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Raven in a tree

Ravens can be found in many places in Sanford. 
Photo: Anna Conti via Creative Commons 

Editor’s note: Did you see something unusual last time you were out in the woods? Were you puzzled or surprised by something you saw? Ask our “Out in the Woods” columnist Kevin McKeon. He’ll be happy to investigate and try to answer your questions. Email him directly at: 

Ravens are Smart, Playful and Territorial          

By Kevin McKeon, Director, Mousam Way Land Trust 

Due to their superior intelligence and social behavior, ravens are considered spiritual beings and servants to the gods in some cultures. In Norse mythology, two ravens called Thought and Memory flew around the world, gathering information and delivering it to Odin. The raven brought fire from the sun to the natives of the Pacific Northwest. The raven was the first animal to be released from Noah’s Ark, never returning. And in England, it was believed that foreign invasions would surely fail as long as The Tower of London’s Ravenmaster properly cared for the seven ravens (six, plus one spare) in accordance with a royal decree dating back to the 1700s. The position still exists today.  

Ravens live almost everywhere, from the Arctic to the African deserts, among the oceans’ islands, and have been recorded at almost 21,000 feet on Mt. Everest. There’s a nesting pair across Blanchard Road from the McKeon Reserve, and in many other places in Sanford.  

Ravens are larger than crows – which are the size of a pigeon – have a fan-shaped tail in flight, and will often soar without flapping their wings. Crows have wedge-shaped tails and do not soar. The raven has a very thick bill, and it will hop occasionally while on the ground. Great descriptions and bird calls can be found here. 

Ravens mate for life, grow to four and one-half pounds and two feet long with a four-foot wingspan, and usually travel in mated pairs. Juveniles often form flocks. Relationships can be quarrelsome, yet family devotion is very high. Having over 30 separate vocalizations, they’ll mimic sounds from their environment, including human speech. And if a mate is lost, its partner reproduces the calls of the lost one to encourage its return. 

Two- to three-year-old breeding pairs must have a territory of their own before they begin nest-building and reproduction and will aggressively defend it. The nest is usually placed in a large tree, on a cliff ledge, or on a utility pole. In late winter, three to seven pale bluish-green, brown-blotched eggs are laid, hatching in about 20 days. After five or six weeks, they’ll fledge, but remain with their parents for another half year. Juvenile ravens are among the most playful of bird species, breaking off twigs to use as toys and sharing them. They sometimes slide down snowbanks purely for fun and engage in games with other species, such as playing catch-me-if-you-can with wolves, otters and dogs. 

About the size of a walnut, a raven’s brain is among the largest of any bird species, being two percent of the bird’s weight, the same as humans. Ravens demonstrate a mental capacity for intelligent insight and are one of only four known animals (the others being bees, ants, and humans) who show the ability to communicate about objects and events that are distant in space or time. For example, young, unmated ravens roost together at night, but usually forage alone during the day. However, when one discovers a large carcass guarded by a pair of adult ravens, the young raven will return to the roost and communicate the find. The following day, a flock of young ravens will fly to the carcass and chase off the adults. This type of communication called “displacement” has been described as perhaps the most important event in the evolution of human language, and ravens are the only other known vertebrate to share this with humans. 

Ravens observe where other ravens hoard their food, later stealing from each other. To mitigate this thievery, ravens will fly extra distances from a food source to find better hiding places for food, sometimes pretending to make a cache to confuse the competition. Ravens have been observed calling wolves to the site of dead animals. The wolves tear open the carcass, leaving the scraps more accessible to the birds. 

Ravens eat just about anything: carrion and roadkill, insects, grains, berries, fruit, small animals, reptiles, small birds and eggs, amphibians, and human garbage. And due to their large size, protective instincts, and superior defensive abilities, few predators will risk sustaining probable wounds from an attacking raven, but golden eagles, large hawks and owls, coyote and lynx opportunistically take ravens, mostly juveniles. Smaller owls, weasels, and falcons will try to get at their eggs, but the ravens drive away most attacks. They have been observed dropping stones on potential predators that venture close to their nests. Common raven mortalities include vehicle collisions and power line surges.  

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