For the Birds Radio Program: Ravens

Original Air Date: July 20, 1987

From Edgar Allan Poe’s fearsome raven to Odin’s messengers, ravens are important in virtually all cultures.

Duration: 3′53″


(Recording of a Common Raven)

Probably the most fearsome bird to most Americans is the raven, immortalized by Edgar Allen Poe. And yet for some cultures the raven is revered as a god. The heaviest, strongest, and most intelligent of all songbirds has fired the imaginations of people throughout the northern hemisphere from earliest times. To many Indian tribes, Raven is the god who brought order and life to the earth. He’s a powerful trickster who stole light from the god of darkness to illuminate the earth, where he then created fresh water, land, and human life itself. The Indians were careful observers of the raven’s ways, and recognized its intelligence, strength, and social systems.

Early Scandinavian people, too, appreciated the raven. Odin, the all-father of Nordic mythology, sent two ravens to fly around the world one dawn. They returned at midday to perch on his shoulders and whisper to him the secrets they had learned, making him so wise that other gods heeded his advice and Viking soldiers followed him into battle.

But the European tradition giving man dominion over all creation has also endowed him with an unnatural arrogance, and Europeans and Americans have historically despised ravens and their relatives. Until 1972, when ravens and crows fell under the protection of the Migratory Bird Treaty, they could be killed in the United States in unlimited numbers. For centuries the raven has symbolized debauchery and death to Europeans. Jewish folklore tells us that the raven was the one creature that repeatedly broke the prohibition against love-making on Noah’s ark. Anyone who has watched the exuberantly joyful mating flights of ravens can easily figure out how this story developed. In the Bible, Noah released a raven after forty days in hopes that it would lead him to land, but instead it went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth, so he had to send out a dove instead. Ravens probably can home as well as doves, but they get sidetracked more easily–especially if they aren’t allowed to make love once they get home.

Many people confuse ravens with crows. One lovely woodcut of a raven currently on exhibit at the Art Dock in Duluth is mistitled as a crow. And Frank Deford, the author of the book Alex, mentions a raven sitting on his front lawn the day Alex died, but the bird was really most assuredly a crow. If it’s sitting at close range, you can identify a crow by its sleek neck feathers and streamlined bill; the raven by its shaggy throat and heavier bill. Ravens often fly with their mouths open; crows never do unless they are cawing. Ravens soar much more often than crows, and often play around in the air; crows beat their wings steadily and stay on course. And the central tail feathers of ravens are longer than the outer ones, so a raven’s tail appears pointed or keel-shaped, while a crow’s tail feathers are all the same length, so it appears uniformly rounded. Finally, crows caw, but ravens croak.

(Recording of a Common Raven)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”