Jeff Green | May 28, 2009
Back to HomeOutdoors in the Land O'lakes - May 28, 2009 The Common Raven (Corvus Corax)by Lorraine Julien
The Raven (Corvus corax) is as much a symbol of wildness in our forest areas as the Common Loon is a wild symbol of our lakes. During this past winter I observed a large black bird that looked like a crow but appeared to be much larger and rode the air currents like a hawk. On closer scrutiny, I realized the bird must be a raven.
I still have trouble differentiating ravens from crows partly because our crows seem to be extra large….certainly much larger than the variety that cleans up roadkill along our highways. When seen flying at a distance, it’s difficult to determine size, but the much larger raven can be distinguished by its flying prowess and also by its paddle-shaped tail. Using the tail as a rudder, he can circle for hours in a flat eagle-like glide. From a height of some 500 feet ravens dive to earth like falcons or tumble in a series of somersaults. Crows could never match these aerial gymnastics nor do they like to fly at these heights for any distance.
Up close, there are other identifying factors – the “Roman nose” shape of the raven’s heavy black bill and shaggy throat feathers. His call is more like a hoarse “croak” or “kwawk” rather than the “caw” sound made by crows. The raven is longer, weighs at least a third more than a crow and has a wingspan of up to 4½ feet. Ravens are completely black with purplish reflections on the back, wings and tail. Male and female are indistinguishable but the female is a bit smaller.
Ravens are found throughout most of the Canadian Shield. They usually stay here for the winter whereas a lot of crows fly southward. From my few encounters we seem to have a fairly good raven population here in the Frontenacs.
In ancient times, ravens were considered omens of evil and were credited with supernatural powers. It’s interesting to note that ravens have been kept in the Tower of London for centuries. The story goes that Charles II predicted England would fall if the ravens ever left. In fact, they have thrived there to this day with some birds living as long as 40 years. Apparently they are now looked after by the government and their wings are clipped to ensure they do not stray! Ravens were also the subject of a somber poem by Edgar Allan Poe. Somehow, witches, hallowe’en and ravens seem to go together!
In other parts of the world, the raven is revered and has been the subject of folklore and mythology. This reverence is particularly noticeable on the northwest coast of North America where native peoples, including the Haida, have carved many raven images onto totem poles.
Once common on the western plains, ravens declined with the disappearance of the buffalo, on whose carcasses they fed. Many perished from eating poisoned bait put out for wolves and coyotes. Though ravens haven’t adapted to human intervention as well as crows, they still thrive in mountainous, desert and forest areas.
Like its cousin the crow, ravens are omnivorous and will eat practically anything. They prefer wide open spaces for foraging and woodlots for nesting – anywhere where food is plentiful – even the local garbage dump!
They usually mate for life and like to build nests on cliff ledges and in the cavities of trees. Peregrine falcons are sometimes neighbours, the two species tolerating each other. The bulky nest is made of sticks lined with mud, fur and any soft material to cradle the eggs which can number up to seven and hatch in three weeks. Ravens are even bold enough to attack golden eagles and gyrfalcons. In these encounters, Corvus corax usually wins.
Similar to the crow, many stories are told of the intelligence, craftiness and resourcefulness of ravens. Teams of ravens have been known to steal food from dogs. The story goes that one bird will distract a dog by grabbing its tail while the other birds grab the food.
This past winter we made the mistake of leaving meat scraps in a nearby open area. We thought the scraps might help a starving animal to survive the winter; however, after a snowfall one morning, it was easy to spot raven tracks. After that, they visited the area regularly hoping for more handouts. As much as I admire these interesting birds, I don’t want to encourage them as they are notorious for raiding nests of smaller birds.