The raven is a fascinating and intelligent bird linked to a rich mythology. It’s a relative of the crow—another clever bird—but is larger in size. In this article I’ll discuss the common raven, or Corvus corax. This bird plays a significant role in the mythology of the First Nations people in British Columbia. It also continues to surprise scientists as new aspects of its intelligence are discovered.
The common raven has a wide distribution in North America and lives in many different habitats. The bird is also found in Europe, Asia, and North Africa. It’s often seen at sea level but tends to prefer higher elevations. A pair of ravens live on a forested mountain near my home. Occasionally, I see them flying over my neighbourhood. Their appearance is always a treat for me.
The call of the raven is often described as a long “croak”. I think that the call is haunting and beautiful, however, especially compared to the raucous calls of the local crows. I see crows on a daily basis, but ravens not so often. Although ravens are abundant in some areas, they always seem like slightly mysterious birds to me.
The common raven is the largest member of the crow family in North America. It’s a sturdy bird with a thick bill and powerful wings. The raven’s feathers are generally black in colour and have a glossy appearance under some lighting conditions.
The bird has longer feathers on its throat, which are known as hackles, and nasal bristles on the first half of its upper bill. Its wedge-shaped tail helps to distinguish it from crows, which have fan-shaped tails. The difference is shown in the video below.
The average length of an adult common raven (from the tip of the beak to the end of the tail) is 24 inches. The average weight is around 2.6 pounds. The different subspecies have slightly different body sizes and features.
Ravens are very acrobatic fliers. They often glide instead of fly. When they do fly, their wing beats are shallower and slower than those of crows. Ravens often perform somersaults and rolls in the air and are said to be able to fly upside down for short distances. They are frequently seen dropping sticks or other objects in the air and then diving to catch them, an activity that looks very much like play.
Common ravens are usually seen singly, in pairs, or in small groups. In some places they form large gatherings as they forage for food or while they are roosting. They produce a variety of vocalizations to communicate with each other and to send signals to other animals.
Ravens are very adaptable birds and are seen in a wide variety of habitats and climates. While its crow cousins forage in areas frequented by humans, the raven prefers wild areas. There are reports that it is becoming more tolerant of nearby humans, however.
Ravens have an omnivorous diet and eat many types of food. Their diet includes small mammals, other birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects, fruits, grains, and buds. They also eat mammal carrion, which may be their major food source. They have been observed eating the afterbirth of farm animals. If they find a source of food that is too large for them to eat at one time, they’ll hide the remains for future use.
Ravens sometimes cooperate when hunting to draw the prey out into the open. They also cooperate when trying to raid seabird nests. One raven will distract the adult seabird while the other flies in for the kill. The video below shows a raven who is determined to get to food meant for others.
Common ravens mate for life. The birds are territorial and protect their territory from interlopers. They reproduce once a year. They generally build their nest in trees or on cliffs, but some birds nest on structures made by humans, such as bridges.
The female lays her eggs during late winter or spring, depending on the climate. The average number of eggs in a clutch is five. The eggs are incubated for 20 to 25 days. Only the female incubates the eggs, but both the male and the female care for the youngsters.
The young ravens leave the nest when they are five to seven weeks old, but like juvenile crows they don’t leave their parents immediately. Their parents continue to feed them, although this activity weakens as the youngsters mature. The juveniles learn important behaviours during this time as a family. The young birds breed for the first time when they are two to four years old.
Ravens can potentially live for a long time, but reports of their maximum lifespan are very different. Estimates vary from 13 to more than 40 years, with the higher number representing the lifespan of captive birds.
Ravens are nearly always black in colour. The video below shows some very unusual white ravens seen at Qualicum Beach on Vancouver Island. They have blue eyes as well as white feathers and aren’t albinos.
The white ravens were seen regularly in the community for a while and appeared to be produced by one mating pair, which were black. In 2014, the white birds disappeared. In 2018, however, another one was seen in the community of Coombs, which is located not far from Qualicum Beach.
Scientists says that the colour is probably due to a genetic anomaly that prevents the birds from making the melanin pigments that colour its feathers. Unfortunately, the white birds don’t seem to live for long. This may be due to other genetic problems or to the fact that the black birds consider the white ones to be subordinate and pick on them. There is no evidence that the black birds deliberately kill the white ones, though.
Ravens are associated with a rich folklore in many cultures, sometimes in association with crows. I’m especially interested in their role in the myths of the indigenous people of British Columbia. Ravens are often depicted as deities or as beings with access to deities in the legends of BC First Nations people. They are also depicted as clever tricksters.
The Haida are an indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest region of North America. In their legends, Raven is a complex character who existed before the beginning of time. He was responsible for releasing humans into the world, which happened in the archipelago of Haida Gwaii. Legend says that Raven found tiny humans inside a clam or oyster shell. He opened the shell, allowing the humans to escape.
Haida mythology contains many Raven legends. In addition to releasing humans, Raven brought light to the world. There are different versions of the story that describes how this happened. Raven is not always so benign, however. He’s a mischievous being who can bring either order or chaos to the universe.
I think that there’s something magical about the top-of-the-world sensation experienced on a mountaintop. The echoing calls of ravens piercing the silence add to the magic. Whenever I think of the quietness of a mountain summit in my part of the world, I always hear the cry of a raven in my mind.
I wrote the poem below as part of a writing challenge. Writers were asked to create a poem or story based on their reaction to a photo. The photo showed a woman on a mountaintop looking in apparent awe at the view.
I often experience this awe as I look at my surroundings from the top of a mountain. Although I always love the feeling of being connected to nature that I experience, I sometimes hope for a deeper understanding of reality. My character in the poem below is experiencing this desire. The joy and wonder in the woman’s discoveries have prompted a yearning for even more revelations. These revelations are brought to her by a raven.
The summit of her love
and awe in majesty,
beauty magnified with joy
pulsating through her soul
as tears of yearning flowed
desiring more than she could feel,
the source of nature’s power
and hidden streams of truth
A bird of wisdom and device
sonorous in flight
cascading silence in his wake
She let the silence in
to calm her restless mind
and found the All inside
expanding yet complete
The universe as one
forever here and now,
she and All That Is
The heart of space and time
the engine of the soul
Reclaimed by Earth’s desires
her partner’s gentle touch
She turned and saw him smile
connection at its best
The universe in love –
a focal point in time
- Information about the common raven (Corvus corax) from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology
- Common raven facts from Audubon
- White ravens near Qualicum Beach from the Vancouver Sun
- Haida raven mythology facts from the Canadian Museum of History
- Information about The Raven and the First Men sculpture from the Bill Reid Foundation