While 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.