Snippetz Says Don't Be Unkind... They're Just Ravens!
by Lindsey Harrison
“Birds are the most popular group in the animal kingdom. We feed them and tame them and think we know them. And yet they inhabit a world which is really rather mysterious.” – David Attenborough, British journalist
“Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.” A familiar line from a famous poem about a mysterious black bird, a raven. With so many different types of birds that are black (notice the difference between birds that are black and blackbirds) it may be hard to distinguish between all those other birds and ravens. But the truth of the matter is that ravens are probably one of the most intelligent animals on the planet, aside from humans, apes and dolphins. Sure, they seem sort of ominous and can be a bit obnoxious as well, but let’s be honest. Humans can be pretty obnoxious too, and we’re generally considered intelligent. Anyway, with the fact that ravens are so unlike the other types of birds that are black, we at Snippetz decided it was about time we did some pecking around to see what we could learn about these incredible creatures. So come join our unkindness (which is what a group of ravens is called) and we’ll see what we can find!
Ravens are large black birds and when we say black, we don’t mean just the feathers. They have black eyes, beaks, feathers and even black legs. They are not terribly social birds and typically hang out alone or with one other birdy buddy. Ravens are opportunistic birds that find food wherever they can. They can often be seen hanging around landfills where there’s plenty to choose from to suit their eclectic tastes. Ravens, being omnivorous, feed on berries, nuts, seeds, small animals, insects and food waste. They’re nothing if not versatile.
Speaking of versatility, ravens have essentially found a way to survive in just about any habitat. They are found in dusty, dry deserts, cold snowy mountains and practically everywhere in between. Thanks to their superior intelligence and their seemingly unshakeable adaptability, ravens have been known to live up to 17 years in the wild and 40 years in captivity.
One very notable characteristic of ravens is that they are very (ridiculously, in fact) smart. Not only can they mimic human speech (we’ll go into that later) but they can use logic to solve problems. For example, one particular test required a raven to get a piece of food hanging from a string by pulling up on the string, anchoring it to the post or branch on which it was standing, and then repeating the process until it finally reached the food. Most of the ravens tested got the hang of it on the first try and some even finished the test in 30 seconds.
But their crafty ways don’t stop there. Ravens have been known to actually play dead next to the carcass of another animal in an attempt to scare away other raven competition for the food. They have stolen food from fishermen, even going so far as to pull up a fisherman’s line out of an ice hole. And what about protecting their young? Ravens have literally pushed rocks down onto people or other animals to keep them from getting to their nests.
NOT SMARTY PANTS, BUT ANTS IN YOUR PANTS
Alright, we know, ravens don’t have pants. But they do have a pretty unusual ritual they perform with ants and it has an actual scientific name: “anting.” When a raven decides to go anting, it will hunt out an anthill and roll around on it so the ants literally swarm onto its body. Once it is sufficiently covered, it may just let the ants cruise around its body or it may decide to chew them up and squish the bug guts all over its feathers. Why in the world would a raven do that? One theory is that the ants secrete a substance that is soothing to a molting raven. Another is that the bug guts act as an insecticide or fungicide. Truth be told, no one knows. For all we know, they might just like the way it feels!
OK, now it’s time to talk about talking. Yes, ravens can talk. Not exactly the way that humans do, but they can mimic human speech to such a degree that, in captivity, they can rival even the smartest, most talkative parrot. They also mimic other noises besides speech, like toilets flushing or car engines. Remember how we said that ravens would sometimes play dead near a carcass to scare away other ravens? Well, if they find that said carcass doesn’t easily give up the tasty bits the raven is looking for, the raven may just well mimic the call of a wolf or fox so that new predator will break into the meal, leaving the bits it can’t finish for the raven to pick through.
HEY, LOOK OVER HERE!
OK, we’ve established that ravens can essentially talk, or at least effectively communicate with a large array of other animals using vocal noises. But ravens also have non-vocal ways that they communicate and it turns out, it’s basically using gestures. Their lovely black beaks are perfect pointing tools and they use them in just such a manner to point out something for another raven to see. Additionally, they have been known to hold up an item with their beak to get another raven’s attention.
Ravens are also very curious animals and love to steal anything they seem particularly interested in, especially if it’s shiny. Some believe they steal these shiny objects in an attempt to impress other ravens. But don’t try to go digging into a raven’s stash of goodies . . . you might have a tough time finding it in the first place. Aside from all the other smart things we’ve discussed so far, ravens have also been known to make fake stashes, acting like they have deposited a valuable item in it but without doing so, presumably to thwart anyone interested in a bit of theft.
IT’S PLAY TIME
In case you’re concerned that ravens might be too freaky to handle, rest assured they are also quite playful. In Alaska and Canada, ravens have been seen using steep snow-covered roofs as slides for a bit of wintertime fun. Or they may decide a hill looks interesting and roll down it like a child might. They are often seen messing with other animals, playing keep away with larger animals like wolves and dogs. They make toys, which is something very uncommon to animals, by finding a stick and using it to push around a ball or pinecone. And they hold hands. Isn’t that sweet? Well, actually they hold talons, since they don’t have hands. But yes, ravens have been seen holding talons with one another midflight, for no really apparent reason.
AWWW, SO SORRY
Ravens also have the incredible ability to feel empathy. They have been seen consoling one another after losing a fight and apparently even make friends with birds they apparently like. They will respond in a friendly manner to those particular birds for up to three years from that initial meeting, even though, as we mentioned before, ravens are relatively solitary animals. Likewise, however, they often respond in a negative manner repeatedly to a bird they don’t seem to like for a similar amount of time.