Common Name: Raven, Common Raven, Northern Raven- Derives from Old English in the form of hræfn which is from the Germanic hraben. The harsh sounding root word is attributed to the harsh croaking noises for which the raven is noted.
Scientific Name: Corvus corax – The generic and species names are both derived from the names given to the bird in the languages that provide the lexicon of taxonomy. Corvus is the Latin word for raven and corax is the Greek word for raven or crow.
Potpourri: The Common Raven is among the most widely dispersed of all bird species with an indigenous range that extends from Scandinavia southeast to the Himalayas, from India west across the Middle East to northwest Africa, and in the Americas from Greenland to Central America. Its transcendence across the northern hemisphere since the emergence of its ancestors in the Miocene Epoch 17 million years ago is a measure of its combined attributes of a high intelligence, an omnivorous and adaptable diet, a supportive social structure and a robust physiology. The raven is a fixture in folk ethnology across the globe according to its ubiquity and to its contrasting sinister and auspicious behaviors and their implications.
The raven is the largest of the corvids, members of the family Corvidae that is largely comprised of jays and crows. The raven is characterized by this familial association as having a solid, straight beak and stout legs and feet. The raven can be distinguished from the other birds of the corvid family and most especially from the crow by a number of features. The most obvious difference is that the raven is as big as a barred owl and therefore about twice the size of the crow, a factor that is not particularly useful in identification unless they are side by side. Ravens have a thick ruff of feathers called hackles about the neck, raising their hackles as a means of social communication. Identification in flight is facilitated by the raven’s long, wedge-shaped tail, a long neck and feathers with long pinions that are more widely opened so that gaps of light can be seen between them. The flight behavior offers additional indicators as ravens soar for longer periods of time than crows and they are noted for acrobatic maneuvers, notably aerial somersaults. Habitat is also a discriminator; ravens are largely montane and crows are predominantly lowland.
Ravens are social animals that in some regions will form a large foraging and roosting group called an unkindness of over a hundred birds. The peculiar names for groups of animals among which birds are the most common are epitomized by the terms “an unkindness of ravens” and “a murder of crows.” The etiology of this nomenclature is a fifteenth century publication called The Book of St. Albans which had sections on hawking, hunting and heraldry that introduced the group names which were then perpetuated into the lexicon by derivative works. It is not likely that these names were ever used in common parlance outside their origins in venery, an archaic term for hunting and the chase for which group names were more purposeful. Ravens were “unkind” because they were purported to prematurely evict their fledglings from the nest (in fact, the exact opposite is true). The crows were likely assigned their group name since they feed on carrion, murder providing an appropriately nefarious characterization.
The social nature of ravens extends to the forming of single-mate pair bonds for life, though their absolute monogamy is not well established. Regardless of the constancy of the relationship, the couple is conjoined to establish a defensible nesting home territory to lay about five eggs . During the three week incubation period, the male raven sustains the female and stands by in a sheltering protective role. When hatched, the young are cared for and fed by both parent birds, remaining with the adults for the relatively long period of up to six months after they have fledged. The long term care and instruction contradicts the notion that there is any unkindness in their nature. It is also considered quite likely that the extensive upbringing is one of the contributing factors to the remarkable intelligence of corvids in general and ravens in particular.
Corvids are generally considered to be the most intelligent avian family. They have relatively large brains compared to their body weight with a ratio comparable to that of primates and marine mammals. The physiological “nature” advantage augments the parental “nurture” advantage of a prolonged juvenile training period. The end result is an astoundingly clever bird, as has been amply shown by numerous experiments. Ravens have demonstrated the ability to count up to six by opening boxes marked with the number of spots that matched an associated cue card; a card with five spots resulted in the raven raising the lid with five spots on it in a group that included boxes with two, three, four, and six spots. A second experiment suggests that ravens have a cognitive problem solving ability. If a raven is placed on a perch with a piece of meat suspended below it on a string, it will pull the string up with its beak in steps by standing on each sequential segment until the food is within reach.
The intellect of ravens is manifest in every aspect of their behavior. In addition to the social organization addressed above, they have notable vocalization skills that include up to thirty sounds to augment the familiar drawn-out croak; they are known to mimic other sounds and can be taught rudimentary human speech. Their creativity in the quest for sustenance attributes to their evolutionary success and geographic dispersion. As eaters of carrion they are opportunistic, having been known to attract larger carnivores to an intact carcass facilitate their access to the entrails. Not only do they cache their own food, but they have been known to steal from observing the caches of others, a quid pro quo that results in false caching to frustrate theft.
The global reach of the raven has paralleled the global reach of humans, and they are accordingly both vilified and extolled in folklore and mythology. A large, ominous looking bird with black plumage that was known to frequent battlefields to feed on the dead would not surprisingly be looked upon as sinister to the superstitious societies of yore. This necrophagous behavior connected the raven with death, and it was as a portent of imminent demise that the bird was associated. Among the manifestations of this belief are that if a raven croaks three times over a house a death will ensue, a single croak signifying only a day of misfortune. In different parts of Europe, the raven was thought to contain either the souls of the damned, the souls of wicked priests, the souls of people who had been murdered or in some cases to even be an incarnation of the devil himself. The raven as a caricature of death is captured in many literary works from Poe’s iconic poem “The Raven” to Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” where Lady Macbeth welcomes Duncan whose demise is contemplated in Act 1 Scene 5 with “The raven is hoarse that croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan under my battlements.”
In contrast to the demonized raven, many traditions laud the raven as clever, mischievous, and even god-like. The raven was the symbol of Odin, the principal deity of the Norse pantheon, whose great hall Valhalla received the souls of the hero warriors from the field of battle. The Vikings carried raven flags and raven shields in his honor. According to the mythology, Odin had two ravens named ‘thought’ (Hugin) and ‘memory’ (Munin) who were dispatched to the four corners of the earth every day to spy and report back what they had seen and heard, thus affording the god his concomitant omniscience. Native American lore typically portrayed the raven as either a sly trickster like the coyote or as a transcendent and transformational god-animal. A characteristic myth portrays the raven as a pure white bird courting the daughter of the Gray Eagle, who was the guardian of the sun, the moon, the stars, fresh water and fire. The raven recognized the need to thwart the Gray Eagle’s hoarding and stole away the sun the moon and the stars and hung them up in the sky, which was then light. He then dropped the water to form the lakes of the world, holding only the fire on a branch in his beak. The smoke from the fire brand singed his white feathers black, as they remain to this day. The heat of the firebrand burned his beak so that he was forced to drop it, which is why there is fire in the rocks of the land that can be extracted by striking two of them together.