By Jim Leser
During the summer of 2019 my wife and I took a trip to Alaska with our adult kids. We encountered many ravens in Dawson City and I was instantly captivated by them and their behavior. Now ravens do make it into Colorado in limited numbers but their main distribution is in the northwest, Canada to Alaska. Rarely are they found in the eastern U.S. I have seen them sparingly in the Cedaredge area. Crows are found throughout most of the U.S. and Canada but not in Alaska.
So I ask are ravens just a larger crow? I don’t think so. They are in the same genus, Corvus, but not the same species. This black bird is a good size, sometimes mistaken as a hawk when flying. It is about three times the size of the common crow. A heavier, more curved bill and wedge-shaped tail will generally distinguish it from crows. Crow tails have a more rounded fan-like shape. Also, raven throat feathers are much shaggier than a crow’s. And feathers extend further down the top of its beak than in crows.
Ravens often travel in pairs, while crows are seen in larger groups. And ravens soar more in flight while crows tend to flap their wings more. Also, listen closely to their calls. Crows give a cawing sound, but ravens produce a lower croaking sound. Ravens tend to spend a lot of time walking on the ground rather than flying or perching. Although I did observe many perched on roofs of building and power lines. Rarely are they found in urban environments, preferring solitude in most instances. While ravens do not usually associate with humans, one of the exceptions might be the interdependence of some native Alaskan hunters who rely on ravens to locate possible prey while the hunters keep the ravens fed year round.
These birds are remarkably adaptable and intelligent. They make a living as both a scavenger and predator, often feeding on the carcasses of dead animals right along with predators such as wolves. They can be seen feeding on garbage dumps right along with grizzly bears. They eat almost anything including berries and other plant material but their diet mostly consists of animals, both dead and alive.
All corvids are “intelligent,” but ravens appear to be the “smartest” of them all. Maybe they need to form a Mensa group for birds? Much has been attributed to the intelligence and subsequent behaviors of ravens. But whether their behavior is instinctual in reaction to an environmental stimulus or if instead they do have a consciousness, a capacity for insight, is a subject for debate. They are known to communicate messages to each other through many different calls, giving warnings, threats and taunting other birds. They are observed playing, picking up objects and hiding them. And like crows, ravens remember people.
Incubation of their 4-7 light green eggs is almost always by the female but its mate does bring food to the nest-sitting female. Both parents take turns feeding their young. They fledge after 30 to 40 days but often follow their parents around begging for food for a considerable time after leaving the nest. Sound familiar? They survive in all four seasons in surroundings as different as desert and high Arctic tundra.
Ravens seem to be the subject of many myths and folklore. There are too many of these to discuss here but look to Garth C. Clifford’s “Raven Symbolism & Meaning (+Totem, Spirit & Omens)” (2021) for more information. He states that: “Some Native American tribes link the Raven deity with the theft of the sun. As per animal totems, which hold great importance in the Native American culture, raven totem symbolizes a change in consciousness and also represents a shapeshifter.”
The raven has been immortalized in Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, “The Raven” with the quote: “Quoth the Raven, Nevermore.” And there is actually a position at the Tower of London where one of the Beefeater wardens takes care of the resident flock of ravens and is called the Ravenmaster. It is said that if the ravens ever leave the Tower, London will fall.
For those of you who are really into ravens I might suggest reading two books by Bernd Heinrich: “Raven’s in the Winter” (1989) and “Mind of the Raven” (1999). Heinrich and I share one thing in common; we both independently studied temperature regulation in bumblebees as related to floral morphology of flowers visited.
Jim Leser retired to Cedaredge in 2007 after a career with Texas A&M University Extension in entomology. He is a member of the Cedaredge Tree Board and a Certified Colorado Gardener.