Summit Outside: Ravens: More than meets the eye |

Summit Outside: Ravens: More than meets the eye

Joanne Stolen
Special to the Daily

Special to the Daily/Joanne Stolen

I saw the biggest raven I have ever seen sitting in a tree outside my dining room window the other day, so I decided to write about ravens! The common raven has accompanied humans around for centuries, following their wagons, sleds, sleighs and hunting parties in hopes of a quick meal.

Many people confuse ‘ravens’ and ‘crows.’ They are both black and belong to the crow family (corvus), but they are actually quite different.

First, and most noticeably, ravens are larger than crows. Crows average around 17 inches long, and ravens about 24-27 inches. Crows have a wing span around 2.5 ft., and ravens about 3.5-4 ft. A raven weighs about four times that of a crow.

Crows have a more nasal, higher pitched call, where a raven’s call is lower, and hoarse-sounding; almost a croaking sound. Ravens make a huge variety of sounds. A raven’s calls can express surprise, tenderness, happiness or rage. Ravens can imitate the sounds of other birds. Some say they can be even taught to make the sounds of human speech.

Crows have a very fan-shaped tail, where raven’s tails have more of a wedge-shape. When flying overhead, you can get a good look at the shape of the tail. Crow feathers tend to be more rounded at the tip, while ravens feathers are slightly pointed. When the bird fluffs itself up, the feathers on the crow’s breast look even, and rounded, while the feathers on a ravens’ breast tend to look ragged. When a raven really fluffs up it appears to have a short fluffy mane (called a ‘ruff’). The upper and lower edges of the bill are parallel for most of their length in ravens, while in crows there is a downward curve.

Ravens soar more than crows. Crows never do the somersault in flight that common ravens often do. Raven wings are shaped differently than are crow wings, with longer primaries (“fingers”) with more space between them.

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There are more differences between crows and ravens, including their social habits and life span (ravens live longer). Ravens prefer wilder areas while crows will live quite close to cities.

There are many examples of interspecies relations/behavior of the American crow. The common raven repeatedly chased crows from a feeding station, always resulting in the crow dropping the cache. This would unnerve the crows to no-end; causing them to gather and caw vehemently. Ravens are more cautious or less audacious. Ravens would not approach a landfill until there were at least four crows present. After awhile if no crows were present, they would use their own lookouts. Several other accounts exist of ravens using crows as their sentinels.

Ravens are at the top of the avian pyramid in mental attributes. Bernd Heinrich, an academic field biologist, spent four consecutive winters at a cabin in Maine watching ravens at feed stations, attempting to solve a question concerning an obvious paradox he witnessed with the ravens. He had observed ravens at a carcass “sharing” the prized meat and wondered why a pair of ravens would not defend such a prize at a time when meat supply was scarce. He learned that the raven’s (unmated juveniles) possibly “recruit” others to a food source because, by sharing with others it gains “friends,” from which it may gain a mate from in the future due to its foraging abilities. While mated pairs are more-or-less anchored to their localized nesting area; low status juveniles are left to form wandering unmated “gangs.”

Ravens eat most anything: fruits, seeds, nuts, fish, carrion, small animals, food remains and garbage. Ravens are known to steal the food of many birds and mammals, even from dogs. They can act in pairs: one individual captures the dog’s attention, while the other steals its food. They also follow wolf packs and eat remains from their prey.

Ravens are considered the most intelligent birds, displaying high learning ability and use of logic for solving problems, The raven’s developed intelligence is connected to their complex social lives and scavenging lifestyles. In some tests they bypassed even chimpanzees in ability. Ravens have been taught to count. In one experiment, a raven had to reach a piece of meat dangling from strings bound to perches. To get to the food, a raven had to follow a series of actions: pull up a string, then stretch, hold a loop of it on the perch with a claw, then pull up another string and hold that loop. The raven took six tries to get the meat. Even after 30 trials, crows did not succeed.

A family who had a raven living with them for six months said he ended up taking over the entire neighborhood. They said that they had a lot of great adventures with many different kinds of animals, but the raven surpassed them all. They were amazed by his intelligence, love of play and the way he teased other animals, played dead, let the neighbors’ dogs out so he could steal the dog food and so much more.

A raven has been seen playing tricks on wolves. It has been seen sneaking up to a sleeping wolf and pinching its’ tail. When the wolf tried to bite the raven, the bird jumped away. There are reports of ravens perched on the roofs of supermarkets waiting for people to pass so that they could push snow on them.

The raven has been depicted as both evil and good. Chinese, Egyptian, Greek, Semitic and Siberian legends depict the raven as a messenger of storms or bad weather. In African, Asian and European legends, the raven forecasts death. Shakespeare presents ravens as messengers or exponents of evil, while in “Titus Andronicus” they are described as benefactors feeding abandoned children. In his poem “The Raven,” by Edgar Allan Poe, this bird depicts lost love and despair.

Dr. Joanne Stolen is retired from teaching microbiology at Rutgers University.