For the Birds: Ravens: Common and amazing

A common raven

We’ve heard lots of raven talk lately. These massive black birds have been making their presence known in recent weeks. Common ravens tend to form large communal roosts in the fall and winter. That’s likely why we are hearing so much about raven’s right now. As large groups of birds come together, they are much more noticeable. About two feet long, common ravens have an impressive 4-foot wing span. Although quite common in Canada and the West, Common ravens are less numerous in much of the East, Midwest and Great Plains.

Although often mistaken for crows, the common raven is half again as big as the American crow and unlike crows, sports long, shaggy throat feathers. Look for faven’s distinctive wedge-shaped tail in flight. The raven also has a lower voice than does the crow.

The Common raven together with jays, magpies and crows, are members of the corvid family which is considered to be the smartest of bird clans. Known not only for smarts, corvids tend to have strong, sturdy bills and will eat a wide variety of foods including seeds, small mammals, birds and eggs, carrion and garbage.

Common Ravens might be common but their behavior is not. Here are a few fun facts about this extraordinary bird.

• Common ravens can fly upside down for short periods and commonly do rolls and somersaults in flight.

• A flock of ravens is called an unkindness.

• Ravens soar like hawks and will sometimes fly down the middle of a road looking for carrion. The ends of the raven’s wings look a bit like thin fingers.

• Common ravens are often seen at city landfills where they scavenge for food.

• Even though only one or two ravens usually discover a food source, like a carcass, ravens will often recruit other ravens to join in the feeding. Scientist/writer Bernd Heinrich conducted more than 1,000 hours of painstaking field observation of ravens and determined that juvenile raven gangs do this recruiting and use it to gain access to carcasses being defended by territorial adults.

• Ravens are the world’s largest perching bird and America’s largest songbird.

• Ravens typically mate for life.

• Ravens have been observed using Velcro fasteners and unzipping zippers to steal food.

• The entire nest of the common raven measures up to5-feet wide and 2-feet deep. The female does most of the nest building but the male will often deliver sticks for the construction. Sometimes they use sticks from old nests but will also break off new sticks from live plants and use these to form the base of the nest. These sticks can be up to three feet long and an inch thick. It takes a mighty powerful beak to break off a small branch from a live tree. The female uses small twigs to form the inner cup and lines it with grasses, fur, mud and sometimes trash. In the end, the inner cup is 9 to 12 inches wide and 5 to 6 inches deep. Ravens usually build their nests in a tree or on a ledge.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology, National Geographic Field Guides, Sibley Field Guides, Stokes Field Guides and Ken Kauffman Field Guide to Birds of North America are the source of some of the cool facts about ravens.

Anne Schmauss is the co-owner of Wild Birds Unlimited and she loves to hear your bird stories. She is the author of For the Birds: A Month by Month Guide to Attracting Birds to Your Backyard and Birdhouses of the World.

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