The Common Raven, sometimes called the Northern Raven, is an amazing bird. Largest of the passerines, or perching birds, it has long been noticed, loved, and reviled for its size, its smarts, its je ne sais quoi. The raven makes an appearance in essentially every mythology that sprung up in its range from Christianity to the tales of trickster gods common among indigenous Americans of the Pacific Northwest. Found in literature as varied as Shakespeare, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Edgar Allan Poe, on flags and other trappings of the state from medieval times to the present day, and in imaginations always, Corvus corax has proven fascinating from the Stone Age to the Space Age. How could it not be so?
When a Common Raven approaches closely you can’t help but notice its large size, big beak, shaggy plumage, and obvious intelligence. We are told as birders that we should not anthropomorphize but you can’t help but notice that ravens seem to be actively thinking – they have a native intelligence that is impossible to miss. Bernd Heinrich, whose Mind of the Raven is a must-read for anyone interested in the big black birds, has spent more time in the company of, and studying, ravens than almost anyone, and even he is unsure how to tell ingrained behavior from something more remarkable:
Extraordinary cleverness can often be explained by “simpler” hypotheses, and I’ve always prided myself on my skepticism. But skepticism in what? With ravens I’m no longer always sure of how to distinguish a simple from a more complex hypothesis, how to know whether all of the ravens’ behavior is somehow complexly preprogrammed or whether they know or learn to know what they are doing.
I, for one, think ravens are smart, can learn, and, for that matter, have personality. But I am a lowly bird blogger with no scientific credentials at all.
The Common Raven is found across the northern hemisphere and because of this huge range and its large and growing population it is considered a Species of Least Concern by BirdLife International. That is some seriously good news for those who love big, smart, black birds.
The Common Raven in these pictures was photographed at a picnic area in Olympic National Park in August of 2011. It was scavenging in the picnic areas and was more than willing to accept handouts from those who offered them and to steal from inattentive or unwary picnickers that left food unattended. I had never spent any length of time in such close proximity to a raven and found the experience fascinating, though reading Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion let me know I am not that special: “In wilderness areas and places where regulations offer protection from humans, [ravens] can be tame bordering on bold (for example, learning to open campers’ tents and food containers).”
Anyway, I hope you enjoy these pictures and get a chance, someday, to see a raven at such close range as well.
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