Field Guide

Photo credit: Jean-Guy Dallaire

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Common Raven

The Common Raven (Corvus corax) is a large black bird in the crow family, with iridescent feathers. The bill is large and slightly curved. At maturity, it is between 60 and 78 cm (24 to 27 inches) in length, with a wingspan double that.

Apart from its greater size, the Raven differs from its cousins the crows by having a larger and heavier beak, and a deeper and more varied barking prrrukk call note. Other field points are the shaggy throat feathers and a longer, wedge-shaped tail.


Ravens can thrive in varied climates. They range from the Arctic to the deserts of North Africa, and to islands in the Pacific Ocean; indeed this species has the largest range of any member of the genus. Most Ravens prefer wooded areas (with large, open land nearby) or coastal regions for their nesting sites and feeding grounds. In some areas of large human population, such as California in the United States, Ravens take advantage of an enlarged food supply and have seen a surge in population. In other areas, such as parts of Europe and the eastern United States, Raven populations have been greatly reduced due to persecution.

Much Raven behavior is believed to be related to mating and reproduction. Juveniles begin to court at a very early age, but may not bond with another bird for 2-3 years. Aerial acrobatics and displays of intelligence and ability to provide food are key behaviors of courting Ravens. Once paired, Ravens tend to nest together for life, usually in the same location. The pair will build a nest on cliff ledges or in tall trees (or building ledges in cities). Breeding pairs must have a territory of their own before they begin nest-building and reproduction, and the territory and its food resources will be defended against others. The nest is made of large sticks and twigs lined with a softer material, such as deer fur. The female will lay from three to seven pale bluish-green, brown-blotched eggs. Both parents keep the eggs warm, and take turns feeding the chicks. As with many birds, pairing does not necessarily mandate sexual monogamy, and raven habits show fluidity in this regard.

Ravens have a varied diet. They will eat a wide number of foods, including insects, berries, fruit, other birds' eggs, carrion, wolf or dog feces, and human-produced foods such as bread. They also may kill small birds and mammals, including young rabbits and rats, but do so mainly as opportunists. Popular beliefs about ravens include the notion that they are attracted to shiny objects, but research indicates that juveniles are deeply curious about all new things, and that Ravens retain an attraction to bright, round objects based on their similarity to bird eggs. Mature ravens lose their intense interest in the unusual, and become highly neophobic, taking up to three days to begin feeding on dead mammals. Ravens usually live ten to fifteen years in the wild, or twice that in captivity.

Ravens have impressed their biologist observers with their apparent intelligence and insight. Experiments have shown that members of the crow family are capable of using tools; an experiment, where some desirable item lay on the bottom of a bottle, showed that some of these birds were able to form a hook to reach the item. Like other corvids, Ravens can copy sounds from their environment, including human speech. They have a wide range of vocalizations, which remain the object of interest to ornithologists.

The Common Raven is the official bird of the Yukon.

Ravens in European myth and legend

Because of its black plumage, croaking call, and diet of carrion, the raven has long been considered a bird of ill omen and of interest to creators of myths and legends.

*The Raven was a common device used by the Vikings. Ragnar Lodbrok had a banner called Reafan, embroidered with the device of a raven. It was said that if this banner fluttered, Lodbrok would carry the day, but if it hung lifeless the battle would be lost. King Harald Hardrada also had a raven banner, called Landeythan (land-waster). In Norse mythology, the Ravens Hugin and Munin sat on the god Odin's shoulders, and told him the news of the world. The Old English word for a raven was hraefn; in Old Norse it was hrafn; the word was frequently used in combinations as a kenning for bloodshed and battle.
*According to a legend Roman general Marcus Valerius Corvus (c. 370-270 BC), had a raven settle on his helmet during a combat with a gigantic Gaul, which distracted the enemy's attention by flying in his face.
*In ancient Celtic religion ravens were associated with the Welsh god Bran the Blessed, ( the brother of Branwen ) whose name translates to "raven." According to the Mabinogion, Bran's head was buried in the White Hill of London as a talisman against invasion. The Celtic Goddess Morrigan also is associated with Ravens. Over the years, a legend developed that England will not fall to a foreign invader as long as there are ravens at the Tower of London; the government now maintains several birds on the grounds of the tower, either for insurance or to please tourists (or both). This is often thought to be an ancient myth, but recent research has shown no trace of the legend before the 19th century and is now thought to be a romantic Victorian invention. In fact the Tower has been raven-less for long periods of time. They were last reintroduced after World War 2. These birds are rendered flightless shortly after birth to ensure that they will not leave.

Ravens in Literature

In the Bible, ravens are mentioned on numerous occasions throughout the Old Testament.

*They are listed among the unclean birds in both Leviticus 11:15 and Deuteronomy 14:14.
*In Genesis 8:7, Noah releases a raven from the Ark to fly back and forth until the waters of the Flood are dried up.
*In I Kings 17:4 God commands the ravens to feed the prophet Elijah.
*Job ponders who feeds the ravens in Job 38:41.
*Proverbs 30:17 places ravens in judgment over the disrespectful or disobedient child.
*King Solomon is described as having hair as black as a raven in the Song of Songs 5:11.

In the New Testament as well, ravens are used by Jesus as an illustration of God's provision in Luke 12:24

William Shakespeare refers to the raven more often than to any other bird; Othello provides one example as well as Macbeth.
The raven "Grip" is an important character in Charles Dickens' Barnaby Rudge.
Edgar Allan Poe also used the raven as a supernatural messenger in his poem "The Raven". In this and the Dickens book, the bird's power of speech is important.
Among other works of literature, Christopher Marlowe's play The Jew of Malta and Edmund Spencer's The Faerie Queene also employ the raven's darkly ominous image.
News-bearing ravens also appear in The Hobbit, by J. R. R. Tolkien and Animal Farm by George Orwell.
Raven is Hari Seldon's nickname in Isaac Asimov's Foundation Series. He gets it for his dire predictions of the future.
The raven is featured prominently in the novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, which relates a fictionalized history of England where magic is practiced and legend tells of "The Raven King", the one-time king of northern England.
People with long black hair are sometimes poetically referred to as "raven-haired", referring to the coloring, and not to any actual raven's hair.

Ravens in Native American legend

The Raven also has a prominent role in the mythologies of the Native Americans of Pacific Northwest, British Columbia, and Alaska, including the Tsimishian, Haida, Bella Bella, Tlingit, Kwakiutl, Koyukons, and Inuit. The Raven in Native American mythology is both the Creator of the World but also considered a Trickster god.

For instance, in the Tlingit culture, the are two different Raven characters which can be identified, although they are not always clearly differentiated. One is the creator Raven who is responsible for bringing the world into being and who is sometimes considered to be the same individual as the Owner of Daylight. The other is the childish Raven, always selfish, sly, conniving, and hungry.

Other notable stories tell of the Raven stealing and releasing the sun, and of the Raven tempting the first humans out of a clam shell.

Related species

Many large black birds of the genus Corvus are also called ravens. Other birds in the same genus are the smaller crows, jackdaws, and rook.

Other raven species include:
*Australian Raven (C. coronoides)
*Forest Raven (C. tasmanicus)
*Little Raven (C. mellori)
*Thick-billed Raven (C. crassirostris)
*White-necked Raven (C. albicollis)
*Brown-necked Raven (C. ruficollis)
*Chihuahuan Raven (C. cryptoleucos)


*"Bran." Encyclopedia Mythica from Encyclopedia Mythica Online.
*Boarman, W. I. and Heinrich, B. 1999. Common Raven - Corvus corax. Birds of North America 476: 32.
*Heinrich, B., 1989. Ravens in Winter. New York: Summit Books.
*Heinrich, B., 1999. Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds. New York: Cliff Street Books.

External links

{{Commons|Corvus corax}}
*PBS Nature: Ravens
*Extensive Raven photo slideshow
*RSPB: Raven
*Article in Guardian about Tower of London raven myth

Image links
* Raven in flight
* Raven
* USGS species account, including CBC/BBS range maps
* Flickr photos (includes some crows and Pacific Northwest native art)

Sound link
* Raven recordings

Descriptions from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Used under terms of the GNU Free Documentation License

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