Tuesday, February 22, 2011

THE LARGEST SONGBIRD

This is not a bird that you think of when you think of songbirds, but in fact that’s exactly what a Common Raven (Corvus corax) is. Along with all the other members of its family, the Corvidae, it is a bona fide member of the suborder Oscines, the “songbirds” of the order Passeriformes.

Although no one would ever accuse a raven of singing, its vocalizations are varied. Most of the time we hear ravens giving their single or multiple somewhat musical croak, lasting for a second and with distinct harmonics. This is apparently a location call, making other ravens aware of the bird’s presence, and it is most commonly heard from birds moving over the landscape. That call is the epitome of raven sounds, but the species expresses a wide variety of other calls in varied circumstances. They are similar enough so that elaboration of their function has been difficult.

The Common Raven is also the widest-ranging corvid and a fine example of a successful species. It is distributed throughout the Far North, including Greenland and Iceland, and all across the northern hemisphere south to Nicaragua, northern Africa, northern India, and central China. Populations occur in all terrestrial habitats except rain forest.

Ravens are true omnivores, taking just about anything edible they can find in their environment. Because they are so large, they can be effective predators on a wide range of animals up to the size of pigeons. They spend much time hunting voles where those rodents are abundant, and a vole is just the size to be swallowed in a single gulp.

During breeding season, any bird with a visible nest is in danger from sharp-eyed ravens. Pairs fly over the tundra, and when a shorebird such as a Whimbrel spots a raven coming, it will leave its nest to begin mobbing actions. Unfortunately for the bird, the raven’s mate, off to the side, may have seen exactly where the nest was located.

Garbage dumps are favored hunting grounds for ravens, which may visit them in large numbers. A thorough analysis of their “prey” there is not for the faint of stomach. Similarly, well-traveled roads with their road kills furnish a linear cafeteria for ravens, especially in the morning when they can often be seen systematically searching their length. The guaranteed presence of carrion (everything dies eventually) may be one of the factors that allow ravens to live just about anywhere, from tundra to mountain forest to desert.

Ravens are well-known to accompany wolves and other predators on hunts for the chance that food scraps may await them. They have been suspected of purposefully attracting both wolves and human hunters to moose and caribou.

Ravens mate for life and are commonly seen in pairs. They are superb flyers, soaring like hawks or plummeting through the sky in spectacular dives. A typical raven antic is to do a half-roll or even a full barrel roll in flight, and they have been seen to fly upside-down for considerable distances.

As should be evident by now, ravens are near the top of the list of brainy birds. Corvid intelligence is well documented, and books on ravens by Bernd Heinrich (Mind of the Raven and Ravens in Winter) and John Marzluff (In the Company of Crows and Ravens and Dog Days, Raven Nights) present this documentation as fascinating reading.

Pet ravens are especially playful birds, especially young ones, and whether their varied antics (sliding downhill, hanging upside down, dropping and catching objects while in flight, pecking dogs on the tail) are all related to survival is debatable. (Don't try this yourself; ravens are a protected species). One certainty is that raven watching will never be boring.

Dennis Paulson

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