Exploring The Last Green Valley: Ravens more than symbol of Halloween
Exploring The Last Green Valley: Ravens more than symbol of Halloween
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted- nevermore!
— From “The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe
It’s almost Halloween, the perfect opportunity to share information on the fascinating and somewhat scary raven. The common raven (Corvus corax) is alive and well here in The Last Green Valley.
When I visit West Thompson Lake and Recreation Area, I frequently see a pair of ravens. I’ll see them flying over the water and large fields or roosting on top of the nearby church or dam gatehouse.
I spoke with Cathy St. Andre, the Corps of Engineers’ park ranger, about the ravens.
“We believe the ravens have been nesting here every year since 2008,” she said. “This year, they nested on the west side of the cliff and we had five of them all summer long here. I am not sure if they have dispersed for the fall and winter, but we have at least two resident ravens all year long every year. They love hanging out on the roof of the gatehouse.”
I also frequently see ravens when hiking Mount Monadnock in southern New Hampshire. I hear fascinating vocalizations of squawks and croaks as I make my way up the trail and through the tree line.
Breaking into the open and approaching the summit, I always see one or more ravens flying with acrobatic twists and turns in the mountain winds. My guess is they nest along the rocky summit.
I often speak to them when I first hear their calls and usually ask permission to hike their mountain. Thankfully they have never denied me admittance to their Monadnock realm.
There are excellent sources of information about the common raven. My go-to online resource for information about birds is, “All About Birds” by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. You can find it at allaboutbirds.org. Here are some facts about ravens from the website:
- The common raven is not just large but massive, with a thick neck, shaggy throat feathers and a Bowie knife of a beak. In flight, ravens have long, wedge-shaped tails. They’re more slender than crows, with longer, narrower wings, and longer, thinner “fingers” at the wingtips. They are entirely black, right down to their legs, eyes and beaks.
- Ravens aren’t as social as crows; you tend to see them alone or in pairs except at food sources like landfills. They are confident, inquisitive birds that strut around or occasionally bound forward with light, two-footed hops. In flight they are buoyant and graceful, interspersing soaring, gliding and slow flaps.
- Ravens live in open and forest habitats across western and northern North America. This includes deciduous and evergreen forests up to tree line, as well as high desert, sea coast, sagebrush, tundra and grasslands. They do well around people, particularly rural settlements, but also some towns and cities.
- Ravens are acrobatic fliers, often doing rolls and somersaults in the air. Young birds are fond of playing games with sticks, repeatedly dropping them then diving to catch them in midair.
- Breeding pairs of ravens hold territories and try to exclude all other ravens throughout the year. In winter, young ravens finding a carcass will call other ravens to the prize. They apparently do this to overwhelm the local territory’s owners by force of numbers to gain access to the food.
- People the world over sense a certain kind of personality in ravens. Edgar Allan Poe clearly found them a little creepy. The captive ravens at the Tower of London are beloved and perhaps a little feared; legend has it that if they ever leave the tower, the British Empire will crumble. Native people of the Pacific Northwest regard the raven as an incurable trickster, bringing fire to people by stealing it from the sun, and stealing salmon only to drop them in rivers all over the world.
- Ravens can mimic the calls of other bird species. When raised in captivity, they can even imitate human words.
- Ravens will eat almost anything they can get hold of. They eat small animals from mice and baby tortoises up to adult rock pigeons and nestling great blue herons, eggs, grasshoppers, beetles, scorpions and other arthropods, fish, wolf and sled-dog dung, grains, buds, berries, pet food, carrion and many types of human food, including unattended picnic items and garbage.
- Ravens build their nests on cliffs, in trees and on structures such as power line towers, telephone poles, billboards and bridges. Cliff nests are usually under a rock overhang. Tree nests tend to be in a crotch high in the tree, but below the canopy and typically farther down in a tree than a crow’s nest would be.
- The common raven population increased across the continent between 1966 and 2014, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. “Partners in Flight” estimates their global breeding population to be 20 million with 18 percent living in Canada, 9 percent in the U.S. and 3 percent in Mexico.
- Ravens tend to do well around people, profiting from the garbage, crops, irrigation and roadkill that accompany us. Their numbers are generally stable or rising in western North America. As eastern forests were cut down in the 19th and early 20th centuries, ravens disappeared from most of eastern North America, but they are returning to the Northeast as forest cover regenerates.
One of my favorite nature writers is Bernd Heinrich, professor emeritus of biology at the University of Vermont.
He is the leading authority on ravens, and if you’re interested in learning more about this amazing and very special bird, I suggest Heinrich’s books, “Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds” and “Ravens in Winter.”
His research into ravens is all-encompassing and includes raising ravens from hatchlings to adults as well as countless hours observing them in the wild.
His exhaustive study, fieldwork and analysis help to answer his question in the preface to “Mind of the Raven”: “All animals solve the age-old problems related to food, partnerships, sex, shelter, home, and caring for their young. Yet ravens have throughout history commonly been singled out to be most like man. Why? What is special about ravens that invite such a comparison?”
After reading Heinrich’s books and learning more about ravens, I’ll make sure to be on the lookout for them when next I climb Monadnock or visit West Thompson Lake.
Poe may have found them to be creepy but clearly Corvus corax is so much more than a symbol of Halloween.
Our region is full of fascinating wildlife as well as beautiful and diverse natural resources. I hope you’ll take the time to learn, appreciate, and help to protect the habitat our animals need to thrive and survive here in The Last Green Valley.
Bill Reid is chief ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 30 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Norwich Bulletin is granted first serial rights and associated electronic rights to publish the preceding article. The Last Green Valley, Inc. retains all other rights to the work.
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