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Bird Brains: The intelligence of common ravens

Photo of: Profile of common raven

Common raven; by Neal Herbert

It seems almost foolish to try and introduce the common raven. Our comprehension is nearly automatic, innate even. But why?

Ravens are certainly the most widely distributed of all corvids, ubiquitous in a variety of habitats throughout the Northern Hemisphere with population numbers in the tens of millions globally. Their density and distribution is similar to our own, and as such, humans have coexisted with them for thousands upon thousands of years.

Their proximity and proliferation isn’t the sole source of our familiarity, though. Nor is it an understanding of the natural world or a love of birding – but also because of their persistent foothold in popular culture.

Ravens have enjoyed widespread notoriety and a strong connection to humans throughout recorded history, and our depictions of them have varied widely. There are a handful of cultures that revere them, seeing them as gods or messengers thereof, as protectors or as fun-loving, mischievous friends. The great majority, however, cast them in a rather ominous light, holding them as harbingers of death, pestilence and war.

In modern times, our associations are a bit less pointed, most likely drawn through the recollection of macabre poems, love for local sports franchises, or fanaticism for premium television dramas. Regardless of the reason, the prevalence of raven symbolism continues to thrive.

Image of: Crow in silhouette of raven Common Raven (corvus corax)
~23 inches tall
~49-inch wingspan
~3 pounds
Western Maryland; prefers woodsAmerican Crow (corvus brachyrhynchos)
~19 inches tall
~36-inch wingspan
~1.05 pounds
Found throughout Maryland


Tuckahoe’s Scales & Tales Raven; by Stephen Badger

Scales & Tales
Did you know that the Maryland Park Service offers educational programming featuring live animals?

There are, in fact, multiple aviaries across the state that house non-releasable birds of prey, reptiles and other creatures that serve as animal ambassadors. With their help, naturalists and rangers offer the public an uncommon, up close and personal experience, and by so doing, better promote the conservation and stewardship of native wildlife.

The Scales & Tales program currently has two ravens in their care, one at Tuckahoe State Park and another at Soldiers Delight Natural Environment Area. The birds are some of the newest members of the team, and as such, caretakers are working hard to make them feel at home. Programming is available but limited.

At a glance
Much like their crow cousins, ravens are entirely black—tip-to-tip, beak to claw. Their glossy yet sooty plumage is complemented by iridescent blue, green or purple tones. It is primarily their size that helps differentiate the beasts, as ravens are considerably larger. They are also distinguished by a wedge-shaped tail and longer, narrower wings with long, thin, finger-like feathers at the tips.

It is perhaps their behavior more than appearance that we find so compelling. They are confident, graceful and intentional. Aloft, they’re known to practice aerobatics like dives and rolls, and can even incorporate toys into their routine. On the ground they’re just as bold, hopping or sliding about fearlessly.

Researchers note that these birds are careful observers…thinkers…problem solvers. Indeed, they are thought to be among the most intelligent of all birds. They understand cause and effect and are able to use that knowledge artfully to aid in their endeavors. They’re even known to employ tools if the need arises.

Their brainpower is evidenced mostly in the quest for food. They’re carnivores but opportunistic. They routinely manage success where others would fail. They’re known to prey upon animals as large as lambs, though it’s more typical for them to feed on seeds, insects and carrion.

But it’s not all serious either. Ravens are playful and mischievous too. For those who would watch, they’re nearly always doing something fascinating.

Home sweet home
In the United States, ravens can be found throughout the continent—with the exception of the great open plains and eastern forests, though they are beginning to resettle the latter.

Marylanders might look to find the bird in the westernmost counties where densely forested, high, rocky habitat is most welcoming.

As famously illustrated by the celebrated poet Edgar Allan Poe, ravens are known to practice mimicry. They typically calling upon sounds from their native environment but occasionally delving into human speech as well.


Article by Stephen Badger—public affairs officer.
Appears in Vol. 20, No. 4 of the Maryland Natural Resource magazine, fall 2017.

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