In modern society the raven is surely the world’s most underappreciated bird. Physically, ravens are neither ornate nor powerful. They lack the color of most other songbirds, the hunting prowess of mighty raptors, and are often associated with garbage dumps. However, in many cultures ravens have held the highest level of respect and admiration. Depending on where you live, you should be able to find ravens or their smaller cousin, the crow, on a daily basis. They may be a nuisance or so ubiquitous that you no longer notice their presence, but in my opinion, if there was ever a creature in the world that deserved a second look, it is these extremely intelligent masters of the sky.
It is well known that Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest have incorporated the Raven as the creator of the land and all living things in their myths and folklore. Ravens were thought to have superior levels of supernatural intelligence, an ability to travel into the spirit world, and a tendency for mischief. In the famous story from the Haida culture of Coastal British Columbia the raven uses his superior wit to trick the evil Gray Eagle who hid the sun, moon, stars, fresh water, and fire from the world because he disliked people. By seducing Gray Eagle’s daughter, the Raven gained access to her father’s lodge where he found and stole the Earth’s most valuable elements, creating the world as it is today.
In the Norse Mythology of the Middle Ages the powerful God Odin had two wolves, who served as his strength, and a raven on each shoulder. Huginn (his thought) and Muninn (his memory) would fly around the world each day, observe all, and return to whisper the secrets in Odin’s ears. These feathered companions are said to have given Odin supreme levels of intellect and awareness of the universe.
Biologically speaking, there is no disputing that ravens are the most intelligent of all birds, in fact, some studies show intelligance levels equaling that of a six year old human child! Ravens, like all members of the jay family (corvidae), have evolved a very large region of gray matter in the brain called the hyperstriatum. This center for memory and cognitive thinking helps them aquire food and to cache any surplus for later in a countless number of hiding places. This is why a raven or crow will empty a bird feeder or a dog bowl, rather than eat their fill and leave. They will keep taking and storing food as long as it is available. They percieve the world as a staggeringly complex map of potential food sources, and food caches.
Watch the following video to see how crows, the raven’s closest relative, have figured out how to crack walnuts in Japan!
In the last ten years, during the extremely successful reintroduction of the wolf to Yellowstone National Park, biologists have witnessed some truly amazing interactions between wolves and wolf-birds, as ravens are sometimes called. Obviously ravens benefit when wolves make a kill, as ravens have an affinity for red meat, but these two highly intelligent species take it a step further. Through many hours of observation, it has become clear that ravens use their ability to fly and their keen eyesight, to locate moose or elk. After locating a pack of resting wolves they circle and vocalize overhead. When the wolves see this, they follow the ravens to the exact location of the prey. The ravens actively pursue the formation of this valuable bond with wolves by playing with pups at the den when they are first born! If you still aren’t amazed, then just keep on reading.
Even in the harsh, icy wilderness of the Arctic, the raven thrives using its opportunistic abilities. Thousands of years ago ravens learned that humans were among the most successful hunters on the land and on the ice. At some point in history a relationship was forged, and the raven became the ultimate scout for Inuit hunting parties. According to the stories, ravens would locate the nearest caribou herd, or seal-inhabited lead in the pack ice, find the hunting party, and began circling and vocalizing overhead. The hunters would mush on behind their aerial guide, and be led to their quarry. After a kill was made, the hunters would present the choicest cut of meat to their avian hunting partners.
When I became aware of such incredible feats of intelligence my fascination with ravens intensified and I have collected stories from others as well from my own experiences. The most amazing example I have witnessed was on a Kodiak to Katmai Grizzlies expedition. Guide Scott Larsen and I were sitting with a group of folks on the banks of a river waiting for the salmon to swim upstream on the incoming tide. In front of us were two sleeping bears and behind us were a pair of ravens, all waiting patiently. As the water level rose the v-shaped wake of large salmon schools appeared as expected. Unfortunately the bears continued snoozing. The ravens behind us began squawking excitedly, hoping the bears would be alerted and would provide them with some leftovers, but they remained oblivious. One of the ravens stomped his way over to within inches of each bear’s nose, screamed wildy and flapped its wings as if to say, “Get up you lazy nut! The salmon are running and we have to eat!” Each bear was awakened bythe angry bird, however neither was in the mood for fishing.
Churchill is another location where ravens are frequently observed. Several years ago guide Jared Beacker and I watched a raven outwit a fox! A red fox was trotting across the tundra with a mouthful of lemmings, looking for a place to hide them for later. A raven appeared overhead, and noticed the potential for a meal. Amazingly, the raven must have known that specific fox’s habits, because he landed on a lonely spruce tree and sat perfectly still. A few minutes later the fox appeared at the base of the tree, looked around to ensure no one was watching and, not noticing the raven, buried his prize in the snow. When the fox had gone, the raven jumped down, uncovered the stash, and flew away with the prize!
There are so many magical connections in our natural world that go unnoticed. The raven is a very special bird, which can survive in your backyard, or in the harshest climates on earth with the help of their extraordinary intellect. It is no wonder that ancient cultures admired these incredible creatures. Next time you see raven, a crow, or another member of the jay family, take another look and you may see something incredible! If you do, let me know.
For further reading about ravens, the book Mind of the Raven, by Bernd Heinrich is a fabulous read, and goes into much more detail about some of the topics discussed in this article. This is one of my favorite nature books I have ever read!