In celebration of my new release Raven Queen, Arise, and Edgar Allan Poe’s 213th birthday week, here are some fun facts about the often-misunderstood raven.
Ravens are very, very smart. Scientists guess that ravens are some of the smartest animals in the kingdom, next to dolphins and primates. Ravens can remember thousands of locations for stashed food—their own and other animals’ caches. In fact, ravens are so good at pilfering that they will pretend to stash food just to throw other ravens off their track, then stash the real food somewhere else. They remember not only faces but also behaviors. In one study, scientists took turns either pilfering food from a raven’s stash or just examining it but not stealing anything. After watching this behavior, ravens felt free to go get stashed food only around the human who didn’t pilfer. Scientists theorize that they use these skills to determine which animals pose a threat to their caches.
Ravens have also been observed to have logic and problem-solving skills, which are extremely rare in animals. When faced with obstacles they must solve to get food, most animals learn through trial and error. In a test to see if the bird could get a treat attached to a long string tied to their perch, ravens examined the problem for several minutes before coming up with the right answer: the bird figured out to pull up a loop of string with its beak and step on it, repeating the gesture until it had succeeded in pulling up the food. Many birds succeeded in their first try, in less than 30 seconds. Ravens also seem to be able to communicate location over distance and time, which is often only seen in bees and ants. Ravens will find a carcass or stash of food that is being guarded, fly home to its community and communicate where the carcass is, returning later with a flock big enough to chase away their competition.
Ravens have strong bonds with other birds. Ravens flock with other young, immature birds only until they mate—and then they mate for life. They tend to travel in much smaller groups of 2-4 for the rest of their lives, usually in a fixed territory. Ravens have been observed to reach out and try to console birds they like with calls and gestures. (They are the only other creature besides primates observed to use gestures to communicate with other animals.) And they can recognize a friendly bird face as long as 3 years later (of course this means they can also hold grudges for just as long ;).
Ravens love to play. Ravens are mischievous and sneaky: they will imitate other animals’ calls to lure the predators to crack open a carcass for them and then wait for the leftovers. Many of the darting, playful behaviors they use to tease bigger animals like dogs or foxes is to test how much of a threat the predator might be and analyze their skills. Ravens have also been known to play dead next to a carcass just to scare off other birds who might be interested in swooping in. Ravens are some of the only animals known to create toys for themselves (and friends!) out of pinecones or sticks. And they sometimes like to roll down snowy hills or roofs just for the fun of it, apparently.
Ravens can mimic human speech. Ravens are actually amazing imitators, as good as parrots or mockingbirds, capable of sounding exactly like human voices. (They could actually say “nevermore.”) They can make a wide range of calls and sound effects, mimicking other animals, cars, doorbells—whatever they’re listening to. They’ve been observed to have as many as 20 distinct vocal patterns that can taunt, warn, comfort, or threaten other birds.
Ravens are master fliers. While not winning any awards for top speeds, ravens are extremely dexterous in the sky. They can dive, spin, roll, and glide with the best of them—and they can even fly upside-down for extended periods!
A Tale of Two Species
Ravens are often confused with crows. Though both are part of the same corvid bird family, look similar, and are both very intelligent, the two birds behave in different ways and have several traits that can help you distinguish between them.
- Crows are smaller (about the size of a pigeon) than ravens (about the size of a hawk).
- Crows have straight beaks, while ravens have a slightly hooked beak.
- Crows have smooth neck feathers, while ravens have longer, shaggy neck feathers that resemble a beard.
- Crows flap their wings as they fly, often cawing as they do; ravens tend to soar silently.
- Crows have a nasal, raucous CAW-CAW call, while ravens make softer and deeper calls, mixed with throaty GROK-GROK noises and croaks.
- Crows tend to approach humans much more than ravens do. Crows will often gather in populated areas, while ravens are more cautious and prefer rural areas with cover, like forests and mountains (though both will venture into human territory to scavenge for roadkill or food waste).
- Crows tend to travel in large flocks, while ravens prefer to travel alone or in small groups of 2-4.
Although both birds are mischievous, think of the crow as the outgoing partier, while the raven is the broody loner who keeps you guessing.
While the raven has often been considered a signal of evil (because of their tendency to eat from carcasses, most likely), these wily and wise birds are just incredibly suited to survive, evade predators, and adapt to new environments. Just like their Queen.