Misunderstanding ravens ‘nevermore’

By Michele S. Byers

Ravens are often depicted in literature and folklore as omens of bad luck, evil and death. The most famous may be the one in Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, who torments a bereaved lover to madness by repeatedly croaking “nevermore.”

A group of ravens is called an “unkindness,” or sometimes a “treachery” or “conspiracy.”

Do ravens really deserve this sinister reputation? This is a great time to learn about the lives and behaviors of these big black birds whose numbers are on the rise in New Jersey.

Ravens may look spooky when perched on a bare branch in autumn, but they are actually highly intelligent and playful creatures.

Ravens are the largest members of the corvid bird family, which also includes crows, jays and magpies. Corvids have been known to craft and use tools, hide food and objects, and play games. Ravens are believed to be on par with chimpanzees and dolphins when it comes to intelligence.

The Common raven (Corvus corax) was once numerous in this state we’re in and they were considered pests during colonial and post-colonial times.

But they began disappearing as a breeding species due to the cutting of New Jersey’s original old-growth forests for agriculture and timber. Except for a few migrants, common ravens were gone from New Jersey and most of the eastern United States by the 1920s.

But New Jersey’s forests grew back as more people moved to cities and industrial centers. Ravens began breeding again in New Jersey in the early 1990s and their numbers have been increasing ever since.

One factor helping ravens’ recovery is that they will eat just about anything. In the wild, they will find worms, beetles, grubs, cicadas, frogs, tadpoles, fish, blue-claw crabs and more. Along highways, they will feast on roadkill.

They are also Dumpster divers, gobbling down uneaten burgers, French fries, pizza, doughnuts and other foods tossed in the trash by humans.

“Common ravens are the perfect omnivores in a perfect place for omnivory: New Jersey,” wrote bird expert Rick Radis in his article, “The Return of the Raven,” posted on the e-Bird website.

Here are some other cool raven facts:

• Their intelligence makes them formidable hunters. Pairs of ravens have been known to work together to raid breeding bird colonies, with one raven distracting a nest-sitting adult and the second swooping in to snatch eggs or newly hatched chicks. They have also been spotted at sheep farms waiting for ewes to give birth, then going after the newborn lambs;

• A study in Wyoming found that ravens can understand cause and effect. During hunting season, ravens hearing a shotgun blast would fly in the direction of the noise to check out the possibility of finding an animal carcass. Other loud noises not associated with food did not interest them;

• Their smarts can be seen in other ways, too. In one problem solving test, ravens were able to obtain a hanging piece of food only by tugging on a long string, stepping on the loop of string to hold it in place, then pulling again until the food was in reach. Many ravens figured out how to get the food on their first try, some in less than 30 seconds;

• Ravens can be sly, hiding food from competitors including members of their own species. They may even pretend to stash food in one location while another raven is watching, only to sneak it to another spot once they are no longer being observed;

• They play games seemingly just for the fun of it, like dropping a stick while flying and swooping down to catch it in midair. They have also been seen using snow-covered roofs as slides and rolling down snowy hills;

• Ravens are great mimics, perhaps better than parrots. In captivity, they can imitate human speech – and, yes, some have been taught to say “nevermore!” They can mimic the calls of other birds and vocalize non-nature sounds like car engines starting and toilets flushing. Ravens can also imitate the cries of wolves or foxes to draw them to carcasses the raven is not capable of breaking open. (The raven gets the leftovers when the wolf or fox is done with its meal);

• Ravens are the only animals other than primates who will gesture to communicate. A study in Austria found that ravens can point with their beaks to indicate an object to another bird and hold up objects of interest to get another bird’s attention;

• They also appear to have a good memory. They are able to remember human faces and sometimes hold grudges against people or other ravens who have done them wrong.

This fall, keep your eyes peeled for ravens in your neighborhood. They are fascinating once you get to know them.

How can you tell a raven from a crow? First, ravens are about half again larger than American crows.

They display shaggy neck feathers when calling, and their call is a gurgling croak that seems to come from the back of the throat, as opposed to the crows’ familiar “caw-caw-caw.”

Ravens’ tails are longer than those of crows; in flight, raven tails form a wedge shape, while crow tails have a squared or slightly rounded shape.

Enjoy raven watching and remember they are not considered unlucky everywhere. The Tower of London, for example, keeps a group of captive ravens on site because their presence is traditionally believed to protect the Crown and the Tower.

Local superstition holds that “if the Tower of London ravens are lost or fly away, the Crown will fall and Britain with it.”

To learn more about ravens, visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website at www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Common_Raven/overview

To read Rick Radis’ article about ravens returning to New Jersey, go to https://ebird.org/nj/news/the-return-of-the-raven

And to read Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” go to https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/48860/the-raven

Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills. She may be reached at info@njconservation.org