The Raven—What Makes It Different?
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN CANADA
“‘Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore . . . , take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!’ Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore.’”—Edgar Allan Poe, “The Raven.”
WHO would expect anything from this bird with its somber colors and mournful croak? Why, to the uninitiated, at first glance it appears to be merely an oversize crow. The raven doesn’t quickly attract attention like the blue jay, its colorful cousin with the bright blue outfit. And few would consider the raven’s croaking to be much of a song, although the bird is classified along with the passerines, or songbirds. However, do not underestimate this bird. What it lacks in tuneful song and colorful appearance, it more than compensates for in other ways. The raven has beauty and characteristics all its own. Indeed, many bird authorities rank the raven in a class by itself.
The common raven (Corvus corax) is by far the largest and most dignified of the entire crow family (Corvidae). It can be more than twice the weight of a common crow and measures about two feet [0.6 m] in length, with a wingspan of some three feet [1 m]. It differs from the crow in that it has a heavier bill and a long, wedge-shaped tail. Closer observation also reveals the raven’s identifying shaggy throat feathers. In flight, it is famous for soaring, while crows tend to flap and glide.
The raven is ranked as the largest of all perching birds. Observing this large bird crouched on a limb resting, you would wonder how it keeps from falling off its perch. At the back of each foot is a strong claw for grasping a branch or a twig; however, the secret to hanging on is a built-in locking device. Muscles and tendons automatically pull the toes into a fist when the bird crouches. The raven’s strong, all-purpose feet are also suited for walking and scratching, thus equipping it well for gathering food from a wide variety of feeding grounds.
Range and Flight of the “Black Thunderbolt”
Very few birds have as wide a range as the raven. It is indeed a roamer. It can be found in many parts of the Northern Hemisphere. It lives in such dissimilar terrain as desert areas; the coniferous forests of Canada and Siberia, where it makes a complex nest of sticks and other available material in high trees; the cliffs of the sea in North America and Scandinavia; and the tundra and islands of the Arctic Ocean. Wilderness appears to be the one common denominator of its range, for the raven is usually a bird of the wilderness.
Examples of its diverse habitats can be found in the land of the Bible, where two varieties of the great black raven live. One makes its home in the wide expanses of desert in the south, while the other inhabits the northern region. Black ravens nest among the nooks and crannies in the rocks along ravines. Ravens were used by Jehovah to feed Elijah while he concealed himself in the torrent valley of Cherith. (1 Kings 17:3-6) Isaiah’s account of the ravens inhabiting the “emptiness and the stones of wasteness” of Edom is also descriptive of their habitat.—Isaiah 34:11.
Ravens are wonderful fliers. They are beautiful to watch as they soar effortlessly in wide circles, scanning the area below for food. They perform aerial acrobatics with ease—somersaulting and even briefly flying upside down—particularly during courtship and, it would seem, sometimes for mere pleasure. The raven’s flight is aptly described by Bernd Heinrich in Ravens in Winter: “It dives and rolls like a black thunderbolt out of the sky or speeds along with liquid, gliding strokes.” He adds that it is “the paragon of the air, and more.” The raven’s strength of flight has been given as a reason why Noah chose it as the first creature to be sent outside the ark at the time of the Flood.—Genesis 8:6, 7.
Adaptable and Resourceful Thieves
Naturalists regard the raven as one of the most adaptable and resourceful of all birds. As one source says, “its cunning is legendary.” Whatever circumstances the raven encounters, it proves equal to the challenge of adapting to existing conditions, especially in regard to food. Of course, not being a finicky eater helps! The raven will eat almost anything it can get its claws on—fruits, seeds, nuts, fish, carrion, small animals, refuse. “Ravenous” appetite? Perhaps. And it is not fussy about where it finds its food, even resorting to digging beneath snow to raid garbage bags during subzero weather in the northern parts of its range. Ravens will also follow hunters and fishermen for days, somehow sensing that there will be food for them in time.
The Corvidae, or members of the crow family, are notorious thieves, and ravens are no exception. They are not averse to stealing food from other birds or animals and have been observed playing tricks on dogs. A pair will take turns—one distracting the dog while the other swoops in to take its food. Inuit art depicts a crafty raven stealing fish from an ice fisherman.
Ravens have a special rapport with wolves, routinely following wolf packs. They dine on the wolves’ kill, but here again, they seem to enjoy some humorous antics while doing so. Wolf biologist L. David Mech records seeing ravens playing pranks on wolves. He tells the story of one raven that waddled to a resting wolf, pecked its tail, and then jumped aside when the wolf snapped at it. When the wolf stalked the raven, the bird would let it come within a foot of him before rising. Then it would land a few feet beyond the wolf and repeat the prank. Another account tells of a raven playing tag with wolf pups. When the pups tired of the game, the raven sat squawking until they resumed play.
Canadian Geographic magazine refers to a radio broadcast from Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, that told of ravens perching on sloped metal roofs of commercial buildings, apparently waiting for unsuspecting pedestrians to pass below so they could send the accumulated snow sliding down upon them. No wonder the Haida people of Canada’s west coast call the raven a trickster!
Vocalizations and Learning Ability
The raven’s “vocabulary” is exceptionally large and varied. In addition to the most recognizable, deep, penetrating croak—which is understood to be a signal of perceived disturbance—its vocalizations have been said to display tenderness, happiness, surprise, excitement, and anger. Ravens can also imitate the calls of other birds within their voice range, especially performing a realistic impersonation of a crow.
The extent to which ravens can be taught to speak has been a matter of some dispute. However, Candace Savage, in her book Bird Brains, documents accounts of tame ravens being taught to imitate human speech. Legend has it that the poet Edgar Allan Poe acquired a raven and painstakingly trained it to utter in its somber croak the word “nevermore,” inspiring his famous poem The Raven, which describes “a young man mourning the death of his beloved.”
There is little dispute about the raven’s ability to learn. If birds could be ranked for intelligence, it seems the raven would be at the top of the list. Field biologist Bernd Heinrich notes that the raven “is assumed to be the brains of the bird world.” He says that “when put to the test, ravens display insight.” In one experiment a raven figured out in six hours how to get a chunk of meat that was suspended from a string, while crows were still working on the problem 30 days later. Ravens have even been taught to count. Their savvy may contribute to their longevity, for ravens live more than 40 years in the wild and up to 70 years in captivity. Of course, any capabilities the raven has must be credited to the wisdom of its Creator.
This bird is widely known, and it is respected by those aware of its special qualities. It can be found in legends of people throughout the world. It has been made famous by writers of the past and present. (See box, page 24.) Yes, the raven is a most interesting bird. But what can be said about its beauty?
A Beauty of Its Own
Well, have you not heard of ‘black hair like the raven’? (Song of Solomon 5:11) Its glossy black coat with iridescent steel-blue and purple hues—the underparts sometimes have a touch of green—gives real meaning to the word “raven.” Picture the soaring raven with its impressive size and shiny black plumage, standing out against the barren wastes of its desert home. Or imagine the contrast between this glistening jet-black bird and freshly fallen, clean white snow. Artists have captured the raven’s beauty. The artist Robert Bateman recalls: “I was drawn to the wonderful snowy slopes in Yellowstone Park, a strong, bright landscape that combined well with the powerful form of the raven.”
Truly, it can be said that in beauty, history, range, flight, cunning, and hardiness, the raven is a bird of distinction.
[Box on page 24]
The Raven in Legends and Literature
Chinese, Egyptian, Greek, Semitic, and Siberian legends depict the raven as a foreteller of storms or bad weather. Perhaps such legends had Noah and the Flood as their origin.
The raven signifies life and creation in the legends of Siberia and is the creator-god of the Aboriginals in North America.
In legends of Africa, Asia, and Europe, the raven portends death.
In the Bible the raven has the distinction of being the first bird specifically named.—Genesis 8:7.
Shakespeare’s ravens are portrayed primarily as ominous and evil (Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Othello) but are also pictured as benefactors who feed forsaken children.—Titus Andronicus, The Winter’s Tale.
Charles Dickens pictured the raven as a character of amusement in Barnaby Rudge.
In his poem The Raven, Edgar Allan Poe associated the raven with lost love and despair.
[Box on page 25]
There are lessons to be learned from the raven. It was God’s own Son who said: “Mark well that the ravens neither sow seed nor reap, and they have neither barn nor storehouse, and yet God feeds them.” (Luke 12:24) Since its home is often in desolate places, food must be sought over a wide range. Ravens choose only one mate for a lifetime and are devoted parents. When nesting, they need to supply food constantly to silence the raucous cries of their hungry young. When teaching Job a lesson regarding the wisdom reflected in creation, Jehovah included the raven as an example. (Job 38:41) Since God provides for the raven, which was declared unclean by the Mosaic Law, we can be certain that he will not forsake people who trust in him.
[Picture Credit Line on page 23]
Ravens on pages 23-5: © 1996 Justin Moore