By Femke Oldham
When here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore…
Then the ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore–
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!”
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”
Edgar Allen Poe may have been on to something when he composed his eerie homage to this prophetic raven. Ornithologists have come to classify the Common raven, Corvus corax, as one of the smartest of all birds.
From toenails to beak, the Common raven is all black. Not to be confused with their smaller cousin the American Crow, Common ravens have a thick, shaggy body that tapers into a diamond shaped tail. They are also identified by their heavy beaks and, relative to crows, anti-social behavior.
Common ravens are confident birds that are often found alone or in pairs. A raven will perch in a tree or building ledge and make its presence known by loudly cawing, strutting, or flashily somersaulting in the air. Additionally, ravens can recognize faces. Bird researchers who repeatedly capture and band ravens have reported that these feisty fliers will vocally scold and drop nuts on their heads if the researchers return to one area too often. Ravens are also known to be aerial acrobats, and enjoy playing games like flying upside down, or dropping sticks and catching them midair.
They’re called Common ravens for a reason. Found all over western and northern North America, ravens can make happy homes in forests, deserts, beaches, sagebrush, tundra, grasslands, as well as in cities. Their adaptability is due in part to their adventurous, some might even say ravenous, eating habits. They eat carcasses, small animals, eggs, arthropods like beetles and grasshoppers, fish, wolf and dog dung, grains, flowers, berries, pet food, many types of human food and garbage.
Yes, ravens know how to scavenge; and they also know how to hunt. They work in pairs to distract seabirds and steal their eggs and chicks. Common ravens have even been known to pull the same trick with sheep, snatching newborn lambs away from their unsuspecting mothers. Ravens are such smart predators that their increasing numbers are threatening some vulnerable species, including the desert tortoise and the Least Tern.
Edgar Allen Poe wasn’t the only one to take notice of the Common Raven. In various parts of the world, ravens are considered to possess strong personality and even magical qualities. For example, in Pacific Northwest Native American mythology the raven is considered a benevolent trickster, bringing people fire by stealing it from the sun. The raven’s knack for living so close to humans does suggest a certain kinship between us and these wily birds. So next time you hear a throaty caww coming from a nearby tree, take a moment to consider this fascinating bird. And keep in mind that the raven just might be staring right back at you.
Image credits: Terry Sohl; Fullerton College; Nicolas Dory.