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Animal Spirits & Totems: Ravens & Crows
Facts About Ravens
Ravens and crows are both members of the family of birds called ‘corvids’. The corvid family also includes common birds like jays, magpies, and some varieties of nutcracker. Corvids are very intelligent birds and have been on earth for millions of years.
Ravens are much larger than crows, about the size of a red-tailed hawk, with a wingspan of over 3 feet, and they are solitary birds that prefer wild places. Although ravens will sometimes work together in pairs, they do not congregate in large numbers the way crows do. Their range is very broad; they can be found in deserts, mountainous regions, woodlands, seaside areas, and prairies.
Ravens eat almost anything, including nuts, seeds, insects, fruit, garbage, carrion, and small mammals. They often follow wolf packs so they can share the carcasses of a wolf kill. Ravens have been seen pranking wolves by pulling their tales or playing with their pups, and they can use other animals to find food for them. If a raven spies a good wolf kill, it will make sounds that attract the wolves so the animal can be opened and the flesh exposed for the raven.
Ravens can be distinguished from crows by their long straight beaks, their very large size, and the shaggy ruff on their throats. When ravens are in flight, their wings are more transparent and detailed than a crow’s wings. Ravens can caw like crows, but more commonly they make a very deep ‘gronk-gronk’ kind of sound, and they also make sounds that are very strange.
A common saying has it that if you hear a sound in the woods that you can’t identify, it is probably a raven. Some people claim that both ravens and crows can be taught to speak human words, (magpies can do this), but keeping either in captivity is highly illegal.
Ravens can solve complex problems on first try. Many ornithologists believe them to be more intelligent than chimpanzees, although these kinds of comparisons strike me as wrongheaded. All animals are smart in their own way.
Humans rank animal intelligence on human scales, but how useful is that, really?
Ravens can live to 40 years in the wild or 70 in captivity.
Facts About Crows
Crows are highly social birds that live in large, complex societies. They roost in large numbers at night, probably to protect themselves from their archenemy, the great horned owl, although the exact reason for their roosting behavior is unknown. Roosts of as many as one million birds are not unheard of.
Male and female crows mate for life, and family groups stay together over many years. Crows have only one brood of chicks per year and they lose about half the fledgling birds the first year, but the new crows who survive will stay and help the parents until they themselves are old enough to mate, much as humans do.
Female crows mate for the first time after their third year, males around their fifth year. If a crow survives long enough to mate, it will generally live to be between 17 and 21 years old. The oldest crow on record lived to be 29.5 years old.
Crows have a reputation for stealing shiny objects and hiding them, but in reality adults do not do this. Young crows will pick up anything and hide it however, as a form of play, so if shiny objects are available they will take those. Young crows have even been seen pulling the windshield wipers off of cars.
Adult crows hide food, covering it with leaves on the ground, storing it in tree hollows and the crooks of branches, or even leaving small carcasses in shallow water or birdbaths. They will eat almost anything, including other birds, but the notion that crows are a danger to songbirds is a popular misconception. Even when crow populations are removed, the population of songbirds stays fairly stable, so crows are not taking any more songbirds than would be taken no matter what. Birds of all kinds (including crows) have high mortality rates their first year.
Crows ‘talk’ to each other and will ‘talk’ to people as well, but few people can distinguish their caws and trills or understand their complex language. In recent years crows have moved into cities, where the night lighting and large trees helps to protect them from predators.
Raven Wisdom, Crow Wisdom
Ravens and crows are both are keenly intelligent and are believed to inhabit a realm beyond time. They have sharp eyesight and can 'see' the past, the present, and the future all at once. Both birds have a complex language of calls and caws and shrieks that most human beings don't take time to understand.
The major difference between ravens and crows is that crows are very social birds and live in large groups, whereas ravens are solitary birds and are most often found in wild, lonely places.
This difference impacts the wisdom carried by the two animals. Crows are associated with divine law or tribal law, with social connection and proper conduct within the community. Both birds are associated with secrecy and both warn against spilling your energy and wasting it by talking too soon, too much.
Crows routinely warn each other and other animals, so if a crow speaks to you (and they do!) it is often a warning--either from the crow (to move along) or from the crow for you in your own life (that there is something threatening you that you need to get a clue about).
Crows are very, very smart and see things we don't all the time. Some people use crows for prophecy and advice--you can ask a crow a question and wait for the answer, and it will usually be an insightful, correct answer, but naturally, this method takes some practice, some intuition, and the consent of the crow.
Ravens are strongly associated with magic and healing, and with the realm of the dead. They are much larger than crows, and will sometimes 'play' with wind currents by rising high in the air and then letting themselves dive and whirl before pulling out of the fall, somewhat like a kite. If a raven appears in your life, you might have a calling, or you may be getting advice to tune in to your own power, your own wildness.
Ravens are strongly associated with shamanism and healing. Shamans connect with ravens for their amazing sight and perspective. In the popular series of books by Carols Castaneda, the shaman Don Juan routinely took the form of a raven to see what others were doing and to understand their motives.
In general crows are more about developing wisdom and power within the group, ravens with solitary introspection and personal magic and power. Both herald change, often transformative deep change, and both sometimes warn of the closeness of death or the presence of the dead.
Encounters With Ravens & Crows
Many people choose the raven or crow as their ‘spirit animal’, and it isn’t surprising once you realize how intelligent they are and how much like people they are. Crows are often the first wild animal to ‘get in your face’, so to speak, and their motives areas complex as they are—they can be up to almost anything, literally.
Personally I find it difficult not to adore them, but many people find them ominous, scary, or annoying. Crows are legally protected from hunters, but people can still get special permits to take them if they declare them to be nuisance.
Contrary to the old saying about ‘eating crow’ as a form of penance or humiliation, crows don’t taste bad at all. They have a gamey flavor and dark flesh, somewhat like duck and were once hunting widely.
With no evidence whatsoever to back this up, I personally think the expression ‘to eat crow’ comes from the fact that they were at one time a poor man’s food source. The following nursery rhyme would seem to confirm this:
Sing a song of sixpence, pocket full of rye,
Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie,
When the pie was opened the birds began to sing!
Wasn’t that a dainty dish to set before the king?
I can just picture a medieval housewife waiting outside with a ‘pocketful’ of rye kernels to bait and catch some crows for that evening’s dinner—a dinner you really wouldn’t serve a king unless you were intentionally disrespecting him.
I have had many interesting experiences with crows, none with ravens, and I once worked for a business that kept a magpie in a cage, which always struck me as mean. The magpie did talk, but not often and never to me.
I will leave this group of corvids to the reader’s imagination and experience for mow, since lore and legend can scarcely top the everyday reality of their amazing lives. What's more, so many legends and stories have been told about ravens and crows that covering them all would take a book, or at the very least another hub or two.
Many, many native American tribes hold the crow or raven sacred--a topic for another book or hub.
What I can say for certain in this short space is this: When you form a bond with the crow or raven, like the bird itself you will cherish that bond for life.