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Sonoma County Gazette

Mysterious, Clever, Eerie, Humorous Ravens

Sep 27, 2017
by Lisa Hug


By Lisa Hug

The Common Raven is the largest songbird in the world.  It ranges all over Europe, Asia and North America. Throughout human history the raven has been a prominent character in the folklore of nearly every culture.  Ancient Europeans feared the Common Raven. In France, people believed that ravens were the embodiment of souls of evil priests; and that crows were the embodiment of the souls of wicked nuns (as I write this, crows are flying over my house, calling hauntingly).  Swedes believed that the croaking ravens at night were the souls of murdered people who didn’t have proper Christian burials. And Danes believed that ravens were exorcized spirits.

 This European mistrust for ravens and crows has been brought to North America.  We call a flock of crows a “murder,” and we call a flock of ravens an “unkindness.”  Most Native Americans however, admired ravens.  They worshipped the raven as a deity, a world creator, and a clever trickster.

Scientists in Sweden (Can Kabadayi and Mathias Osvath) have discovered that ravens are so intelligent that they can plan ahead, and actually choose to delay immediate gratification for a larger prize in the future.  If ravens are given a choice between a small snack to eat immediately and a tool which they can use later to obtain a better treat in the future, they will choose the tool over the instant gratification.  How many humans are that smart?

In addition to their ability to problem-solve, ravens are very playful and they have a sense of humor.  They are known to use snow-covered roofs as slides.  They will make toys out of sticks, pine cones or rocks, and play “keep-away” with wild mammals, or even our pet dogs and cats. They remember faces and behaviors.  They know which humans they can trust and which humans mean them harm.

 Ravens have a language with many different vocalizations.  They point at objects with their bills to communicate with other ravens. They also hold up objects to grab the attention of other ravens.  They imitate the calls of wolves and coyotes to attract them to fresh carcasses that the Ravens are unable to break into themselves.

Ravens are social animals. Once they choose a mate, they are loyal to that mate for life.  They keep their pair-bonds throughout the year, not just in the spring breeding season.  Pairs can often be seen perched together chortling away with each other and preening each other’s feathers.  However, young ravens or “teenagers” will travel around in “gangs” or unkindnesses until they find that other special raven.

While the Common Raven has declined in much of its range in North America (particularly in the East), the population is increasing and thriving in Sonoma County.  In the early 1990s, the Common Raven was only nesting in remote areas of the northern, highland parts of the county.  But by 2011, Ravens have been found nesting all over the county, including the lowland areas where ravens were rarely encountered in earlier decades (Sonoma County Breeding Bird Atlas 1986-91 and preliminary data 2011- 2016).  The raven benefits from our garbage dumps, and agricultural practices.

We cannot help but respect ravens for their intelligence, humor, and loyalty to each other.  They are primarily scavengers, but will also eat garbage, fruit, grains, insects, small mammals, and unfortunately eggs and nestlings of other birds.  Therefore, it is not a good idea to feed ravens.  In fact, if you encourage Ravens to enter your garden, you can endanger the lives of nearby small nesting birds.  Distant admiration is the best way to enjoy Common Ravens.



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