Brainy Birds

Common Raven - Corvus coraxWhile they make their home in the north woods all year round, I tend to notice ravens more in the winter. Without the distraction of countless other species vying for my attention, I’m drawn to the stark beauty of their black wings against the blue sky of a winter’s day.

We also have more of them this time of year. It’s not uncommon to see over a hundred in a day as those who were breeding further north make the trip south to my neck of the woods to join their brethren scavenging for food among the ice and snow.

Out on Lake Winnipeg, they tend to follow the commercial fishermen, descending in the dozens onto the ice after the men move off, cleaning up the leftovers before the wolves and foxes get there.

Ravens have had a pretty bad reputation throughout much of history.  Feared as harbingers of ill omen, ghosts of the murdered, or souls of the damned, ravens have haunted literature from ancient myths, right up to Poe and Steven King. Still, not all feared this big black bird. Some cultures, especially North American first nations, revere the raven as a creator and trickster.

The species comes by this last attribute honestly. For a bird brain, ravens are very intelligent, having one of the largest lumps of grey matter of any avian species. For starters, they have an excellent memory, a skill that comes in handy when having to rely on stashes of food to get through the winter. Ravens and other members of the corvid family hide extra food, when it’s in abundance, in caches (i.e. under a rock, wedged in a tree, etc.). It gives them something to get them through the leaner times. If they were a dog, they would sniff out the food later, but unlike mammals, ravens, like most birds, don’t have much of a sense of smell. So to find their caches, they have to remember where they put it.

Ravens take it one step further, not only remembering the location of their caches, but keeping an eye on their flock mates in case there’s the opportunity to lift somebody else’s food.  This risk of losing your stash to a neighbour has resulted in ravens demonstrating the ability to deceive, going through the motions of hiding a cache, but leaving nothing behind, a fascinating display of insight.

Having a good memory opens the door for all sorts of learning. Ravens are good mimics. My mom told me a story of a raven they had at the zoo in Winnipeg who had learned to talk, mimicking the patrons just like a parrot.

Probably the most useful expansion on a good memory is the ability to use trial and error to learn new things. A number of studies on raven cognitive abilities have demonstrated this talent. Birds have been shown to use tools and solve complex problems to obtain food, even working together towards a goal, like tag-teaming a dog, one distracting him from his bowl, while one of the birds eats, then switching roles.

However, the manifestation of their awareness and intelligence that fascinates me the most, is their penchant for play.  Ravens, especially the young ones, like to have fun, sliding down snowbanks and kicking snow onto unsuspecting passersby from their perch high up on a building. Many times I’ve watched, transfixed, as a pair of them raced after each other through the sky, whirling around before locking talons in mid-air and barrel-rolling among the clouds.

On other occasions I’ve been lucky enough to spark one’s interest. One quiet winter evening, I called out to one, mimicking the soft caw that seems to be a contact call. Usually they ignore me, but this one didn’t, coming closer and landing in a nearby tree, echoing my calls. As we chirped and croaked back and forth to each other, he cocked his head and I couldn’t help but get the feeling that we were both wondering what the other was thinking.

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9 thoughts on “Brainy Birds

  1. When we first moved up here my boys were toddlers and I was terrified that one of these huge birds would carry one of them away. Now they absolutely fascinate me. It’s easy to anthromorphize them when you watch them closely. We’ve watched them ‘sledding’ on the arena Quonset, just as you say. One old fellow hung out around our horses for years and was a wonderful mimic. He drove the dogs crazy by barking from the highest old pine.

    Unfortunately, some environmental change invited crows up a few years ago. Now the ravens are more scarce in the summer. The crows’ harrassment apparently being more than they want to deal with, they abandon town for the quieter forests. In winter, however, they rule! As you say, some folks vilify them for scattering carelessly stashed garbage, but I revere them. They keep me company on my bush walks, always checking out what I’m up to, and entertain me to no end.

    I knew ravens were intelligent and that they cached food, but I never imagined that they were capable of the deception that you describe. Thank you for this informative post and the beautiful accompanying image. I now respect them even more.

  2. Hi there, I found my way here via a comment left on Cindy’s blog, On and Over the Hills, and I’m delighted to be reading such wonderful and thoughtful posts on the natural world.

    I rarely see more than a few ravens at a time where I live in Greece; rather they are a striking symbol of the pair bond, almost always travelling together throughout the seasons. When the beautiful, deep gronk sounds high overhead it inevitably signals the passage of two birds through the sky.

    Reading your rich litany of associations that ravens have historically conjured reminded me of the wonderful description that Peter Matthiessen wrote of them: the “great requiem bird of myth and legend.”

    Looking forward to looking around! Best wishes,

    Julian

    • Hi Julian,
      Thanks for stopping by. Ravens truly are a universal bird and I find it fascinating to discover what sort of thoughts and feelings they engender in different people. Thank you for sharing yours. It’s interesting that you see them as a symbol of pair bonds. I hadn’t really thought about that, but it makes sense. They are not migratory and with almost no sexual dimorphism you’d expect them to be monogamous.
      So I did a little digging. While they are monogamous during the year, there doesn’t appear to be any evidence that they mate for life. Still, without a rigorous marking method, it would be hard to tell. That would be an interesting study.

  3. It’s interesting what aspects of a creature’s life we pick up on according to how it is perceived within a particular range. Though I’m aware of large gatherings of ravens in other parts of Europe, for example, I think only on a couple of occasions have I seen more than a pair at any one time here in Greece.

    I can’t say how much evidence in total there is to support the idea that they mate for life, but biologists such as Bernd Heinrich believe they might come close. According to his studies a pair can remain together for a great many years, showing fidelity to nest site as well. Though it might be handed down myth, all of my field guides and books claim that they pair for life. Perhaps a study would clarify more easily!

    • It is interesting how for a ubiquitous species like the raven, their life history tactics may vary from place to place. I imagine in the case of ravens, whether they mate for life has a lot to do with the reliability of food in the area. In areas where food sources are relatively constant, it would make sense to show high site fidelity and likely mate for life. In areas where food is more ephemeral or unreliable (like around here), it might be so advantageous to stay in one place all the time, making it harder to maintain pair bonds.
      I know site fidelity in Northern Saw-whet Owl males (which I worked on for my Ph.D.) can be pretty heavily influenced by how much food is in the area.

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