Raving About Ravens

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At the northernmost location of the Christmas bird count -- Pt. Barrow, Alaska -- in the blackness of noon the lone counter heads over to the dump and listens. Kark! There is it, their one bird -- the raven.

Six months later in the searing heat of the afternoon, the desert sun of the Mojave Desert has baked every other form of life into weary submission, but there overhead cawing as they fly are two large black birds seemingly oblivious to the debilitating heat. Over cities, at the seashore, foraging in garbage piles, frequenting farms and remote mountaintops from Siberia to London to Mexico, ravens are thriving.

Crows and ravens are similar but ravens are usually found in pairs, crows usually in flocks. Crows are smaller. Ravens have wedge-shaped tails (v-shaped as in "v" for raven). Crows' tails are squared off. We have both species in the Bay Area.

One of the reasons I like ravens is that they form long-lasting pair bonds. Mr. and Mrs. Raven not only get together in the spring to raise young but they hang together throughout the whole year and seem to really enjoy each other's company. I often see them preening each other, cooing, playing and generally behaving like a couple of newlyweds. Real cute.

Ravens belong to the Corvid family of birds, which also includes the magpies and jays. This is a group of very intelligent birds, but ravens are definitely the rocket scientists of the bunch. In one classic experiment, tame crows were presented with a puzzle: how to get a piece of meat dangling from a 24-inch-long string. No matter how many weeks the crows tried, they never could figure out how to get the meat.


But when a raven was given the same dilemma, he carefully examined the puzzle for about six hours and then flew down. He solved the problem by the pulling the string up with his bill and then holding it with his feet while pulling more string up and so on until the meat was within reach. Voila! Clever bird!

So go ahead call me a birdbrain. I will take it as a compliment.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Michael Ellis is a naturalist who leads tours throughout the world. He lives in Santa Rosa.