Meet the common raven

Common raven on a tree branch before a blue and pink sky
Common raven. Photo by Aaron Vowels. Retrieved from Flickr on 08/18/2022.

I (and apparently the rest of the world) have been watching The Sandman on Netflix.

I love it. It’s such a great adaptation of the graphic novels (which I also love). The acting is fantastic. It’s visually fun to watch. If you enjoy fantasy shows and books, I recommend giving The Sandman a watch!

One great part of the show is the ravens (I’m a sucker for talking animal side characters). Morpheus, aka The Sandman aka Dream, always has a raven companion. These ravens serve as helpers and messengers, going back and forth between the human world and the realm of dreaming.

Let’s take the opportunity for closer look at these birds. There are approximately 10 species of ravens that live across the world. The largest species (and the one we’ll be focusing on) is the common raven, Corvus corax – this species can be 25 inches long as an adult! The common raven is also common (surprise surprise); it is the most widely distributed raven species in the world and can be found throughout the Northern hemisphere.

Ravens vs Crows

Now, ravens aren’t the only large black birds out there – crows also exist and look very similar to ravens. In fact, both crow species and raven species belong to the same family group, Corvidae, along with birds like jays and magpies. Crows and ravens are even a part of the same evolutionary genus (Corvus).

So how can you tell the difference between a crow and a raven?

A taxidermied raven next to a taxidermied carrion crow
Common raven (left) and carrion crow (right). Photo by Mariomassone. Retrieved from Wikipedia on 08/18/2022.

One of the easiest ways is by size – common ravens are bigger and heavier than American crows. While common ravens can get up to 25 inches long and weigh 2.6 pounds, American crows are only 16 – 20 inches long and a comparatively light 11 to 21 oz (0.68 – 1.31 pounds). The smallest ravens (the Chihuahuan raven and little raven) are about the same size as the largest crows.

There are a few other distinguishing features, too. Ravens soar more like a hawks than crows do and have slender wings and a wedge-shaped tail. Ravens also tend to have a heavier bill and shaggier feathers around their throat.

Super smart

Ravens are super smart birds and have an intelligence ranked up there with chimpanzees and dolphins. One study of raven intelligence found that they have similar cognitive capabilities of great apes and can understand concepts like causality and quantities. They also display social learning and theory of mind (the understanding that other individuals have mental states). These abilities are likely possible because of their large brain – it accounts for almost 2% of its body mass (this is about the proportion of body mass our human brains take up, too).

How do we know they’re smart? Well, for starters, ravens have solved multiple logic puzzles given to them by scientists. Ravens also know that other ravens may try to steal their food, so they will pretend to hide their food in one location while actually caching it in a different place. (Since all ravens are smart, though, this “pretending to hide the food” trick only works sometimes). Ravens also seem to communicate with gestures – they will point with their beak to objects or hold up an object to get another bird’s attention.

Raven doing something with a stick – could be a tool or an object for a courtship display (that’s what the photographer thinks). Photo by Keith Williams. Retrieved from Flickr on 08/18/2022.

A variable diet

Common ravens are omnivores – they eat both plants and meat. Their diet ranges from grain and berries to bird eggs and rodents. In the winter, ravens will eat carrion, dead fish, and garbage.

Ravens can be quite clever when working to get their food. For instance, they may work in pairs to raid the nests of seabird colonies. While one raven distracts the adult seabird, the other will snatch the egg straight from the nest. Ravens will also wait in trees while sheep are giving birth. Once the lamb has appeared, ravens will swoop down to snag the afterbirth (they may even try to get a bite of lamb).

Ravens will also use other animals to their advantage. They don’t have the right claws or beak to tear open animal carcasses, so they will mimic wolf calls to attract wolves. Once the wolves have torn open the body and eaten their fill, the ravens can eat any leftover scraps.

Playful!

Ravens are smart enough to know when it’s time to take a break – juvenile common ravens are among the most playful bird species out there. They will make their own toys by breaking off pieces of sticks. Then, the young ravens will fly up, drop their twig, and swoop down to catch them before they hit the ground. Ravens have also been seen playing what seems to be a game of catch-me-if-you-can with wolves and dogs.

Ravens even seem to play in the snow! They will slide down snow banks, as you can see here. While there definitely could be an evolutionary reason for this behavior, it also seems that ravens just do it because it’s fun.

They’ll remember you

Ravens have a great memory. Studies show they can remember birds that they like and will respond positively to them. On the flip side, they’ll also hold grudges.

And these grudges aren’t just towards other birds – they’ll hold grudges towards humans, too.

One study took nine hand-reared ravens and asked them to trade food with a human experimenter. If the ravens gave their bread to the human, they could get cheese in return (a much better treat in their minds). But not all the human experimenters were fair: sometimes, the ravens gave away their bread and got nothing in return. When asked to make these trades weeks later, the ravens almost always chose to trade their food with the experimenter who traded them cheese for bread (one raven decided to trade with a neutral party). The ravens remembered who was a good person to trade with and acted accordingly.

So next time you think about messing with a raven, think twice. They’ll remember your face (plus it’s just mean to be rude to birds).

“Don’t be rude!” – this raven (probably). Photo by David Hofmann. Retrieved from Wikipedia on 08/18/2022.

Resources

Birdfact

Britannica

Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute

All About Birds

Mental Floss

One response to “Meet the common raven”

  1. Enjoyed learning about the raven!

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