Smart like a raven? |

Smart like a raven?

Larry Collins
Free Press Home & Garden Columnist

The intriguing Common Raven has accompanied people around the Northern Hemisphere for centuries, following their wagons, sleds, sleighs and hunting parties in hopes of a quick meal. Ravens are among the smartest of all birds, gaining a reputation for solving ever more complicated problems invented by ever more creative scientists. These big, sooty birds thrive among humans and in the back of beyond, stretching across the sky on easy, flowing wing beats and filling the empty spaces with an echoing croak.

Not just large but massive birds, they have a thick neck, shaggy throat feathers, and a Bowie knife of a beak. In flight, ravens have long, wedge-shaped tails. They’re more slender than crows, with longer, narrower wings, and longer, thinner “fingers” at the wing tips. Common Ravens are entirely black, right down to the legs, eyes, and beak. A crow is smaller size, has a thinner bill, and shorter tail and wings.

Common Ravens are so bold, playful and clever that they’re almost always doing something worth watching. Ravens are confident, inquisitive birds that strut around or occasionally bound forward with light, two-footed hops. In flight they are buoyant and graceful, interspersing soaring, gliding and slow flaps. They’re more graceful and agile than crows, which often appear to be swimming across the sky. Ravens often perform aerobatics, including sudden rolls and somersaults, wing-tucked dives, and play with objects by dropping and catching them in midair. One bird was seen flying upside down for more than a half-mile.

Known for their intelligence, Common Ravens can work to solve novel problems. I have seen where a raven has fashioned a tool from a piece of wire to hook some food that was out of reach. I have also seen where they will drop a walnut on the road for a car to run over and break open the shell; watching the traffic light to know when it is safe to place and retrieve the nut.

They also use their intellect to put together cause and effect. A study in Wyoming discovered that during hunting season, the sound of a gunshot draws ravens in to investigate a presumed carcass, whereas the birds ignore sounds that are just as loud but harmless, such as an air horn or a car door slamming.

Being smart makes them dangerous predators. They sometimes work in pairs to raid new bird and animal parents, with one bird distracting an adult and the other waiting to grab an egg or newborn. They will sometimes follow female birds in order to find nests to raid.

They’re less gregarious than crows, often seen alone or in pairs that stay together year round, although many may gather at a feeding site. Large groups of ravens are probably young birds that have yet to pair up; ravens begin breeding at ages 2 to 4.

They live in open and forest habitats across western and northern North America. This includes deciduous and evergreen forests up to treeline, as well as high desert, sea coast, sagebrush, tundra and grasslands. They do well around people, particularly rural settlements but also some towns and cities.

Increasing raven populations threaten some vulnerable species including desert tortoises, Marbled Murrelets, and Least Terns. Ravens can cause trouble for people, too. They’ve been implicated in causing power outages by contaminating insulators on power lines, fouling satellite dishes at the Goldstone Deep Space Site, peeling radar-absorbent material off buildings at the China Lake Naval Weapons center, pecking holes in airplane wings, stealing golf balls, opening campers’ tents, and raiding cars left open at parks.

Common Ravens can mimic the calls of other bird species. When raised in captivity, they can even imitate human words; one Common Raven raised from birth was taught to mimic the word “nevermore.” The oldest known wild Common Raven lived to be 17 years, 2 months old.

Information for the above article was taken, in part, from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology — a site I would highly recommend to answer your birding questions.

Local bird expert Larry Collins owns Wild Birds Unlimited, 2454 Hwy. 6&50, which caters to folks who want the best backyard birdfeeding experience possible. Email your birdfeeding and birding questions to and he’ll answer them in his bi-weekly Q&A column in the Free Press.

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