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Ravens are among the smartest of birds

A common raven in flight. Flickr photo by Gregory "Slobirdr" Smith.

Spring is a time when a lot of scavenging is going on out there by resident wildlife. Drive any major road where deer tend to cross and are struck by motor vehicles, you'll see raptors and corvids — eagles, crows, ravens, and magpies — sitting on top of deer carcasses strewn throughout the ditches.

The abundance of deer isn't good for the forest, but deer carcasses provide wildlife with plenty of food at the end of a long winter. Coyotes and wolves in particular, but other species take advantage of this resource as well.

A friend of mine recently set up a trail camera in the woods and pointed it toward a fresh deer carcass nearby. In the span of one short week, the camera recorded fisher, bobcat, fox, coyote, wolf, scores of chickadees and other songbirds, bald eagles, blue jays, gray jays, and crows and ravens.

Indeed, it is true that nothing in nature goes to waste.

And here in the northland, few other creatures seem more adept at finding and taking advantage of scavenging opportunities than the opportunistic, highly intelligent, and resourceful raven.

Creation stories involving the raven abound in Native American Indian lore. Native people from the Pacific Northwest credit ravens with creating the heavens and earth, as well as food to eat and water to drink. Ravens are often regarded as tricksters, similar to coyotes, but more audacious and cunning. In these many and varied stories, ravens are often said to have become black in color as a result of the bird flying through an open smoke-hole of a teepee or lodge.

The common raven is the largest North American corvid and is a full two feet long from beak to tail. Related to crows, magpies, and jays, the raven shares a similar trait with its relatives — intelligence. And of these kin and other birds, ravens are thought to be the most cerebral of them all.

A raven's size is notable and some people mistake the bird from a distance, especially when silhouetted against the sky, for a hawk or eagle. For sure, an adult raven's wingspan measures over four feet across, so it's understandable for the misidentifications. When compared to its look-alike cousin the American crow, ravens are notably larger.

The tail of this two-plus pound bird is longer than a crow's and more wedge-shaped as well. A raven's bill is heavier and longer, too. And ravens have a "rougher" appearance than the sleek looking crow. Feathers on the throats of adult ravens are shaggy while a crow's appear smooth.

In a resting state with wings folded back, one will notice that the primary wing feathers of an adult raven extend beyond its tail. In the same state, a crow's wings come up just short of this mark. Wings, while longer than a crow's, are narrower and not as broad.

Natural opportunists, ravens eat almost anything. From berries, nuts, and seeds to insects, road-killed animals, and garbage, their resourcefulness is renowned. For example, ravens have learned that roads and railways are veritable smorgasbords. The birds will travel miles and miles flying above these thoroughfares in search of carrion.

Ravens produce distinct calls that mean specific things. The language of ravens includes territorial calls, as well as chasing, comforting, and alarm calls, to name only a handful.

There are non-vocal types of communication, too. Bill popping and wing whistles are frequently produced by ravens in flight as they engage in courtship, play, or in defense of territories.

Ravens, though typically considered a bird of the north, are actually quite common throughout much of the continent. From Mexico and north through the western third of the United States, most of Canada to Alaska and southeast to Minnesota, and across the northern tier of the lower 48 and all along the Appalachian Mountains, ravens enjoy a wide distribution amongst diverse habitats.

Despite modest plain black plumage, the common raven is far removed from the ordinary. Blessed with a vocal repertoire virtually unrivaled in the wide, wild world of birds, these unique avian species are among the most interesting and intelligent of them all, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

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