Ravens are flippin' marvellous!!
The return of the raven in the UK is one of the great wildlife success stories of the new century. Previously persecuted to the edge of extinction, the raven is once again commonplace in our hills and mountains and can be enjoyed by all. For the uninitiated, the raven is easily identifiable by it's black body and beak, it's size (it's almost twice the size of the carrion crow) and uniquely by the "honking" call (carrion crows and rooks "caw"). Venture out into any hilly area in the UK and you'll soon see them soaring and hear them honking!!
Most birds are shy and understandably fearful of humans, but ravens are especially wary. The traditional method of getting close to birds is to set some appropriate bait food and construct a hide nearby. Once the birds are used to the hide and feeding regularly, the would-be bird watcher enters the hide and waits. The process can be speeded up by using an accomplice. When feeding birds are present, the two enter the hide and the birds scatter. The accomplice leaves shortly afterwards and, based on the "danger come, danger gone" principle, most birds will then assume the coast is clear and recommence feeding. Where ravens are concerned, there's a huge problem - they can count!! Ravens can easily work out that one of the humans is still in the hide and steadfastly refuse to resume feeding. An ingenious solution to this problem is to be found in a sex shop. Yes, believe or not, bird watchers have bought inflatable dolls for raven watching (at least that's what they tell their wives... ) Two bird watchers enter the hide carrying said doll in a bag. Once inside, the doll is inflated and dressed in one of the bird watchers' coat and trousers (I'm not making this up). The accomplice leaves arm in arm with his new best friend, and the ravens, satisfied that both humans have left, will finally come down and feed. Get those photos!!
One of the most endearing behavioural characteristics of ravens is "flipping", or flying upside down in short bursts. Flipping is unique to ravens. A flip is quite often accompanied by a delighted "honk" and is often performed to impress a mate. It can be part of a vertical dive or, really impressively, performed during horizontal flight. Sometimes a single raven will perform a flip in front of hikers. Why is not really known, but it's nice to think that it's simply showing off!! Whatever the reason, it's a breathtaking sight and has been the unexpected highlight of many a trek.
Studies have shown that raven calls have specific meanings. Three quick honks means "danger!". Five softer honks means "everything's OK". If you encounter ravens on the ground, try giving five soft honks and you'll be amazed how close they'll let you get (make sure no-one else is around or you might get sectioned!!) Answering the calls of flying ravens is also great fun (and sectionable). They'll readily fly in to investigate and may even flip for you!!
Ravens LOVE golf balls!! It's not really known why they steal golf balls, but it may be because they think they are eggs. This theory doesn't really make sense as the raven is very intelligent and would soon work out that golf balls are not food - but they still do it anyway! It's more likely to be a way of impressing a potential mate (look at my impressive collection of balls!!) or just good fun. Either way, it doesn't make them very popular with golfers. At Church Stretton Golf Club in Shropshire there's even a local rule explaining what to do if a raven steals your ball.
Every Spring, ravens gather in impressively large groups. In the Shropshire Hills in the UK, up to 150 have regularly been observed. The gatherings are thought to be unattached singles looking for a mate and generally occur where there is a ready food source (in Shropshire, stillborn lambs, sheep dung and afterbirth!!) Seeing so many large birds trying to win a mate with increasingly daring aerial displays is one of nature's great spectacles. There are several regular sites spread across Shropshire and North Wales where the gatherings occur. To witness these unforgettable events, why not stay in one of the holiday cottages scattered across the area? A particularly good one to stay at is Velvet Cottage near Llangollen in North Wales. A pair of ravens are resident on Velvet Hill just behind the cottage, so you can witness the "flipping" displays and even practice talking to them!!