Jan 03 2008

Better Than Crows

Published by at 10:57 am under Bird Behavior,Crows & Ravens

Common Raven at Western Penitentiary (photo by Chuck Tague)If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know I like crows, but you may not know I like ravens even better.

This is partly because I’ve read some great books about them:  Mind of the Raven and Ravens in Winter both by Bernd Heinrich, In the Company of Crows and Ravens by John M. Marzluff and Tony Angell, and Bird Brains: The Intelligence of Crows, Ravens, Magpies and Jays by Candace Savage. 

In every case, ravens shine.  They are one of the most intelligent birds on earth, persistent and innovative in solving problems and known to outwit other critters, a feat which earned them human tributes as tricksters and gods.  Ravens even play.

In this part of eastern North America, ravens are thought to live only in the mountains, far from people, but last fall Chuck Tague photographed a pair of them at Western Penitentiary along the Ohio River.  My interest was piqued!

On New Year’s Day I drove along the Ohio to a spot near the McKees Rocks Bridge.  I was looking for peregrines and wondering if there were any suitable nesting sites near the Penitentiary.  

I didn’t find any peregrines, couldn’t see any nest sites.  I was disappointed, driving away, and muttering about a wasted afternoon when a raven jumped down on the road ahead of my car.  Wow!  She started to pick up something on the road but it worried her and she did a jump-back.  Then I saw the second raven, clinging to a bridge abutment, eating gravel from a crumbling spot in the cement and flapping to stay up there.  Double wow! 

I pulled off the road to watch.  It was late afternoon and the ravens were getting ready for dinner.  The one who ate gravel was filling his crop with grit so he could digest the delicacies to come. 

I hadn’t even noticed the nearby dumpster until the male raven (he’s larger) flew to it and began to inspect the bags.  He carefully picked open a hole and began pulling out garbage and discarding the inedible: foil, styrofoam plates, napkins, boxes.  Jackpot!  Chicken bones!

His mate began working on another bag.  She pulled out paper, folders and coffee cups.  Bummer!  Office supplies!  She gave up and walked the dumpster rim to the male’s side and tried to get a piece of the action.  He wasn’t mean about it but it was clear he was in charge and she couldn’t reach the bag.  She hopped up and over him twice.  Eventually he was sidetracked by a particularly nice bone and she was able to sort through the bag uninterrupted.

I was fascinated and wanted to watch longer but the area is a rather creepy place – all the better for ravens who don’t want to be bothered by people.

I know what you’re thinking.  How could I get so excited about birds eating garbage?  Check out the videos at PBS’s NATURE episode on Ravens, especially The Bird in Black and you’ll see what I’m looking forward to – right here in the city!

2 responses so far

2 Responses to “Better Than Crows”

  1. Anthony H. Bledsoeon 04 Jan 2008 at 1:18 pm

    There has been a smattering of sightings of Common Raven in Allegheny County away from the Ohio River in the last six months, including a report of one on the CMU campus on January 2, 2007. The person who reported this bird is a birder in my department, well familiar with both American Crows and Common Ravens. I also saw a web post describing the “urbanization” of Red-tailed Hawks in the last decade or so. The site predicted a possible similar process for Common Raven. We’ll have to make sure to check carefully for them as we watch our crows. One point on this: I do not think a Common Raven would flock with crows. Much more likely, there will be single or a few birds, keeping to their own. TB

  2. JR.Inghramon 20 Aug 2008 at 12:50 pm

    Chicken bones work swell for a hungry raven. If there is meat on the bones all the better to sweeten the day.

    My house ravens are currently eating a mule deer one bit at time but they are also chowing down on everything from tomato’s to sweet corn and zucchini squash.

    Even so , the ravens in the wild around these parts of eastern Washington will not so much as look at corn or most other veggie’s.

    My house ravens learned to eat such things from me , their momma daddy. Ravens are creatures of higher learning.

    They eat mostly what their parents teach them to eat in an early stage in life and seldom vary from their learned foods unless it means life or death via starvation.

    It has been my observation over the years that many foods ravens could eat in various geographical areas but choose not to are ignored because for the ravens to eat those foods would create conflict with humans that lead to the ravens extermination .

    They know how to avoid conflict and do so more then crows.

    Ravens are very intelligent , very calculating and most of all very loving to those to whom they choose to give their trust and devotion.

    I also live with an American Crow with many of the same traits however she is less reserved in her decision making and much more Bolden in her will to perform outright acts of in your face defiance.

    I love her all the more for it. Like the wild Corvus Corax she is a one person bird. I raised her after she was brought to me with extensive injuries from a raptor attack on a nest in a nearby town.

    Kublai , my house blackbilled magpie is of course the shyest of them all , the quickest in calculation and bits the hardest.

    She was recued from a house where she was treated very poorly. She was held in a drug den for the first two years of life.

    Yet it is her that makes the tool with the fork in it to retrieve food from a round curtain rod above her roost.

    The same shape and design every time I might add. She is the one that sleeps with me at night and folds her wing over my knee on cold nights to protect me from the cold.

    To wake up in the middle of the night and find a blackbilled magpie resting next to your cheek holding the end of your nose gently and staring into you eye is rather mind blowing.

    Being a Corvid daddy I have truly enjoyed your observations and know that I have found your blog will continue to read about your corvid experiences with the interest they deserve , few people appreciate the true intelligent, at time ornery and yet above all else loving nature of the Crovidae.


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