Ravens are beautiful, intelligent, fascinating birds that have captured the attention of millions of birdwatchers around the world. Entire books have been written about ravens.
Some ornithologists dedicate their careers to studying ravens.
In this article, we will share just a few of the many interesting facts about ravens. We hope the raven facts here inspire you to get to know ravens in the natural world around you.
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A Raven is a really large crow
The common raven Corvus corax (which is Latin for “crow with a straight beak”) is the largest crow in the world. It’s bigger than a hawk, and it’s taller than other crows.
Common ravens are the giants of the crow world, but there are other kinds of ravens that are only slightly larger than their cousins in the crow family.
Common ravens used to be, well, not very common, but over the last 50 years, they have spread all over the Northern Hemisphere.
Even so, in North America, there are even more ravens of the species Corvus brachyrhynchos (which is Latin for “crow with a short snout”), which is only slightly smaller.
Ravens have very few natural enemies.
The main enemies of ravens are the raptors, such as the Golden Eagle, falcons, and Great Horned Owls.
These birds, however, depend on ravens, which are passerines, capable of perching on their feet, to build their nests.
Sometimes ravens and the birds that prey on them have nested on cliffs just a few feet from each other.
Groups of ravens are described in colorful terms.
We’re used to talking about “flocks” of birds, and it is proper to refer to a “flock” of ravens.
However, a group of ravens may also be described as a “conspiracy,” a “rave,” an “unkindness,” or a “treachery.”
The pejorative references to ravens probably originated with the observation that not only do ravens feeds on larger dead animals, like deer and moose, they also call other ravens to join in the feast of dead game.
Of all animals, ravens behave in ways most similar to humans.
Ravens, like humans, don’t always behave in predictable ways. Ants, for example, will follow pheromones down a trail to food and bring it back to the anthill no matter what.
Bears will swat away threatening animals, including humans, and eat what they want when they feel hungry. Birds migrate north and south as if they had GPS in their brains (and some scientists think that in a way, they do). But ravens are often described as “making it up as they go along.”
The ability to think on the fly, so to speak, may have a lot to do with the size of the raven’s brain.
Ravens have brains that are as proportionately large as human brains, adjusted for body weight. Ravens and the birds most closely related to them, the crows, jays, magpies, and nutcrackers, have the largest volumes of the cerebral cortex in the bird world.
Their ability to reason helps them avoid threats, and they don’t like new situations, but when they are confronted with realities they cannot escape, they seem to be capable of human responses.
Raven specialist Mark Pavelka of the US Fish and Wildlife Service is quoted as saying, “With other animals, you can usually throw out 90 percent of the stories you hear.
But with ravens, it’s the opposite. No matter how strange or amazing the story, chances are pretty good that at least some raven somewhere actually did that.”
These stories make some of the most interesting facts about ravens. There are verified, scientifically documented reports of ravens:
- Hanging upside down by their feet for fun.
- Making snow angels (or, more precisely, bathing themselves in the snow to remove insects and dirt from their feathers).
- Flying upside down.
- Using rocks and other objects to crowd gulls out of their nests so the raven wouldn’t have to build a nest of its own.
- Picking up rocks with their beaks and throwing them at predators that were threatening their hatchlings.
- Carrying food with their feet rather than in their bill.’
- Splashing around in the water for fun long after any dirt or insects have been washed out of their feathers. Ravens that don’t “need” a bath will enter the water to play if they see another raven playing.
- Rolling on the ground to avoid capture by a peregrine falcon.
- Catching doves in mid-air (for food).
- Covering their eggs to camouflage them from other birds.
- Poking holes in the bottom of their nest on an unusually hot day to cool it off.
- Making friends with a crow.
- Making fun of reindeer grazing on moss.
These behaviors are a lot more complicated than, say, flying south to the same nesting spot every winter.
Ravens may not possess human intelligence, but they have a kind of intelligence that isn’t known in other birds or most other animals.
Adult ravens eat almost anything.
Ravens are unique among the passerine or perching birds in that they don’t have any pre-programmed dietary requirements. Ravens have been observed eating fresh roadkill, the grubs growing on rotten roadkill, dog droppings, and Cheetos.
They have been observed attacking and eating earthworms, caterpillars, butterflies, dragonflies, houseflies, snakes, rabbits, dogs, raccoons, lambs, baby seals, flying squirrels, cows, bison, elks, moose, pigeons in mid-flight, and reindeer (on the ground, not in mid-flight pulling Santa’s sleigh).
Ravens often attack incapacitated larger animals, sometimes not waiting for them to expire before beginning their meal.
But it’s the eating behavior of raven chicks that is really amazing.
Young ravens demonstrate the meaning of the term “ravenous.”
Raven chicks eat enormous amounts of food. A recently hatched raven needs to eat enough to increase its weight by 50 percent every day.
In his book Mind of the Raven, naturalist Bernd Heinrich describes his experience rescuing four raven chicks from a nest 80 feet in a tree that had become water-logged and was about to fall to the ground.
On just the first day, Heinrich fed the four chicks six mice, four chicken eggs, two six-ounce cans of cat food, 10 ounces of puppy chow, and two mouthfuls of beans he had pre-chewed for them.
Heinrich also mentions his experience in foster care for six raven chicks until they were able to fly on their own.
By the time the chicks were five weeks old, they ate an entire hindquarter of a calf, 80 pounds (25 kilos) of meat in a single day. Adult ravens eat similarly large amounts of food.
Baby ravens need to be fed every two to three hours, 24 hours a day. But that’s not the only reason Heinrich likens them to “the world’s worst roommate.”
Ravens produce enormous amounts of digestive waste.
A side effect of eating huge amounts of waste is producing huge amounts of waste, known as mutes. Ravens produce about the same volume of waste material as they take in as food.
Parents of raven chicks will eat the excreta of their chicks to keep the nest clean at first, but later teach them to “go” over the edge of the nest.
However, raven droppings are not smelly.
Ravens combine digestive waste and urine into a dry, white paste. A baby raven can shoot this waste as far as two or three feet without warning at any time.
This is another reason to think twice before trying to adopt a raven to make it a member of your human family. But there is another reason not everyone is meant to give foster care to ravens.
Ravens sometimes adopt the eggs of other birds.
Ravens instinctively react to round objects as potential food, because they usually are. If they encounter a chicken egg, a robin egg, an Easter egg, or even an ostrich egg lying on the ground, they will automatically peck at it and try to eat it.
Raven eggs are greenish-blue with brown spots. However, if a raven encounters a strange white, red, or blue egg in its nest, its reaction seems to be “Did I lay that?” and to leave it alone, allowing it to hatch.
This ensures that the mating ravens don’t accidentally expel one of their hatchlings.
It isn’t very often that another bird will lay an egg in a raven’s nest.
Most of the time that bird would be eaten. Sometimes other birds will reach the nest when both parents are out hunting.
Ravens recognize each other.
If you were to see a row of ravens perched on a tree limb, you would have difficulty telling them apart. The ravens themselves, however, have no difficulty recognizing their mates and preening partners.
What ravens will not do is to tolerate the presence of strange ravens too close to their perches. Some of the most intense fights among ravens occur around sundown over which raven perches were on a limb to spend the night.
Ravens use aerial bombardment as protection against people and dogs.
In the fall of 1983, naturalist Bernd Heinrich reports, Johanna Vinneau was walking with her dog above the tree line on Baldface Mountain in New Hampshire. A raven picked up a rock about 1 inch (25 mm) in diameter and dropped it about a foot (30 cm) from the dog.
Wildlife biologist Cedric Alexander, of the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife, reported that on December 5, 1993, a raven picked up a 4-inch (10 cm) sprig of spruce and dropped it on him from a height of about 300 feet (100 meters).
Ornithologists Rod and Amy Adams and Elliot Swarthout, studying hawks on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, reported “We have seen a raven drop a rock in mid-flight and catch it,” presumably as a warning signal.
Non-breeding ravens will “hang out with the guys” when they aren’t looking for mates.
Male ravens that aren’t coupled to females for mating will travel long distances to roost with other non-breeding ravens, scientists have found.
African ravens have been known to try to play with gorillas.
In The Year of the Gorilla, wildlife observer George B. Schaller reported observing African white-necked ravens swooping down on a group of gorillas, buzzing them again and again as if they were playing a game.
The female gorillas, Schaller says, were confused, and the male gorillas became angry.
Ravens are not easy to keep as pets.
There are two very good reasons you probably won’t be able to keep a raven as a pet in North America:
- In Canada, keeping ravens and crows is prohibited by the Canadian Migratory Birds Act.
- In the United States, keeping ravens or any other migratory bird as a pet is prohibited by the US Migratory Birds Act.
It’s not like either country has raven police waiting to catch you in the crime of owning a raven and put you in jail.
But there is good reason to seek out the authorization and help of a state or provincial fish and game department or a wildlife rehabilitation center if you are even thinking about fostering young ravens that have lost their parents (and before you do, re-read the experience of Bernd Heinrich, described above).
There are other considerations in keeping ravens:
Ravens need lots of space. Adult ravens fly many miles every day in search of food. A raven is an intelligent bird that won’t do well in a cage.
Ravens make better guests than pets. You can attract ravens to your yard with these simple methods:
- Place shiny, round objects in your yard. Ravens will check them out to see if they are edible. Anything that reflects sunlight will catch the attention of a passing raven.
- Put a fake raven in your garden. Ravens will want to find out why it isn’t moving around.
- Don’t keep any other pets in the area where you want to attract ravens. Cats and puppies aren’t safe from ravens, and ravens can be attacked by dogs.
- Put out eggs in your garden. Ravens like to eat them.
Be aware that anything you do to attract ravens will also attract crows, jays, magpies, jackdaws, rooks, treepies, choughs, and nutcrackers. The smaller members of the Corvid family are also wonderfully intelligent and a lot easier to handle.
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