The Intelligence of the Raven
More Than Flexible...
Edgar Allen Poe’s raven was dishearteningly inflexible. That couldn’t be further from the truth, for this bird is just the opposite and would not have survived to this day had it not been so. They have nested in baseball stadiums, on pine trees, under overpasses, in abandoned buildings, on beech trees, in active railroad trestles, and the list goes on. But their preferences are for rocky shelves under cliff overhangs, the same as their enemies. Frequently owls and falcons will take over former raven nests, because raptors can’t build their own.
Don’t consider this unfair, as we are looking at another relationship here, just like we did with the wolf. Raptors also tend to provide kills from which to scavenge. Ravens will chase virtually any large bird that has food in its mouth, until they drop it, then the chase will terminate. Single ravens rarely will do this, but groups of ravens become much braver in company, plus there are more of them to feed. For many years in Maine, feeding stations were provided for Bald Eagles to keep them from venturing south and becoming contaminated by pesticides. Ravens also took advantage of these feeding stations, and did their best to get to know them. They pulled their tails and made themselves known, but that is the raven.
Raven calls have one primary motive, and that is to draw attention to themselves. When I was back in Downeast Maine, the raven population was rather large, and there were many young single birds in the area. I practiced my raven calls so that I was able to draw them to me. There is also a book out there that has a number of recorded bird calls, called, “Bird Songs: 250 North American Birds in Song," by Jon L. Dunn. There is a raven call in it, which they would also respond to, and needless to say, I only used it to get their attention once or twice. Making fools of these birds is not a good idea, as they will pay one back tenfold.
Wisdom and Play
Ravens also have been known to provide warnings. There was a woman that was warned about an impending cougar attack upon her. Ravens were even kept in The Tower of London to allegedly warn about impending danger with their vocalizations. But is that really what they mean to accomplish?
The Common Raven has also been known to be involved in play. They have been observed hanging from branches by their bills, hanging by their feet off rope, hanging by one foot with an object in their other foot, and many other types of play postures. I had a couple of pieces of PVC pipe in the yard, and the ravens would eventually peer into either end of the pipe, as well as hide things within it, like rocks. They would also remove and replace the rocks with pieces of wood. They will even slide down or roll down snow covered hills, and once I even observed one slide front forward, as though on a toboggan. The interesting thing about this, is that if one is involved in this activity, the others in the group are certain to follow suit, presumably so that they don’t miss out in the fun.
Research on Ravens
Many tests have been done for research on the intelligence of these birds over the years. Some of these tests have involved several steps in doing a project and the ravens have passed these tests with flying colors, which to me, proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that they have reasoning abilities. Bernd Heinrich, a biologist, had several ravens pull meat up on a string that was 2.5 feet long. The ravens were perched above the meat and had to grasp the string with the bill, pull the string up and over the perch, step on the string, press down hard enough with a foot, release the string with the bill, and repeat the process.
This test was perfect, as it could not be successfully completed randomly, genetic programming could not have coded this unnatural behavior, and the ravens were hand-reared in captivity.
It took a couple of tries before a bird would attempt this, and it was successfully done with some minor fumbling, and after the sixth repeat of this test with the same bird, it was apparent that this was not done by chance.
Five different groups of ravens and two crows were tested. All the ravens completed the task successfully, but not the crows.
The test showed insight, and the only main blunder that the birds did, was to try to fly off with the meat attached to the string. They soon figured out that before flying off, they had to drop the meat.
The more facts that one can glean from ravens, there are just as many contradictions. They will pull the tail feathers of eagles, yet they might fear a moth, a pile of dry cereal, or a moving twig. Territorial birds could spend an hour trying to chase eight or ten others away from their food. I have seen the same territorial birds later welcome other birds to share the same food. And so the story continues. Ravens will not necessarily do the same things at all times, just like us.
Related to this Article, also by Deb
- The Bird Called Raven
A non-fictional piece by Deb Hirt with some of her experiences with ravens in Maine. It also includes some general facts about them.
- The Raven and the Wolf, A Study in Symbiosis
This will answer some questions on the Common Raven, and you will see what a great looking bird this is. Come and enjoy.