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The plain black raven is far removed from the ordinary

By Blane Klemek

I just read a story about a little girl somewhere in England that receives little gifts from crows that she feeds daily handouts to. The crows evidently leave her (in kind perhaps?) with an array of objects. These objects range anywhere from tiny colorful trinkets that the crows manage to find like earrings and colorful bits of plastic and other items, to things like tiny bolts and nuts to shiny pebbles and smooth colored glass and much, much more.

The little girl has even gone to the extent of cataloging her little gifts into plastic bags — item by item — and carefully denoting what is inside each bag, the date, time of day, and so on. She has amassed an impressive and very interesting collection of corvid collectibles.

It’s no secret that members of the crow family, Corvidae, enjoy carrying around various objects that they find. Some have gone as far as stealing items they find. The gray jay, for example, which is also known as “camp robber” are bold corvids that are notorious thieves in and around wilderness encampments.

Another corvid, a favorite of mine, and the subject of this week’s “wildlife weekly”, has a penchant for collecting things, too. In fact, just a short time ago while traveling on U.S. Highway 2 east of Cass Lake, Minnesota, I observed a single raven alongside the road with a curious looking object at its feet.

As I approached the bird from inside my car, the bird suddenly flushed into the air carrying the object firmly in its beak. It was then that I identified the item: a super-sized McDonald’s soda pop cup. I could clearly see as the bird flew to the safety of the nearby forest that the pop cup still had its lid securely in place with a long white straw sticking out of it. The comical corvid made me laugh out loud.

Ravens are the largest North American corvid — a full two-feet in length from the tip of its beak to the end of its tail. Related to crows, magpies, and jays, ravens share a similar trait with all its relatives: high intelligence. And of these kin and other birds, ravens are thought to be the most intelligent of them all.

A raven’s size is notable and some people mistake the bird from the distance, especially when silhouetted against the sky, for a hawk or eagle. Indeed, an adult raven’s wingspan measures about 4 1/2 feet across. When compared to its look-alike cousin the American crow, ravens are notably larger. Still, telling the two species apart from one another is never a cinch. But there are a few physical differences.

The tail of this two-plus pound bird is longer than a crow’s and more wedge-shaped as well. A raven’s bill is heavier and longer, too. And ravens have a “rougher” appearance than the sleek looking crow. Feathers on the throats of adult ravens are shaggy while a crow’s appear smooth.

Natural opportunists, ravens eat almost anything. From berries, nuts, seeds, and insects to road-killed animals and garbage, their resourcefulness is well known. For instance, ravens have learned that road and railways are veritable smorgasbords. The birds will travel miles and miles flying above these thoroughfares in search of carrion and other food.

It’s believed that ravens form lifelong pair-bonds with their mates. Like bald eagles, ravens perform annual aerial courtship displays to strengthen these important bonds. Various vocalizations accompanying airborne dives are major parts of these mating rituals.

To mention further the raven’s extraordinary sounding vocalizations, it is often written that anywhere from 15 to 33 categories of vocalizations have been described. Although variations of some basic calls are detectable amongst individual birds, including dialects of ravens found in different geographic regions, the meaning of most raven vocalizations has been determined. 

Ravens produce distinct calls that mean specific things. For example, the language of ravens includes territorial calls, as well as chasing, comforting, and alarm calls, to name some. There are non-vocal types of communication, too. Bill popping and wing whistles are frequently produced by ravens in flight as they engage in courtship, play, or defense of territories

By early spring four to seven eggs are laid in a stick-nest that the pair builds together. The female raven incubates the eggs for about 20 days, at which time the chicks hatch. Both parents then care for the hatchlings until the nestlings fledge.

Native American creation stories involving ravens abound throughout the continent where the birds are known to inhabit. Native people from the Pacific Northwest credit ravens with creating the heavens and earth, food, and water to drink. Ravens are often regarded as tricksters, similar to coyotes, but more audacious and cunning.

Even in England, at the Tower of London, an old castle on the banks of the Thames River, ravens are reared and cared for by “Ravenmasters” in order to protect the tower from collapsing. Legend has it that if ravens are not kept at the famous tower, “...the great White Tower will crumble and a terrible disaster shall befall England.” Moreover, the British government sanctions the practice and provides the necessary funding to keep the ravens present at the tower. 

Indeed, though modestly dressed in plain black plumage, ravens are far removed from the ordinary. Blessed with a language unrivaled in the animal kingdom, these highly unique and intelligent birds communicate, and — as I learned firsthand — carry around with them objects just like gift-bearing crows from England can do as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

(Klemek is a DNR Wildlife Manager. You can contact him at