The World’s Most Underappreciated Bird?

Brad Josephs April 25, 2011 6

Raven black as night...In modern society the raven is surely the world’s most underappreciated bird. Physically, ravens are neither ornate nor powerful. They lack the color of most other songbirds,  the hunting prowess of mighty raptors, and are often associated with garbage dumps. However,  in many cultures ravens have held the highest level of respect and admiration. Depending on where you live, you should be able to find ravens or their smaller cousin, the crow, on a daily basis. They may be a nuisance or so ubiquitous that you no longer notice their presence, but in my opinion, if there was ever a creature in the world that deserved a second look, it is these extremely intelligent masters of the sky. 

Raven

Haida carving showing raven holding the sun in his beak, as he steals it from Gray Eagle and places it in the sky

It is well known that Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest have incorporated the Raven as the creator of the land and all living things in their myths and folklore.  Ravens were thought to have superior levels of supernatural intelligence, an ability to travel into the spirit world, and a tendency for mischief.  In the famous story from the Haida culture of Coastal British Columbia the raven uses his superior wit to trick the evil Gray Eagle who hid the sun, moon, stars, fresh water, and fire from the world because he disliked people.  By seducing Gray Eagle’s daughter, the Raven gained access to her father’s lodge where he found and stole the Earth’s most valuable elements, creating the world as it is today.

In the Norse Mythology of the Middle Ages the powerful God Odin had two wolves, who served as his strength, and a raven on each shoulder.  Huginn (his thought) and Muninn (his memory)  would fly around the world each day,  observe all, and return to whisper the secrets in Odin’s ears. These feathered companions are said to have given Odin supreme levels of intellect and awareness of the universe.

Odin and his ravens

A painting of Odin watching his ravens fly into the horizon to survey the world

Biologically speaking, there is no disputing that ravens are the most intelligent of all birds, in fact, some studies show intelligance levels equaling that of a six year old human child!  Ravens, like all members of the jay family (corvidae), have evolved a very large region of gray matter in the brain called the hyperstriatum.  This center for memory and cognitive thinking helps them aquire food and to cache any surplus for later in a countless number of hiding places.  This is why a raven or crow will empty a bird feeder or a dog bowl, rather than eat their fill and leave.  They will keep taking and storing food as long as it is available. They percieve the world as a staggeringly complex map of potential food sources, and food caches.

Watch the following video to see how crows, the raven’s closest relative, have figured out how to crack walnuts in Japan!

In the last ten years, during the extremely successful reintroduction of the wolf to Yellowstone National Park, biologists have witnessed some truly amazing interactions between wolves and wolf-birds, as ravens are sometimes called.   Obviously ravens benefit when wolves make a kill,  as ravens  have an affinity for red meat, but these two highly intelligent species take it a step further.  Through many hours of observation, it has become clear that ravens use their ability to fly and their keen eyesight, to locate moose or elk.  After locating a pack of resting wolves they circle and vocalize overhead.  When the wolves see this, they follow the ravens to the exact location of the prey.  The ravens actively pursue the formation of this valuable bond with wolves by playing with pups at the den when they are first born!  If you still aren’t amazed, then just keep on reading.

Even in the harsh, icy wilderness of the Arctic, the raven thrives using its opportunistic abilities.   Thousands of years ago ravens learned that humans were among the most successful hunters on the land and on the ice.  At some point in history a relationship was forged, and the raven became the ultimate scout for Inuit hunting parties.  According to the stories, ravens would locate the nearest caribou herd, or seal-inhabited lead in the pack ice, find the hunting party, and began circling and vocalizing overhead.  The hunters would mush on behind their aerial guide, and be led to their quarry.  After a kill was made, the hunters would present the choicest cut of meat to their avian hunting partners.

raven and bear

A raven scolds a Grizzly because he hasnt caught any salmon! photo by Brad Josephs

When I became aware of such incredible feats of intelligence my fascination with ravens intensified and I have collected stories from others as well from my own experiences.  The most amazing example I have witnessed was on a Kodiak to Katmai Grizzlies expedition.  Guide Scott Larsen and I were sitting with a group of folks on the banks of a river waiting for the salmon to swim upstream on the incoming tide.  In front of us were two sleeping bears and behind us were a pair of ravens, all waiting patiently.  As the water level rose the v-shaped wake of large salmon schools appeared as expected.  Unfortunately the bears continued snoozing.  The ravens behind us began squawking excitedly, hoping the bears would be alerted and would provide them with some leftovers, but they remained oblivious.  One of the ravens stomped his way over to within inches of each bear’s nose, screamed wildy and flapped its wings as if to say, “Get up you lazy nut! The salmon are running and we have to eat!”  Each bear was awakened bythe angry bird, however neither was in the mood for fishing.

Churchill is another location where ravens are frequently observed.  Several years ago guide Jared Beacker and I watched a raven outwit a fox!  A red fox was trotting across the tundra with a mouthful of lemmings, looking for a place to hide them for later.   A raven appeared overhead, and noticed the potential for a meal.  Amazingly, the raven must have known that specific fox’s habits, because he landed on a lonely spruce tree and sat perfectly still.  A few minutes later the fox appeared at the base of the tree, looked around to ensure no one was watching and, not noticing the raven, buried his prize in the snow.  When the fox had gone, the raven jumped down, uncovered the stash, and flew away with the prize!

raven and fox

Fox burying his lemmings, only to lose it to the raven. photo by Jared Baecker

There are so many magical connections in our natural world that go unnoticed.  The raven is a very special bird, which can survive in your backyard, or in the harshest climates on earth with the help of their extraordinary intellect.  It is no wonder that ancient cultures admired these incredible creatures.  Next time you see raven, a crow, or another member of the jay family, take another look and you may see something incredible!  If you do, let me know.

For some reason, the collective term for ravens is an “unkindness.” Ironically this “unkindness” of ravens smiles over the skies of Churchill, Manitoba. Photo by Bonnie Chartier

For further reading about ravens, the book Mind of the Raven,  by Bernd Heinrich is a fabulous read, and goes into much more detail about some of the topics discussed in this article. This is one of my favorite nature books I have ever read!

6 Comments »

  1. Mel Morales ( Wounded Warrior Photographer) December 17, 2011 at 11:17 am - Reply

    An amazing story Brad I enjoy every minute of it. It has been an honor to meet you in person during your visit to Connecticut.
    You are another mentor and role model in pursuing my photography to new levels.

    MEl
    Disabled Vet.
    203-954-9916
    email: mel.vip.photos@gmail.com

  2. grant miller April 28, 2011 at 11:22 pm - Reply

    I have watched admired and talked to ravens for many years. I live in Sitka Alaska, where ravens are arguably the most common bird ……..next to seagulls.
    In the past 2 weeks I observed 2 remarkable incidents and I am baffeled ….
    the first : I heard loud raven sounds and looked to see a Raven hanging upside down from a small branch of a small tree. holding on with one foot,and sounding off loudly as another hung out near by. I fumbled for my iphone to get a pic but was too late.He dropped the 3 feet to the ground and strolled off(I think because he noticed me)
    2nd : again loud raven sounds caught my attention,looking I saw a raven haning from a small branch of a larger tree about 6 feet off the ground.
    This one was hanging by his beak and still sounding off loudly…….I got a pic this time, but again I was spied and he let go dropped to the ground and walked around. I didn’t notice if there was another close by…….as I’m suspecting some kind of mating act……..showing off or something??
    Ate you familiar with this behavior? Can you shed any light on the subject?
    They never cease to amaze me. I’m around them daily.
    Grant

    • Brad Josephs April 29, 2011 at 5:22 am - Reply

      Hey Grant, Thanks for the comment. In my opinion there is no limit to the variety and complexity of behaviors that ravens will display.
      They are one of the most complex animals in nature. I think you guess that it is a mating display is right on for this time of year. One
      extremely interesting aspect of raven reproduction is the fact that the juveniles will form a mating pair several years before they are
      sexually mature. In this time, the young male and female will bond, and impress each other with play behaviors similar to what you witnessed. This sounds a bit like humans doesnt it? Speaking of Sitka, what a beautiful place. You may know a friend of mine, Richard Nelson, who lives there and is a well known raven worshipper. He spent several years living with the Koyukon people of Alaska’s western interior and wrote a book called “Make Prayers To The Raven”

    • TJ Weigt January 4, 2013 at 9:59 am - Reply

      It’s 40 degrees out and January 2013 here in Tucson, Arizona, USA. My daughter just reported a raven hanging upside down by one leg in the neighbor’s tree. By the time I got outside it was flying past and calling. Only one bird noted.

  3. John Doolan April 26, 2011 at 6:08 am - Reply

    Fantastic! Thank you for putting it out.
    Regards,
    John Doolan

  4. Candice Gaukel Andrews April 25, 2011 at 3:27 pm - Reply

    Brad,

    Ravens and crows are, indeed, intelligent, fascinating birds.

    If you’d like to see more evidence of their amazing abilities, see “Send in the Crows,” which was posted on this blog last summer [http://goodnature.nathab.com/send-in-the-crows/]. Within the article, click on the link to watch the video of the crows with the vending machine. It’s pretty amazing!

    Thanks for sharing your incredible personal experiences with them!

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