28 Oct 2019

Quoth the raven

In European legends and myths, crows and ravens are the harbingers of doom and companions to witches and others who practice black magic. In Celtic mythology, the warrior goddess known as The Morrígan often appears in the form of a crow/raven or accompanied by a group of them. While in Norse mythology, Huginn (meaning thought) and Muninn (meaning "memory) are a pair of ravens that fly all over the world, bring information to the god Odin. However, even without all this crows and ravens are amazing birds.

When it comes to intelligence, these birds rate up there with chimpanzees and dolphins. In one logic test, the raven had to get a hanging piece of food by pulling up a bit of the string, anchoring it with its claw, and repeating until the food was in reach. Many ravens got the food on the first try, some within 30 seconds. In the wild, ravens have pushed rocks on people to keep them from climbing to their nests, stolen fish by pulling anglers’ line out of ice holes, and played dead beside a beaver carcass to scare other ravens away from a delicious feast. If a raven knows another raven is watching it hide its food, it will pretend to put the food in one place while really hiding it in another. Since the other ravens are smart too, this only works sometimes.

Odin with Hugin and Mugin.

Image credit: Odin with Hugin and Mugin. A Norse mythology image from the 18th century Icelandic manuscript "NKS 1867 4to", now in the care of the Danish Royal Library, from Wikimedia Commons.

Crows remember your face. Once a crow is mad at you and it will remember, it does not like you for ages and will raise a real fuss when it sees you. Researchers at University of used masked researchers to test the learning abilities of crows. They ventured into Seattle parks wearing one of two kinds of masks. The people wearing one kind of mask trapped birds; the others simply walked by. Five years later, the scientists returned to the parks with their masks. The birds present at the original trapping remembered which masks corresponded to capturing, and they passed this information to their young and other crows. All the crows responded to the sight of a researcher wearing a trapping mask by immediately mobbing the individual and shrieking.

Crow (Corvus Corone) by Jans Canon

Image credit: Crow by Jans Canon, from Wikimedia Commons.

Crows communicate at a high level with one another using dozens of different “caws.” This helps them organize to pursue certain food sources (Farmer Brown’s corn), post lookouts and chase off predators. They also use tools and plan. Crows have been observed using twigs to pry open food or to check on whether a snake is alive but their most unbelievable feat is to lay hard-to-open nuts on a road and wait for a vehicle to come by and break it open.

In captivity, ravens can learn to talk better than some parrots. They also mimic other noises, like car engines, toilets flushing and animal and birdcalls. Ravens have been known to imitate wolves or foxes to attract them to carcasses that the raven is not capable of breaking open. When the wolf is done eating, the raven gets the leftovers.

Crows and ravens have been observed in Alaska and Canada using snow-covered roofs as slides. In Maine, they have been seen rolling down snowy hills. They often play keep-away with other animals like wolves, otters, and dogs. Ravens even make toys - a rare animal behaviour - by using sticks, pinecones, golf balls, or rocks to play with each other or by themselves. Sometimes they just taunt or mock other creatures because it is funny.

It turns out that ravens make “very sophisticated non-vocal signals,” according to researchers. In other words, they gesture to communicate. A study in Austria found that ravens point with their beaks to indicate an object to another bird, just as we do with our fingers. They also hold up an object to get another bird’s attention. This is the first time researchers have observed naturally occurring gestures in any animal other than primates.

Female adult raven by Bombtime wikicommons

Image credit: Female adult raven by Bombtime, from Wikimedia Commons.

Ravens and crows appear mate for life and live in pairs in a fixed territory. When their children reach adolescence, they leave home and join gangs, like every human mother’s worst nightmare. These flocks of young birds live and eat together until they mate and pair off. Interestingly, living among teenagers seems to be stressful for the raven. Scientists have found higher levels of stress hormones in teenage raven droppings than in the droppings of mated adults. It is never easy being a teenage rebel. Crows have also been observed visiting the elderly parents, in fact they are very family orientated.

So maybe you are not convinced. Maybe the crow still is not your favourite animal. That is all right, just remember what amazing birds they are.