For the Birds Radio Program: Ravens

Original Air Date: Feb. 3, 1995

What’s the largest songbird in the world? 4:10

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The largest songbird in the world is the raven. Few people think of croaking ravens as songbirds, but ornithologists technically classify them in the same group with wrens, thrushes, and other beautiful songsters. They may not produce what we call music, but their voice box, called a syrinx, is as well-developed as the syrinx of a cardinal.

Ravens are found throughout much of North America, Europe, and Asia, but in the eastern United States they live only in the northland and the Appalachian Mountains. Earliest settlers found ravens in Wisconsin forests statewide, but now they live only in the northern half of the state. They range throughout the northeastern third of Minnesota, and are slowly expanding their range westward.

Anywhere we find ravens we can also find crows, so birders have to be familiar with both species to tell them apart. Ravens weigh two to three times as much as crows, but size isn’t a useful characteristic–the two are so similarly proportioned that unless they’re standing or flying side by side, it’s hard to be sure whether its a distant raven or a near-by crow. Fortunately, just three points–the tail, the beak, and the throat–are usually enough to make us certain of the bird’s identity. A raven’s tail tapers to a point, while a crow’s tail is evenly rounded–a useful characteristic even from a fast-moving car, if the bird flies directly overhead. Although they have similarly proportioned bodies, the raven’s beak is much sturdier, longer, and heavier than the crow’s–this is tricky to see in a flying bird, but easy in perched ones. Finally, a raven’s throat feathers are shaggy while the crow’s are sleek, but in hot weather or high wind, sometimes even the shaggiest raven’s feathers are pressed too tight against the breast to be noticed.

Ravens are more likely to soar without flapping than crows, and do many more aerial acrobatics. Of course, the simplest way to tell the two apart is when they’re talking–you can always hear a distinctive caw when a crow talks, while ravens have a much bigger repertoire of bizarre croaks.

Because of their size, their intelligence, their absolutely black plumage, their unearthly croaks and shrieks, and an intangible but obvious uncompromising wildness, ravens have been held as objects of fear or worship in virtually all northern cultures. Raven is considered the creator of all things by many northern native American cultures, and a raven is said to have been cursed by Noah when sent out to find dry land. The raven found a dead animal and stopped to eat it, not returning to the Ark, so Noah finally had to send out a dove.

Ravens are opportunists and eat all manner of dead animals. Carrion is harder to rip into when frozen in the dead of winter, so northern ravens tend to have heavier beaks than ravens from more southern regions, and they also follow wolves and other mammalian predators to take advantage of fresh kills and carcasses already ripped into by the stronger mammals.

There is a story of two ravens who longed to get away from the northern winter and finally decided to hop a jet to Florida. They each picked up a squashed rabbit on a roadside, tucked it under their wing, and went to the Northwest ticket office. They paid for their tickets and picked out window seats, and then the clerk asked if he could check their baggage. They looked at their rabbit carcasses and politely answered, “No, thank you. This is carrion.”