my breast pocket, and Rikki managed to mimic the tinny sound of a human reading over the phone.
Crows watch and study peoples faces, demonstrating the ability to recall faces, and alert other crows to avoid people. For example, students in a university study, would don masks, and then mistreat wild crows, chasing them and throwing objects at them, to determine whether the crows would be able to later recognize their faces, instigating other crows to dive bomb and mob their tormenters. They did.
Passerines make up more than half of all bird species. Ravens are the largest passerine or song birds, averaging two feet in length, two and a half pounds, with a wing spread of about four and a half feet. We often confuse ravens with crows, which are about half the size of ravens and have noticeable differences in structure and behavior.
Crows are more likely to flock together in gangs when they’re not feeding, especially at dawn and dusk, in groups often referred to as a “murder of crows”. They prefer being closer to the feeding opportunities presented where people live or gather in large numbers, and careless disposal or placement of consummables means dinner for the crows. In fact, crows not only occasionally attack and murder other individual crows, but have been seen gathered around the body of a dead crow in what appears to be mourning. Crows are more urban birds, while ravens are more territorial, more likely to break out as monogomous breeding pairs, and seem to prefer rural areas.
Young, unattached ravens may group up and share feeding opportunities in what is called a "conspiracy" or "unkindness", but once grown and paired up, ravens defend a territory in order to support a family. These darkly sinister labels probably reflect the observed history of crows and ravens using gravestones as perches from which to hunt insects and small rodents, and more disturbingly, feeding on dead bodies, particularly those of soldiers and combatants after a battle. Crows and ravens are probably the most opportunistically common scavengers of human flesh. No wonder they are often viewed as omens or portends of death.
Crows usually build their nests in deciduous trees, and the nests are smaller but easier to spot, particularly in early Spring, before the leaves grow. Ravens build larger nests, which may be built higher in conifers, and harder to spot, but they will also build nests on rocky ledges, or just about any flat surface, natural or man made, out of reach of all predators except owls and eagles.
Crows are noisier and more likely to caw in groups. If they’re on the ground or perching, crows dip and raise their heads while engaging in repetitve high pitched cawing. Ravens make an astonishing variety of sounds, working out of a croaking and gurgling like call, interspersed with loud clock pendulam like noises, but while doing so, they stand or perch more upright, like an orator, their jagged feathery hackles or beard, fanning out from their throats, a feature crows lack. Crows caw frequently when flying, and more often than not, they’re flapping their smaller wings while flying. Ravens soar and glide with their wings out in a straight plain, more the way hawks and eagles do.
Once landed, crows twitch their tails nervously, as well as their wings, without leaving the ground, as though they’re ready to take off at the first disturbance, such as when you continue to stare at them, or photograph them. Ravens land and then perform a series of leap or bounces, three to twelve inches off the branch or ground, using both legs and wings, before settling down, as though to covince themselves it’s really safe to land there.
Anatomically, the tops of crows’ heads are smaller and more dome like. Their bills are shorter and smaller, the upper and lower bills more symetrical. Ravens have a blockier shaped head, and much larger, heavier bills, with upper bill longer than lower and curved downwards at its sharp front. The upper raven bill has specialized feathers resembling long black hairs, covering the nostrils and more than half of the bill. I’ve been bitten by ravens, a severe pinch which really hurts. Raven eyes are deep grayish to black, depending on the light, and closer to the bill than a crows eyes are. In flight, the raven shows a wedge shaped tail, while the crows tail is more fan shaped. Male corvids are larger than female corvids, the opposite of what you find in birds of prey. Crow and raven feet resemble thinner, weaker versions of raptor feet, without the powerful, crushing toes and deadly talons.
of the success of
crows and ravens is due to their diet. They’ll eat pretty much
certainly anything we will eat. While most of raven food is scavenged
stolen, they can act predatory, going after everything from insects to
turtles and small snakes, to immature birds. It is alleged that ravens
go after livestock like newborn goats and calves, disabling them by
pecking at their eyes, blinding them and
ganging up on them, opening wounds around the torso, from which they
feed while prey is still alive.
Keep in mind that ranchers and farmers are compensated by the American taxpayer for animals confirmed killed by predators, which makes one wonder whether western ranchers, who appear to have a donation stranglehold on western Senators and Congressmen, are familiar with the phrase "the cost of doing business". As Bernd Heinrich points out in his highly recommended book, "The Mind of the Raven", there appears to be no visual record of this raven initiated. predation
Ravens have been in the new World for about two million years, and while there are at least six different recognized species of ravens in the world, the ravens in North America break down into the California clade, which is found only in the southwestern U.S., and the Holarctic clade, which includes all ravens around the world in the northern hemishere. The two clades were broken up by Pleistocene glaciers, and proceeded to evolve in their own closely related directions, and while there are small genetic differences, there are none that prevent them from mating. Ravens live in nearly all temperate habitats, incuding up to twenty thousand feet on Mount Everest!
Owing to their size, ravens have few predators other than great horned owls and eagles, but their nests can be raided by martens and fishers. Wolves, and foxes can be dangerous around carrion, but the ravens are generally too fast to be captured.The great horned owl is the most dangerous predator to the crow, which is why when owls are spotted by crows, they will be harrassed and mobbed by murders of crows, intent on driving the owl out of that territory. We have witnessed this firsthand when releasing successfully rehabbed great horned owls.
must defend a
territory successfully, before they can select a site for a nest, which
likely be used by the pair every year until one of the pair dies.
three to seven eggs ranging from February to April, depending on
means earlier in the south and later in the north. Incubation is
twenty one days, but only the female sits on the eggs. Chicks fledge
within 35 to 42 days, fed by both parents. Mature chicks will leave the
for good after about six months, In the wild, ravens can live into
twenties, but more typically ten to fifteen years, crows six to eight.
In June of 2008, Wendy received a call from a vet’s office in Plattsburgh asking her to pick up a raven that was "annonymously" left at their office. It had some minor problems, an eye and a temporary wing injury. Wendy was unavailable that day, so a friend and fellow rehabber took him home, and then transferred him to Wendy with a collection of stories of her own about this whimsical presence. Questions arose: had he been imprinted or habituated? Wendy called him Abie (AB) because she would recite the alphabet song every time she passed his enclosure, waiting for Abie to kick in, but instead he offered a few choice sounds of his own!
At that time, Our wolf hybrid Cree’s enclosure was located just across the path from Abie’s, so they gradually struck up a friendship. Cree would howl and then Abie would vocalize those odd calypso cocoanutty sounds they make. As Cree would welcome me with a cold wet nose, so Abie would with a nice sturdy peck, (or just restyle Wendy’s do – see photo).
Eventually, it was time for Abie to be soft- released, and we all bid him farewell, already missing his antics. As it turned out, however, he still paid us regular visits. His alarm often sounds at 6 AM, and he returns again at 4 PM to "assist" Wendy with the afternoon feedings of the educational and display raptors. Abie’s contribution to helping us feed was to land on top of the great horned owl enclosure, and drop leaves and twigs on Utah’s head, and sometimes on Wendy’s as well! Abie’s favorite past time was perching on the side of Cree’s pen and hanging out . He later found a girlfriend, who was not as anxious to approach Cree, so Abie’s visits became more infrequent and distant, consisting of exchanging greetings with Cree.
We were later given another raven, this one non-releasable, due to a more serious permanent wing injury, which left her only partially flighted. We referred to her as Lenore. At first, Lenore was extremely wary of all of us, and hid, not retrieving her food until we were well out of sight. One day, as I was roughhousing with Cree, I felt these beady eyes upon me and low and behold, it was Lenore, perched on the same branch Abie chose to carry on with Cree. After that time, when she appeared to build up enough trust, seeing Cree’s reaction to me, she's began feeding from our hands and became an education bird.
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Adirondack Wildlife Refuge & Rehabilitation Center
Steve & Wendy Hall
PO Box 555, 977 Springfield Road, Wilmington, NY 12997
Toll Free: 855-Wolf-Man (855-965-3626)
Cell Phones: 914-715-7620 or 914-772-5983
Office Phone: 518-946-2428
Email us: info@AdirondackWildlife.org