Our Little Neighbors: Ravens

With a wingspan of about four feet, ravens cooly glide over most of the northern hemisphere, including The Heart! Through cleverness and adaptability, ravens have crafted ways to thrive for millions of years. While ravens prefer to roost in forests’ tall trees, nests with dappled turquoise eggs can also be found tucked away in cliffsides. Sporting a distinct rugged beard, ravens are nearly twice the size of their crow cousins. Infamous for their sleek blue-black plumage, surprising intellect, and proclivity for carrion, ravens have flourished in the imaginations of people across the globe since ancient times. 

Intelligent and Versatile

The raven’s range is significant when considering their versatility. They have adapted to the acute cold of places like Greenland, the blistering deserts like the Sahara, and most of the lands in between. The adversities and opportunities ravens have encountered are thought to have fomented their formidable intellect. Ravens are members of the corvid family, making them top contenders for the most intelligent bird species. In addition to shaping their cleverness, their range influences their diet.

 The raven’s broad appetite, and how it is slaked, is a testament to their adaptability. They enjoy a variety of small animals, insects, fruits, seeds, and garbage. While caching their own food, ravens keep a keen eye out for others’ stores. Ravens prefer meat, often hunting and scavenging. When hunting, they utilize teamwork. It is common for two ravens, usually mates, to hunt together. Teamwork is also employed when scavenging. On occasions when ravens come across a carcass too tough for them to penetrate, they will croak and squawk to attract other scavengers. Better equipped to tear open the flesh, wolves frequently answer this call.

The relationship between ravens and wolves likely began as a matter of convenience. Each species, known for their intelligence and excellent communication, benefit from the other’s feeding practices. When working together, they can increase their supply. At Yellowstone National Park, ravens and wolves are frequently documented together. The relationship between ravens and wolves transcends survival and into play. Ravens have been spotted initiating tug-of-war and forms of tag with wolf pups. In all species, play is essential to survival. Play allows for individuals to learn fighting and hunting techniques in a safe environment. Ravens are playful creatures, and appear to thrive when challenged. 

Integral to the raven, adaptability is the reason they rise to every test. The results from a study by Can Kabadayi and Mathias Osvath flaunt the raven’s fluid thinking. The study focused on ravens’ ability to consider future scenarios. In one experiment, Kabadayi and Osvath gave ravens tools to solve puzzle boxes. The ravens not only selected the correct tools when offered, but they cached them for future use. Kabadayi and Osvath also taught ravens how to pay for food with tokens, which were also cached for later use to purchase preferred food. In the wild, ravens do not use tools. However, they quickly mastered the foreign concepts of utensils, exchange, and postponed fulfillment. Ravens understand the fluctuating value of tools and tokens, plan accordingly, and demonstrate self control. By testing captive ravens, we are able to glimpse at how clever they are. Studies, like those conducted by Kabadayi and Osvath, indicate that ravens possess intellect comparable to that of great apes. 

Ravens in Lore

Their intelligence may be the reason why ravens have readily been anthropomorphized. Ravens are celebrated in folklore and traditions throughout the world. Because of their complex nature, different aspects of the raven are manifested in lore. Ravens’ intelligence is celebrated in Norse mythology. Odin relied on two ravens, Huginn and Muninn, to soar over his kingdom and return with news. Huginn represented thought, and Muninn mind. In depictions together, they embody Odin’s omnipotence. (Littleton #291) The dark wings and dark appetites of ravens have earned them a haunting reputation as ill omens. The Irish believed that the raven was the incarnation of their goddess Morrigan. Multi-faceted, this goddess presided over prophecy, war, and death. (Wright) In Bhutan, ravens symbolize Bhutan’s guardian deity Legön. Bhutan legend says that Zhapdrung Ngakwang Namgyel, the man who unified the region, had a vision in which he was led to Bhutan by a raven. The Bhutanese believe that the raven was Legön. Centuries later, The Raven Crown was adopted as the official crown for the Kings of Bhutan. The Bhutanese reverence of ravens has endured over time. Recently, the materials of the latest model of The Raven Crown were blessed before the remains of Zhapdrung. (Phuntsho)

Resilience is the mark of the raven.

Despite the current Holocene extinction, the raven’s population is growing. They are of conservation’s least concern. It seems that ravens can outsmart and adapt to almost any adversity thrown at them. Deforestation, paired with their pestilential status, presented them with a proper challenge. The European colonization and industrialization of the eastern United States coast routed ravens from the area by the 1900s. However, they are returning. (Radis) It is possible that in their exile, these adaptive birds have learned ways to fit into the metropolitan east. The routing of the east coast, though long from the human perspective, is just a blink of an eye to the millenia of ravens. Scientifically and mythologically, ravens have enthralled mankind. Defying evolutionary standards and challenging our perception of animal intelligence, ravens provide scientists with unique opportunities for insight. They are a paragon of Horace’s, “Adversity has the effect of eliciting talents which in prosperous circumstances would have lain dormant.” For millions of years, ravens have cleverly adapted to the times.

About the Author

Kimber M

Texas born and raised, I love the outdoors, animals, and time with my family.

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