Scary-smart

Halloween raven
Ravens populate the mythology of many cultures throughout the northern hemisphere (Photo: John North/iStockphoto, Used with permission).

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Fright-night is lurking just around the corner. Frankensteins, mummies, zombies, ghosts, and golems will soon leave their lairs to roam freely through our cities and suburbs, searching for something to eat. Butterfingers, Baby Ruths, and brains—oh my!

poe's ravenReanimated but mindless creatures? HA! They don’t scare me. It’s the ones I’m not so sure I could outsmart that give me nightmares. You know… Hannibal Lecter. Patrick Bateman. Brilliant but mad scientists. Shape-shifters, tricksters, and ravens.

That’s right—it’s Poe’s gently rapping, tap-tap-tapping apparition, the common raven (Corvus corax), that keeps me up at night. Similar in appearance to the American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos), but larger and more slender with a wedge-shaped tail and a heavy, arched beak—a santoku blade to the crow’s steak knife.

Now, understand that I’m not implying they’re evil… just that there’s definitely something spooky about a massive, inky bird with a genius IQ and an inclination towards… exploiting opportunities, shall we say.  Humans have long considered these birds both charismatic and ominous, fascinating and frightening. Spread across much of the northern hemisphere, ravens have stained the mythologies of native people Valkyries by Emil Doeplerthroughout their range. In Scandinavian cultures, this feathered carrion-eater was associated with war, blood, and corpses and their Valkyries—goddesses who decide which warriors will die in battle and who will be granted an afterlife in Valhalla—often were accompanied by ravens. The Celts made a connection between ravens, war, and death as well; true to their inherent interest in metaphysics, though, they also credited these birds with the ability to see the future, to move freely between worlds and, oddly enough, to play chess (rook is the common name for Corvus frugilegus, a European member of the raven-crow clan).

Mythology aside, ravens have been judged by humans to be among the smartest of all birds. That may be damning them with too-faint praise. Various studies in and out of the lab have tested researchers intelligence and creativity while they attempt to test the raven’s problem-solving skills. The jury’s still out on which party finds these efforts more enlightening. Ravens have been observed applying an understanding of cause-and-effect to the problem of filling an empty stomach—they learn to associate the sound of a rifle being fired during hunting season with the presence of a carcass (similarly loud sounds are ignored). Not content to simply wait for a scavenging opportunity, ravens will work in pairs or even larger teams, using a distraction strategy to separate adult birds and mammals from their vulnerable children, to gang up on prey too large for a single bird to overwhelm, or to defend resources and territory against neighboring gangs. Nature, it has been said, is red in tooth and claw, and ravens are definitely a part of that gruesome heritage.

There’s more to the story, of course—isn’t there always? Ravens are a threat to any number of wild youngsters, but they are devoted parents to their own offspring, who remain dependent for longer than many other bird babies. Both male and female are involved in parenting and are thought to mate for life.

Ravens aren’t as social as crows—they would prefer to go trick-or-treating alone or in pairs than in a mob—but they aren’t loners in the stereotypical serial-killer sense. During winter months they will form a flock, a.k.a. an unkindness (who comes up with these names?!), to find food during daylight hours and stay warm at night.

raven playing with the windOne very appealing characteristic is their sense of fun. Ravens are audacious, acrobatic flyers who take obvious pleasure in practicing dives, rolls, and loops, or even flying upside-down. I’ve personally watched ravens play with the wind blasting up the face of a cliff or a tall building, a sight that never fails to make me long for wings of my own. A favorite game, particularly among young ravens, involves climbing high in the sky holding some object, dropping it, and then racing gravity to catch it midair.

I also learned that here in North America, ravens have been assigned a very different mythological role than in Europe. Pacific Northwest legend has it they take a kind of noblesse oblige attitude toward the human race. Grandfather Raven is portrayed as a devilish philanthrope, a Robin Hood figure who stole the Sun, Moon, Stars, Fire, Water, and even Salmon from various deities and gave them to the people. How would you like to find those treats in your goody bag on Halloween?

Perhaps ravens, like so many scapegoats before them, have been unfairly vilified.  We should never forget that the job of predators and scavengers is thankless, but a crucial component of healthy ecosystems. French author Andre Gide may have said it best, “There are very few monsters who warrant the fear we have of them.” I think it’s time to change my thinking.  From this point forward, I’m going to dream of playful, benevolent ravens and be frightened nevermore.

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© 2011 Next-Door Nature— no reprints without written permission from the author. Thanks to Ian Burt (Poe’s raven) and Ingrid Taylar (raven playing on the wind) for making their photographs available via a Creative Commons license. Walkyrien by Emil Doepler is in the public domain.

8 Replies to “Scary-smart”

  1. While living on my grandparents farm, I got used to the constant crow and raven call as they use the hillside behind the farm as a roosting and breeding area. In our area, the crow and raven are vilified by farmers who will often take up hunting (i.e. exterminating them) for their damage to crops. While they also eat out some of the bad weed seeds and grubs, its not comparable to their crop damage, which can be very extensive, (hence the local ‘deadbird’ scarecrow). I had also heard many interesting stories about them from my grandparents including some horrific sounding ‘crow recipes’ which to this day I’m still not sure was not just a mocking of the ‘to eat crow’ metaphor.

    Con’t…

  2. As Dr. Lindsey points out, they are very smart. There was not a single day (in warm weather) were you couldn’t go up in the hillside and see them stealthily mucking about in the tree tops, watching your every movement, then relaying it as a warning to their buddies, then onto our berry patches. It is often said that ravens only eat carrion while crows mostly eat grains…which is completely false. They will both eat about anything, including asphalt pieces, blueberries, tomatoes, bugs, small children lol.

    Despite the rampage on people’s crops, I think its possible the bird’s evil/ominous reputation, at least in spooky and poetic terms, was partly due to the bird’s grouping names. Crow groups are called ‘murders’, and ravens are normally called a murder (or an ‘unkindness’), and I would speculate its because they are always attacking other birds, and even each other. Ironically Poe’s raven, while portrayed as a dark and evil bird, is actually inspired by the comedic character ‘Grip’ in ‘Barnaby Rudge’. Go figure.

    Oddly enough, in rural farm areas, people often refer to the ravens as crows, yet city-folk refer to the crows as ravens. I suppose this ironic mistaken identity is easy to see however since not only are the birds almost identical from a distance. To properly identify them, you would have to know very distinctive traits that aren’t easily seen unless you are directly beneath them in flight, or can hear their calls, (but even the calls can be misleading because both crows and ravens can mimic each other for short periods.)

    Adding to the confusion, I’ve found that people consistently give bad information regarding their size to determine species, but this is very misleading as a full grown crow is larger than an immature raven. Also the crows out West are much smaller than our Eastern crows, and up North the crows can be downright huge and a bit more migratory than our Southern crows. I also often hear erroneous facts regarding sheen color to their feathers. Some people say the raven has a blue-black sheen, some say the crow has the blue tint. The fact is, according to the time of day/light, both can have this blue tint, but typically the raven will have a purplish sheen and even a green sheen in the wings. Even more odd, they can be both leucistic white and albino white, and sometimes brownish during molting of if dirty from cornfields or roadsides. A young raven is more brown than black as well. Confused yet?

    In comparison, the raven’s beak is almost always larger and has parallel sides where a crow’s beak will start to curve sooner, and the tail of the raven is more pointed, whereas the crows tail is rounded or sometimes squared, but this is VERY hard to tell while their sitting on the ground. To confuse the case even more, the raven will have a longer neck than a crow, but they will often pull in in tight and fluff it up, making it look much shorter…like a crow’s. However, the single best indicator of the crow is the rounded tail in flight, and their flight isn’t quite as acrobatic and soaring as a raven. The raven almost seems to fly for fun according to their acrobatics.

    Also making identification harder, the raven is always crow, but a crow isn’t always a raven. So, if you’re in doubt, just say its a crow lol.

  3. By the way, to determine if the crow or raven is a male or female, unless you actually witness one laying an egg or just happen to have a DNA sequencer handy…well, all I can say is good luck on that one lol.

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