By Joan Collins
Common ravens are members of the corvid family, species considered the smartest of all birds. Ravens possess complex problem-solving skills, use tools to reach food and excel as well as apes and young children in their ability to plan ahead.
They are the largest and most widely distributed perching songbird, found in much of North America and Eurasia. I observed a raven attempting to intimidate a red-tailed hawk by making a perfect dog-whine sound (corvids are great mimics), as it towered over the hawk in a face-off on a branch.
Common ravens significantly expanded their range across the state between the first (1980-1985) and second (2000-2005) New York Breeding Bird Atlases. They were nearly exterminated from eastern North America by 1900 as a result of forest destruction and persecution. Scientists attribute their expansion to forest maturation and tolerance of people. They nest in a variety of locations, including the underside of overhanging cliffs. I have found their nests high in large white pine trees near the trunk.
I’m often asked how you can tell a raven from a crow. The common raven (24 inch-length with a 53 inch-wingspan) is much larger than an American crow (17.5 inch-length and 39 inch-wingspan). In the air, a raven often soars like a hawk while a crow does more wing flapping. The raven has a wedge-shaped tail and larger bill. On the ground, a raven walks with a swagger given its large body on short legs, while a crow walks straight forward with a smaller body on long legs. Their vocalizations are often the best clue for telling them apart.
Bernd Heinrich has written extensively about the intelligence of common ravens. In particular, he has described the fascinating mutually beneficial relationship between ravens and predators (wolves, humans, eagles, etc.). Heinrich documents the well-known fact that ravens follow predators to obtain food, but also that they lead predators to live prey or carrion.
In October 2011, I was fortunate to observe the rarely seen symbiotic behavior between a large flock of ravens and a pair of eastern coyotes. I encountered a huge group of ravens, perhaps 100, that lined Route 30 all vocalizing as I was about to enter the highway from a side road. I watched them for over two hours. Coyotes were howling a long distance away. Two loudly vocalizing ravens flew toward the coyotes and continued to fly back and forth for the next half hour.
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I then heard crunching leaves in the forest across Route 30 from my car. A pair of coyotes had made their way to the huge group of ravens. Unbeknownst to me, there was a fresh road-killed deer in the ditch and the coyotes made trips down the bank (between vehicle traffic) to rip open the carcass. The ravens fell silent and watched. As it became dark, the birds flew off to a roost nearby. They would feast in the morning!
Ravens cannot kill large prey nor open the skin of large carrion (such as intact road-killed deer). But they can easily spot potential live prey and carrion from the air. Making loud croaking sounds to communicate, they alert land-based predators to live prey or carrion, benefiting both species with food.
I’ve watched many other interesting raven behaviors. Twice I’ve observed knock-down fights with migrant golden eagles, their arch enemy, which they can identify when the golden is merely a dark spot in the sky over two miles away. Ravens in Long Lake make abrupt 180-degree turns when they spot either of our cars, sometimes following me for over two miles, since they know I’m bringing food to Canada jays.
Recently, I observed a bald eagle and raven perching close together on a branch waiting for my car to go by so they could return to feeding at a deer carcass. Common raven behavior is fascinating to watch.
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