Common Raven

On the wild side—December, 2011

by Tina Mitchell

The Common Raven is by far the largest member of the Corvid family (e.g., crows, magpies, jays). At about 2 feet long, bill to tail tip, with a wingspan greater than 4 feet, adults are solid, glossy black, with wedge-shaped tails; throats with elongated throat feathers giving them a rather craggy look; and massive bills.  Not only do males and females look alike, but their plumage doesn’t change during breeding season.  In our area, one of the major Corvid challenges is to differentiate a Common Raven from its smaller cousin, the American Crow.  Ravens tend to soar on thermal currents and glide more often than crows do, who instead flap their wings nearly continually in flight.  Because they can extend their long throat feathers to provide a ruffled look, ravens often look less smooth and a bit more disheveled than crows do.  You’ll most often find a raven alone or in a pair while American Crows, especially in the winter, tend to move around in large, social flocks.   Voice offers one of the best ways to distinguish these 2 species.  Most folks are familiar with the American Crow’s typical “caw caw” call.  Common Ravens can produce a vast array of sounds. But if you’re looking at a small group of large black birds uttering deep, resonant, croaking rock, rock, rock calls as they pass by high in the sky—you’re looking at ravens.

The scientific name for Common Ravens—Corvus corax—basically means “raven raven,” since “corvus” means “raven” in Latin and “corax,” “raven” in Greek.  The word “raven” comes from the Anglo-Saxon “hraefn,” purported to be an onomatopoetic representation of its call.  (My Anglo-Saxon pronunciation skills are more than a tad rusty, so it’s rather challenging to think how “hraefn” might sound like a raven’s call.  Poetic—or maybe onomatopoetic—license, perhaps.)  And the “common” in the Common Raven’s name reflects the fact that they are the most common raven species within their range.

The mountains and forests provide the Common Raven’s primary habitats.  A renown scavenger, a raven will eat almost anything that it can catch, kill, or unearth, including animal carcasses, rodents, nestlings, insects, seeds and grain, and whatever they might find in dumps or trash bins or steal from any other creature.

Ravens may mate for life, although long-term banding studies have yet to solidly confirm this practice.  Non-migratory, ravens exhibit strong fidelity to successful nesting sites and defend the same territory for a number of years.  Common Ravens do not breed until they reach 3 or 4 years of age.  Nesting begins in early spring; in Colorado, ravens often nest on cliffs with a southern exposure, perhaps to extract extra warmth from a weak early spring sun.  Clutches typically consist of 4-5 eggs, hatching after approximately 20 days.  The youngsters leave the nest anywhere between 4 and 7 weeks of age, remaining with their parents for nearly 6 months before dispersing in the fall.  At that time, juveniles often begin to join other juveniles and non-breeding adults at communal roosts at night.

Research with Common Ravens has documented their surprising intelligence when solving problems.  One notable study presented ravens with food dangling from a sturdy branch on the end of a long string.  The ravens quickly figured out that if they hopped on the branch, they could use their feet to repeatedly anchor the string under a foot and bring the food up to them—right off the bat with no mistakes!  No wonder this species has long been a part of the folklore of many cultures—sometimes, as a creating force; sometimes, as a wily trickster?  An avian species to be disregarded?  Nevermore!

You can learn more about this grand species and hear a sample of its voice here.

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