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Blane Klemek column: The raven is a special bird

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Blane Klemek column: The raven is a special bird
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

Ravens. There's something very special about this large black bird so similar looking to its smaller cousin the American crow, yet so very different. They're a symbol of the Northland's cold and snow-laden wintertime coniferous forests -their calls beckoning, resonating, haunting.


I marvel at the pure richness and variability of raven vocalizations while wondering about the reasons and meaning for such bewildering bird-talk. So distinct and familiar are the various calls of this northern bird - its deep croaks, bell-like tones, squawks, clucks and caws - to people residing throughout the northern hemisphere, yet, at once, as mysterious a vocal repertoire as produced by any creature alive.

To expound further about the raven's extraordinary language, it is oft written that anywhere from 15 to 33 categories of vocalizations have been described. Although variations of some basic calls are detectable amongst individual birds, including dialects of ravens found in different geographic regions, the meaning of most raven vocalizations has been interpreted.

Ravens produce distinct calls that mean specific things. For example, the language of ravens includes territorial calls, as well as chasing, comforting, and alarm calls, to name only a handful. There are non-vocal types of communication, too. Bill popping and wing whistles are frequently produced by ravens in flight as they engage in courtship, play or defense of territories.

The common raven is the largest North American corvid - a full two feet long from the tip of its beak to the end of its tail. Related to crows, magpies and jays, ravens share a similar trait with its relatives: intelligence. And of these kin and other birds, ravens are thought to be the most intelligent of them all.

A raven's size is notable, and some people mistake the bird from the distance, especially when silhouetted against the sky, for a hawk or eagle. Indeed, an adult raven's wingspan measures about 4.5 feet across. When compared to its look-alike cousin the American crow, ravens are notably larger. Still, telling the two species apart from one another is never a cinch. But there are a few physical differences.

The tail of this two-plus pound bird is longer than a crow's and more wedge-shaped as well. A raven's bill is heavier and longer, too. And ravens have a "rougher" appearance than the sleek looking crow. Feathers on the throats of adult ravens are shaggy while a crow's appear smooth.

In a resting state with wings folded back, adult ravens' primary wing feathers extend beyond its tail. In the same state, a crow's wings come up just short of this mark. Wings, while longer than a crow's, are narrower and not as broad. Additionally, ravens often soar, while crows do not.

Ravens, though typically considered a bird of the North, are actually quite common throughout much of the continent. From Mexico and north through the western third of the United States, most of Canada to Alaska and southeast to Minnesota, and across the northern tier of the lower 48 and all along the Appalachian Mountains, ravens enjoy a wide distribution amongst diverse habitats.

Natural opportunists, ravens eat almost anything. From berries, nuts, seeds and insects to road-killed animals and garbage, their resourcefulness is well known. For instance, ravens have learned that road and railways are veritable smorgasbords. The birds will travel miles and miles flying above these thoroughfares in search of carrion.

Ravens have also learned that following wolves through the forest will often lead them to food. Likewise, astute wolves often keep an eye to the sky; ravens sometimes guide the mammalian predators to food, too.

It's believed that ravens form lifelong pair-bonds with their mates. Like bald eagles, ravens perform annual aerial courtship displays to strengthen these important bonds. Various vocalizations accompanying airborne dives are major parts of the ritual.

By early spring four-seven eggs are laid in a stick-nest that the pair builds together. The female raven incubates the eggs for about 20 days, at which time the chicks hatch. Both parents then care for the hatchlings until the nestlings fledge.

Native American creation stories involving ravens abound throughout the continent where the birds are known to inhabit. Native people from the Pacific Northwest credit ravens with creating the heavens and earth, food and water to drink. Ravens are often regarded as tricksters, similar to coyotes, but more audacious and cunning.

Even in England, at the Tower of London, an old castle on the banks of the Thames River, ravens are reared and cared for by "Ravenmasters" in order to protect the tower from collapsing. Legend has it that if ravens are not kept at the famous tower, "... the great White Tower will crumble and a terrible disaster shall befall England." Moreover, the British government sanctions the practice and provides the necessary funding to keep the ravens present at the tower.

Indeed, though modestly dressed in plain black plumage, ravens are far removed from the ordinary. Blessed with a language virtually unrivaled in the bird world, let alone the entire animal kingdom, these highly unique and intelligent birds communicate and mimic with supreme deftness.

As such, in order to fully appreciate such remarkable birds for the sounds they produce and their grace on wing, a walk in the forest or a drive to the countryside is sometimes all that's required to observe wild and free ravens as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at

Pioneer staff reports