The Raven is one of the most maligned and misunderstood animals in the history of mankind. In many cultures the raven is considered a bird of ill omen and death, in part because of the negative symbolism of their all black plumage. Other cultures regard ravens as the ghosts of murdered people or as the souls of the damned. Some regard the raven as the devil himself.
Native cultures of the Pacific Northwest and the Inuit regard the Raven as an incurable mischievous trickster spirit who placed the Sun in the sky, was the creator of Man, and is a popular totem. And some Native American tribes worship the raven as a deity in and of itself. Called simply Raven, he is described as a sly trickster who was involved in the creation of the world.
The captive ravens at the Tower of London are beloved and perhaps a little feared: legend has it that if they ever leave the Tower, the British Empire will crumble.
Ravens are the largest perching birds in North America. They are all black: Feathers, eyes, legs, and feet. Nasal bristles on top of the bill cover a third to half of the bill. The throat is covered by thick, shaggy feathers, called “hackles.”
Ravens are bold, playful, and clever; they’re almost always doing something worth watching.
Ravens are confident, inquisitive birds that strut, swagger, or occasionally bounce forward or backward with light, two-footed hops. In flight they are buoyant, graceful, and acrobatic, often doing rolls, somersaults, sudden flips and spirals, and wing-tucked dives. They also fly upside down.
Mate selection is quite complex and accompanied with much social interaction. Youngsters undergo a series of tests, including aerobatic feats, before being accepted as a mate by the opposite sex. Ravens mate for life.
And they are smart. Ravens have the largest brain in relation to body size of any bird. They are excellent problem solvers, can create and use tools, and have superb memories. Their ability to learn and solve problems position them on the same intellectual level as primates, dolphins, and elephants. They are capable of multi-step problem solving and sometimes work in teams to solve complex problems.
Ravens use logic to assess and solve problems and they have a concept of past and future. They can mull over what they know and apply it to new situations. They have the ability to test actions in their minds and project the outcome. They aren’t tied to a single response, but can assess a situation and change their actions accordingly.
Ravens communicate relative concepts and emotions and share food. They recognize individuals across species and recognize and react to knowledge of others by adopting an abstract Point of View.
The brains of ravens count among the largest of any bird species. Specifically, they display unique abilities in problem solving, as well as other cognitive processes such as imitation and insight.
They also use their intellect to put together cause and effect. Ravens are ‘inventors’. Their aptitudes for problem solving both individually and learning from each other reflect a flexible capacity for intelligent insight unusual among non-human animals.
Ravens are one of only four known animals, one other being humans, who have demonstrated displacement, the capacity to communicate about objects or events that are distant in space or time: i.e., abstract thought. This ability also extends to linguistic displacement, perhaps the most important event in the evolution of human language; ravens are the only other vertebrate to share this with humans.
Juvenile ravens are among the most playful of all birds. They have been observed sliding down snow banks, apparently for the sole purpose of having fun. They engage in games with other species, such as playing catch-me-if-you-can with wolves. They are notorious tail pullers. It’s as though they can’t help themselves … if there is a tail, it must be pulled regardless of to what it belongs: Eagles, hawks, wolves, cats, and dogs.
Fledgling ravens routinely pick up and examine almost anything new they discover to learn what’s useful and what isn’t.
Despite structural differences, the brains of ravens and great apes have both developed the ability to calculate geometrical measurements.
Raven ingenuity is represented through their memorization abilities, use of tools, group behavior, and feeding skills.
They watch where other ravens bury their food and remember the locations of each others food caches so they can steal from them. This type of theft occurs so regularly that ravens will fly extra distances from a food source to a more sequestered hiding place to hide their own food. They have also been observed pretending to hide food without actually depositing it, presumably to confuse onlookers. The ability to hide and subsequently recover food requires highly accurate spatial memories. They are able to recall their hiding places up to nine months later. And because the food they store is perishable, they not only remember where they stored it, but for how long it’s been stored. This has been compared to episodic memory, previously thought unique to humans.
They are also known to steal and hide shiny objects such as pebbles, pieces of metal, keys, trinkets, and golf balls, maybe to impress other ravens or their mates? Or maybe for their own personal toy box? Or their own amusement.
It’s been discovered that farmers who methodically place “Scarecrows” or other mechanisms in fields to scare birds away actually increased the number of ravens instead of scaring them away. In raven logic, the presence of scarecrows indicates the presence of newly planted seeds.
Ravens possess highly developed tool fabrication skills. Tools are engineered according to the task at hand and apparently also to learned preference. They have the ability to solve complicated problems using advanced tools, which suggests a high level of innovation of a complex nature. Ravens are able to make tools to accomplish a specific task, and have the ability to modify existing tools in their “tool box” so they can be used to accomplish a completely different task, avoiding the need to make a completely new tool.
They are self aware; they can recognize reflections of themselves in a mirror. The only other known species able to do this are humans, apes, dolphins and elephants.
Despite their mischievous nature, ravens seem capable of feeling empathy, known in humans as ‘sympathetic concern’. When a raven’s friend loses in a fight, they will console the losing bird. They also remember birds they like and will respond in a friendly way to certain birds for at least three years after meeting them. They also respond negatively to enemies.
More than thirty-three different categories of vocalizations and speech patterns used by ravens have been discovered. Each category encompasses many different calls which are separated according to sound and situation. Additionally, ravens communicate through gestures such as pointing, a behavior previously thought exclusive to primates.
Ravens make very sophisticated non-vocal signals; they gesture to communicate. They point with their beaks to indicate an object to another bird, just as humans do with fingers. They also hold up an object to get another bird’s attention. The observation of this behavior is the first time anyone has observed naturally occurring gestures in any animal other than primates.
Ravens are truly complex animals that blur the line between human and non-human behavior, intelligence, and understanding of the world around them.
The Native Americans weren’t far off about the raven’s mischievous nature. They often play keep-away with other animals, wolves in particular. Ravens make toys — a rare animal behavior — by using sticks, pine cones, golf balls, or rocks to play with each other or by themselves. And sometimes they just taunt or mock other creatures because they might find it amusing.