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Ravens, crows and jays make up the corvid family, arguably the most intelligent of birds. We may honor the bald eagle as our national symbol, but compared to any corvid, the eagle is definitely a bird brain. Ravens in particular, based on their omnivorous adaptability to almost any environment, their fascination with colorful toys and glittery objects, their use of natural tools, and their remarkably diverse repertoire of sounds and vocalizations, appear to be exceptionally intelligent. In fact, ravens remind me of us humans, with no formidable anatomical weapons, but large brains to help us figure out how to get whatever we need.
Passerines make up more than half of all bird species. Ravens are the largest passerine or song birds, averaging two feet in length, two and a half pounds, with a wing spread of about four and a half feet. We often confuse ravens with crows, which are about half the size of ravens and have noticeable differences in structure and behavior.
Crows are more likely to flock together in gangs when they’re not feeding, especially at dawn and dusk, in groups often referred to as a “murder of crows”. They prefer being closer to the feeding opportunities presented where people live or gather in large numbers, and careless disposal or placement of consumables means dinner for the crows. In fact, crows not only occasionally attack and murder other individual crows, but have been seen gathered around the body of a dead crow in what appears to be mourning. Crows are more urban birds, while ravens are more territorial, more likely to break out as monogamous breeding pairs, and seem to prefer rural areas.
Young, unattached ravens may group up and share feeding opportunities in what is called a “conspiracy” or “unkindness”, but once grown and paired up, ravens defend a territory in order to support a family. These darkly sinister labels probably reflect the observed history of crows and ravens using gravestones as perches from which to hunt insects and small rodents, and more disturbingly, feeding on dead bodies, particularly those of soldiers and combatants after a battle. Crows and ravens are probably the most opportunistically common scavengers of human flesh. No wonder they are often viewed as omens or portends of death.
Crows usually build their nests in deciduous trees, and the nests are smaller but easier to spot, particularly in early Spring, before the leaves grow. Ravens build larger nests, which may be built higher in conifers, and harder to spot, but they will also build nests on rocky ledges, or just about any flat surface, natural or man made, out of reach of all predators except owls and eagles.
Crows are noisier and more likely to caw in groups. If they’re on the ground or perching, crows dip and raise their heads while engaging in repetitive high pitched cawing. Ravens make an astonishing variety of sounds, working out of a croaking and gurgling like call, interspersed with loud clock pendulum like noises, but while doing so, they stand or perch more upright, like an orator, their jagged feathery hackles or beard, fanning out from their throats, a feature crows lack. Crows caw frequently when flying, and more often than not, they’re flapping their smaller wings while flying. Ravens soar and glide with their wings out in a straight plain, more the way hawks and eagles do.
Ravens are better vocal mimics than parrots, as they can express sounds with both deeper and higher tones. One of our ravens, Rikki Raven, not only learned to perfectly mimic my laugh, but when performing menial tasks, I often walk around listening to audible books on the iPhone in my breast pocket, and Rikki managed to mimic the tinny sound of a human reading over the phone.
Crows watch and study peoples faces, demonstrating the ability to recall faces, and alert other crows to avoid people. For example, students in a university study, would don masks, and then mistreat wild crows, chasing them and throwing objects at them, to determine whether the crows would be able to later recognize their faces, instigating other crows to dive bomb and mob their tormenters. They did.
Once landed, crows twitch their tails nervously, as well as their wings, without leaving the ground, as though they’re ready to take off at the first disturbance, such as when you continue to stare at them, or photograph them. Ravens land and then perform a series of leap or bounces, three to twelve inches off the branch or ground, using both legs and wings, before settling down, as though to convince themselves it’s really safe to land there.
Anatomically, the tops of crows’ heads are smaller and more dome like. Their bills are shorter and smaller, the upper and lower bills more symmetrical. Ravens have a blockier shaped head, and much larger, heavier bills, with upper bill longer than lower and curved downwards at its sharp front. The upper raven bill has specialized feathers resembling long black hairs, covering the nostrils and more than half of the bill. I’ve been bitten by ravens, a severe pinch which really hurts. Raven eyes are deep grayish to black, depending on the light, and closer to the bill than a crows eyes are. In flight, the raven shows a wedge shaped tail, while the crows tail is more fan shaped. Male corvids are larger than female corvids, the opposite of what you find in birds of prey. Crow and raven feet resemble thinner, weaker versions of raptor feet, without the powerful, crushing toes and deadly talons.
Top photo: Crow in flight. Photo by Anne Fraser, courtesy of Adirondack Wildlife Refuge