From time immemorial, ravens have been associated with death and bad omens. Moreover, Egar Allan Poe immortalized ravens in the genre of horror when he chose a raven, and not any other bird, to croak “Nevermore” in his famous poem “The Raven.” But beyond the facade of being labeled as harbingers of death and bad luck, these beautiful birds are actually very smart, adaptable, and truly amazing creatures. We bring to you 10 interesting facts about ravens that would make you wonder why they have been associated with negativity for so long.
1. Ravens and crows are not the same species. They differ from crows in appearance by their larger bill, wedge-shaped tail, and display of more soaring during flight.
Ravens and crows may look similar in some ways, but there are several distinctive traits that set them apart. Ravens are quite larger in size – about the size of a red-tailed hawk. They often travel in pairs, whereas crows are seen in larger groups. They can also be distinguished based on the shape of their tails when they fly. The tail feathers of a crow are basically the same length, so when the bird spreads its tail, it opens like a fan. Ravens, however, have longer middle feathers in their tails, so their tails appear wedge-shaped when open. Ravens have bigger, curvier beaks relative to crows.
Another distinction is the call of the birds. While crows “caw” and “purr,” ravens “croak.” You can listen and compare the calls in the audio clips below:
Also, during flight, ravens soar through the sky whereas crows go about flapping their wings.(source)
2. Ravens can mimic animal calls and human voices. In some cases, they have been observed calling wolves to the site of dead animals to open the carcass and make the scraps more accessible for them.
Ravens can mimic sounds from their environment, including human speech. Non-vocal sounds produced by ravens include bill snapping and wing whistles. Clapping or clicking has been observed more often in females than in males. If a member of a pair is lost, it’s mate reproduces the calls of its lost partner to encourage its return.
Their voices can mimic the deep, resonant tone of a man or a higher-pitched tone of a woman. Generally, this type of speech only happens with ravens that are trained and raised in captivity. In the wild, ravens mostly mimic calls of wolves and foxes, luring them to dead animals so that they can help the ravens by opening up the carcass.
Many researchers have also noticed that ravens and wolves display interesting relationships. Ravens follow wolf packs in the hopes of getting food from their kill. They also love pranking wolves. Ravens pinch the tails of wolves and run off when the wolves dash to bite them. They keep repeating the prank and when wolves tiptoe towards them letting the wolves come as close as they can and then fly off again.(1,2)
3. Ravens display high learning ability. In an experiment, a raven had to reach a piece of meat dangling from strings bound to perches by following a fixed series of actions. Ravens succeeded after just six trials, while crows failed even after 30 trials.
Ravens are well known for their intelligence. Numerous experiments conducted to test the problem-solving capabilities of ravens have shown that these birds have cognition on par with people and some great apes.
Experiments by researchers Bernd Heinrich and Thomas Bugnyar found that some adult birds would examine the situation for several minutes and then perform a multistep procedure in as little as 30 seconds without any trial and error.
4. There exist rare white ravens that are found near the Qualicum Beach in Canada. Only a few are born each year, and in 2010, only one was born as per records. Their white color is because of a rare genetic disorder called leucism.
Qualicum Beach is famous for the presence of rare white ravens. Their white condition has been attributed to a very rare genetic disorder called leucism. It leads to reduced pigmentation rather than complete albinism. The situation usually arises when two black common ravens with the same recessive genetic trait for leucism mate.
Mike Yip, an enthusiastic birder in the area, explains that two white ravens have formed a pair more than a decade ago and have been producing many generations of white ravens ever since, with at least one to three white birds each year. However, the white ravens don’t live as long or breed as well as their black counterparts, so it is uncertain how long the population of white ravens of Qualicum Beach will remain.(1,2)
5. A group of ravens is called a conspiracy, an unkindness, or a constable of ravens.
A group of ravens is called an unkindness, conspiracy, or constable. This seems fitting as ravens are traditionally considered as negative beings. Seeing many of them in one place can induce fear among people who are not even the least ornithophobic (fear of birds).(source)
6. Ravens can spot a cheater. They work together to gain equal amounts of food. But if they see another raven taking more than its fair share, they immediately lose trust and never cooperate in future with the cheater.
Ravens have displayed complex cooperative abilities that were previously only seen in a handful of mammalian species. However, collaborations only succeed if only both the ravens trust each other. Ravens that have misbehaved by taking more than their fair share are subsequently shunned.
These results were part of an experiment carried out by Dr. Jorg Massen of the University of Vienna. He tested whether pairs of ravens could cooperate for food. He witnessed 66.2% success in which both the ravens worked together to score and share the food.
Moreover, he noticed how ravens treated other ravens who were not trustworthy. When food was placed in between so that each bird could get one piece, sometimes a fast-moving bird would eat both pieces before the other could get its share. Birds that had been on the receiving end of such bad behavior refused to cooperate with the offender again.
Moreover, it’s not just about not trusting a cheater. Ravens empathize with each other too. In many cases, researchers have noticed that if a raven loses a fight, then fellow ravens approach the victim and appear to console it.(1,2)
7. Ravens use “hand” gestures. They point at or hold up objects to get each other’s attention. Other than primates, ravens are the only wild animals communicating in this way.
Scientists have discovered that ravens use their beaks and wings much like humans rely on their hands to make gestures, such as for pointing to an object. These gestures are mostly aimed at members of the opposite sex. They often lead those gestured at to look at the objects. The ravens then interact with each other by either touching or clasping their bills together, or by manipulating the item together.
These findings portray that gestures evolved in ravens, a species that demonstrates a high degree of collaborative abilities. Such a discovery can help shed some light on the origin of gestures within humans.(source)
8. Ravens mate for life and live in pairs in their own territory. When their children reach adolescence, they go away from home to join juvenile gangs where they co-operatively search and share food.
Adult ravens have been known to mate and form pairs, often for life, and aggressively defend their breeding territory. They build large nests with sticks in which females lay three to seven eggs each spring. Both the parents care for their young who remain dependent for several months.
Once the youngsters reach their teens, they usually leave their parents’ territory and are known to join with other adolescent runaways, forming teenage gangs. Scientists studying the juvenile gangs’ droppings discovered that it contained much higher levels of the stress hormone corticosterone as compared to droppings of the adult pairs. This shows that living in groups might be more energetically demanding than foraging alone or with a partner. Scientists believe that stress might be the reason that most adult ravens stick to monogamy rather than being in a group like crows.(source)
9. Ravens possess the ability to think ahead and plan for the future, as documented by a research by Lund University. This ability was previously documented only in humans and great apes.
Researchers Can Kabadayi and Mathias Osvath of Lund University tested five captive ravens in two tasks they do not perform in the wild – using tools and bartering with humans.
In the experiments, ravens were provided with tools that they could use to retrieve a treat. The useful tools were mixed with useless ones, and almost every time the ravens picked out the right tool to retrieve the treat. Moreover, on some occasions, they saved a tool when they suspected that it would come handy in the future.
In another experiment, it was observed that ravens could barter for what they needed, learning that they could exchange a blue plastic bottle cap for the favored treat. Even when the objects were changed, the results remained the same. This research presents “compelling evidence” of the planning ability of ravens that goes beyond stashing food away.(source)
10. A raven named Jimmy has starred in over 1,000 films between the ’30s and ’50s. It took him just one week to learn a new word and two weeks if it had two syllables. He understood hundreds of words. His footprints were enshrined in cement at a large, Los Angeles pet store.
Jimmy the Raven was a raven who appeared in more than 1,000 feature films from the 1930s through the 1950s. His first appearance was in You Can’t Take It with You in 1938. After this, the director of the movie, Frank Capra, cast Jimmy in every subsequent movie he made. His other appearances include It’s a Wonderful Life and The Wizard of Oz.
Jimmy belonged to Hollywood animal trainer Curly Twiford. He was able to type, open letters, and even ride a tiny motorcycle. Twiford said that Jimmy could perform any task that an eight-year-old child could.
As Jimmy became more popular, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had him insured for $10,000. Jimmy worked for a weekly fee of $500. At one point, he had 21 stand-ins, 15 of which were females who would fill in for him when the scene did not require any tricks or movement.
Jimmy received a Red Cross gold medal in acknowledgment of spending 200 hours to entertain veterans after the war. His last credited film was 3 Ring Circus in 1954, after which little is known about him.(source)