By Sally Griffin
In the book, “Lords of the Air,” Jake Page and Eugene Morton talk about how in some Native American cultures, ”The raven is something of a cultural hero where the bird’s evident intelligence and mischievousness are well noted.”
Rick Sinnott, a wildlife Biologist in Alaska, knows how intelligent ravens are. He is studying the habits of ravens at Fort Richardson, near Anchorage. To do this he has to capture them, tag them and strap tiny radio transmitters to their backs. His devices to capture these ravens included using what ravens find irresistible: Cheetos. But soon the ravens found out that his Cheetos were something to avoid.
“They know that Cheetos are bad news,” said Sinnott. “They all leave the area as soon as I throw Cheetos on the ground. The thing is every time you mess with one of these guys, that’s just that many more ravens who know what you’re up to.”
There is no doubt that ravens are some of the most intelligent of bird species. The ability to plan is a supposed unique quality among humans. But a study last year by Martin Osvath showed that ravens think about the consequence of delayed gratification, something demonstrated so far only in people. When the birds knew that waiting a delayed period would mean a greater reward, they would anticipate that reward and show self-control in the face of more immediate temptations, i.e., food. These are all key components in planning.
They also have good memories. They can recall friends and perceived enemies for years after meeting them.
Ravens show the ability to perform complex actions that nature does not demand of them, and they do it without testing or trial and error. They can observe the situation and behave as if they know what they’re doing. For some scientists this demonstrates the use of logic – something that is lacking in most animals.
When we lived in Conifer, we had to leave our can on garbage pick-up day a lengthy distance from the house, down a long driveway. We kept finding the can empty and the garbage picked through and strewn about. We finally staked out a position on our deck where we could still see the can, looking for a stray dog or bear causing the damage. Nope. It was a very large mountain raven. And this raven managed to find ways into our garbage despite our numerous and varied attempts to stop his marauding. It was almost as if he enjoyed the challenge. He would caw at us from a tall tree as he watched our efforts and, as soon as we left, he would swoop down to unravel the newest puzzle. A large rock on top of the lid was laughingly simple to push off. A bigger rock meant he had to call in buddies and share the loot. Bungee cords took longer to figure out, but he eventually learning to pull on the end with the hook. Once he invited a bear in to overwhelm the can and disperse the goodies. He, evidently, was willing to share with those outside his species if it meant he could get what he wanted.
Most people don’t know but ravens are great imitators. They can learn human speech better than some parrots. Besides mimicking humans, ravens also can duplicate other noises, like car engines, toilets flushing, animal and bird calls. They have been known to imitate foxes and wolves to get them to open carcasses that the raven alone can’t manage. They are willing to wait their time until the other animal is done and then dine on the leftovers. They seem to understand cause and effect. A study in Wyoming found that during hunting season, the sound of a gunshot draws ravens to look for a presumed carcass. Yet, these same birds ignore equally loud sounds like a car back-firing or an airhorn.
They are also very playful. In the frozen north, they have been known to use snow-covered roofs or snowy hills as slides. They often play keep-away with other animals, like dogs or wolves. They like performing aerial acrobatics. One raven was seen flying upside down for more than half a mile. They even make toys by using sticks, pinecones, golf balls or rocks to play with each other or by themselves. Sometimes, I think they laugh at other animals by taunting or mocking them. I know for a fact that our mountain raven was doing that. However, there are other places with even bigger problems with ravens. They have caused power outages by messing with insulators on power lines; they have pecked holes in airplanes; they have surprised campers by opening their tents; and they have raided cars with windows left open in parking lots.
In terms of evolution, ravens seem to have the upper hand. They can live in a variety of places, including snowy hills, deserts, mountains, forests and towns. Their large size and thick plumage help protect them from extreme weather. They are scavengers with a varied diet, including fish, meat, seeds, fruits, ants, carrion and, in Conifer, garbage.
They don’t mind tricking other animals. They work together. While one raven distracts the other animal, another raven will steal the food.
They have few predators and live a long time and have long memories.
Although a flock of ravens is called an unkindness, they appear to be anything but unkind to each other. They show empathy for each other and will be seen consoling or helping each other. They remember ravens they like and will respond to them in a friendly way. They are suspicious around strange ravens and overtly hostile to ones they don’t like.
Ravens are part of the corvid family and are close cousins to crows. Crows are smaller: 6 inches shorter and with 12 inches smaller wingspans. Crows have short, rounded or square tails compared to the ravens’ longer, wedge-shaped tails. Crows can be identified by their caw-caw call, while ravens have a deeper, hoarser “kraah.” Crows live in groups, while ravens usually limit companionship to two to four other associates.
Remember to be kind to your local ravens. They can recognize human faces and they have very long memories.