Bird Lore: Common Raven

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The Common Raven is a circumpolar bird of the Northern Hemisphere. It also goes by the common name Northern Raven in Europe. This largest member of the Corvid family can be found in nearly any habitat except the open Great Plains and eastern forests. While this species is successful around human populations, it is usually replaced by the American Crow in larger towns. The American Crow is much more abundant in Edmonds, but the Common Raven can be seen here every year in small numbers.

In May 2016 a single Common Raven appeared in the vicinity of the Edmonds Marsh. It lingered in the area through August. Crows harassed it continuously for several months. The raven responded by moving from tree to ground to tree, and spent much time on the railroad tracks as shown in the first photo. It often perched on utility poles as shown in the second photo. It vocalized constantly, often calling a repetitive “ow, ow, ow” as in meow. Although it appeared to be an adult bird, it acted confused and perhaps lost. By early September a second raven joined it. After a week or two they both moved on.

As an omnivore, the Common Raven may feed on practically anything. The majority of its diet is made up of rodents, lizards, frogs, eggs and young of other birds, and a wide variety of insects. It also regularly scavenges garbage and carrion. It typically forages in pairs, sometimes cooperating to flush out prey. It mostly feeds on the ground.

The Common Raven is an aerial acrobat. In courtship the male will swoop, soar, and tumble in midair. The pair may soar high together, as seen in the third photo. When perched they will touch bills and preen each other’s feathers. The nest site is on a cliff ledge or high in a tall conifer. Both sexes help build the nest, which is a bulky basket of sticks and twigs. Its deep depression is lined with grass, moss, bark strips, and animal hair. A pair may use the same nest for multiple years, adding new material on top of old.

The female lays four to six eggs, which she alone incubates for about three weeks. The male feeds her while she is on the nest. Both parents feed the nestlings and the female broods them while they are small. The young leave the nest at five to six weeks of age.

There is an inextricable link between the Common Raven and humans. The raven is featured in stories and poetry. Legend has it that if the captive ravens at the Tower of London ever leave the Tower, the British Empire will crumble. It is among the most intelligent birds and is featured in many Native American stories as creator or trickster. One creation story is here: http://www.smithsonianeducation.org/educators/lesson_plans/eskimo/page05.html. A classic book about this species, available at Sno-Isle Libraries is “Ravens in Winter,” by Bernd Heinrich.

The Common Raven can mimic the calls of other birds and can even imitate human words when raised in captivity. It can also discern cause and effect, according to a Wyoming study that demonstrated that the sound of a gunshot will attract this species to investigate a presumed carcass. It will, however, ignore other loud but harmless sounds such as a car door slamming or an airhorn.

The oldest known wild Common Raven, a banded bird, was 22 years and seven months of age when it was re-found in Nova Scotia. Although this species rarely gathers in flocks, when it does, it is called an unkindness of ravens.

For conservation purposes, the Common Raven is a species of least concern. Over the past 50 years, the North American population has increased. The global population is estimated at over 20 million birds, with 9 percent living in the U.S., 18 percent in Canada, and 3 percent in Mexico.

Researchers have documented over 30 different vocalizations of the Common Raven. You can listen to the repeated call of a perched bird here: http://www.xeno-canto.org/337908. A flight call is here: http://www.xeno-canto.org/322993. Singing can be heard here: http://www.xeno-canto.org/325123.

— By Carol Riddell

Carol Riddell manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.

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