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Flight Lines: Raven’s call always stops me in my tracks

Common ravens are omnivorous, feeding on almost any food, including carrion. Photo by Keith Corliss

For whatever reason, there is a specific bird call that, when heard, will stop me in my tracks every time, and I’m not entirely sure why. It echoes, it haunts, it transfixes, it seems to reach into my very being, and it represents wildness like little else will. It certainly had an influence on Edgar Allan Poe (“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary …”). I’m speaking of the husky throaty croak of the common raven (Corvus corax).

This large charcoal-black bird has been known to dwellers of the Northern Hemisphere for hundreds of years, perhaps thousands. Legend surrounds the Tower of London’s captive ravens. It is thought that, should the birds ever leave, the British Empire will collapse.

Similar to a large red-tailed hawk in size, ravens are big. Really big. They are, in fact, the largest songbird in all of North America. When in the vicinity of American crows – not small birds themselves – ravens appear to dwarf them.

Its all-black appearance – feet, eyes, beak, everything – sets it easily apart from most birds except for crows. Given a careful enough study, however, even this identification challenge is confidently met. Its tail is long and wedge-shaped, not rounded like a crow’s. Its bill is a gigantic chisel, unlike a crow’s streamlined arrow. A raven’s throat area appears quite shaggy, like a rooster’s hackles, a crow’s does not. Its wings are longer and more tapered than a crow’s rounded ones.

It’s in flight, though, that the separation becomes easier. Flying crows look as if they are working hard, continually flapping wings, in a motion suggestive of boat rowing. Ravens, on the other hand, are amazingly graceful fliers, effortless at times; soaring this way and that on buoyant wings; even occasionally doing somersaults or rolls in a manner that can only be described as playful fun. One raven was reportedly observed flying upside down for over half a mile.

The birds are also known to be extremely intelligent. “Mind of the Raven,” by biologist Bernd Heinrich, is a book that introduces the reader to some rather startling mental feats. His research has prompted many a behavioral scientist to question what we know about animal intelligence in general, ravens specifically. Just ask someone who has snowmobiled in West Yellowstone about the birds’ ability to break into just about every conceivable container holding snack food.

It’s this high level of intelligence that makes ravens formidable predators. They will work as a team distracting adult birds away from nests in order to snatch eggs or young. They’ve been known to patiently wait nearby for ewes to give birth, then prey on newborn lambs. The sound of gunshots, in one Wyoming study, attracted ravens, presumably to check for a possible carcass.

Like most predatory birds worldwide, common ravens have grown ever closer to human inhabitance and are showing a growing tolerance for urban areas. Nearly 10 years ago, I spent a few months in Las Vegas and saw many. Carolyn Titus, a local author and expert, told me when she and her husband first moved there in the 1960s, ravens were extremely rare. Not anymore.

We North Dakotans are witnessing this shift, too. It wasn’t all that many years ago when common ravens were relegated to the first few miles abutting the Canadian border. Yet they recently began nesting as close to us as Grand Forks County.

Last year, a pair was observed nest-building near Clay County’s Buffalo River State Park.

Prior to this spring, I had seen a grand total of three ravens in Cass County during nearly three decades of observing local birds. In early March, however, lightning struck again. Only this time it was different. Instead of a wandering lone bird, I first heard, and then observed a pair of common ravens in the vicinity of the Fargo Country Club flying west. I believe these birds were seeking potential nest sites.

Recently, another raven (and a possible second one) was spotted soaring and calling in north Moorhead by longtime area expert Dennis Wiesenborn. It was his first local sighting in 27 years. In writing of this encounter, Wiesenborn asked, “Is there a pair hanging around the F-M area? And if so, might there be a nest?”

If not, it is only a matter of time. This is a highly intelligent species that will eat anything. It is also adaptive to nearly every possible environment from deserts to open plains, from ocean beaches to alpine forests. It is my belief we will soon find a Cass County nest. For better or for worse, this bird is on its way. I, for one, am looking forward to it. Heinrich and Boarman wrote that common ravens “are so bold, playful, and clever that they’re almost always doing something worth watching.”

Corliss is a West Fargo native, avid birder and a North Dakota Game and Fish instructor.