There are two species of wildlife that I consistently associate with wilderness.
Within these wild environments, which include northern Minnesota, exist gray wolves — their tracks in the snow revealing their haunts and their startling howls piercing the night air. Yet it is the wolf, an animal that summons its strength and shrewdness in order to survive intense hunger and cold during long and brutal winters, that frequently scans the sky — of all things — for food, foe and friend.
And what might this other creature be that flies above the forest canopy? Does the wolf understand that the common raven might lead it to food? As well, the opposite is also true: ravens are indebted to predators such as the wolf and coyote for nourishment, too.
That ravens follow packs of wolves throughout wolf country is no mystery among keen observers of wildlife. It’s the way of survival for these birds, undoubtedly a learned trait in their own right. As gulls benefit from following humpback whales herding herring to the surface of the sea for feeding, so do ravens follow wolves to carcasses of deer, elk, and moose.
Intelligent as ravens are, the birds instinctively know they cannot capture large prey themselves, much less manage bite-size bits from a fresh carcass. Quite literally, a pecking order of sorts must be negotiated first. If it is the wolf that has made the kill, then of course the wolf feeds first. Eventually, however, the predators’ bellies will be full and the wolves will leave the site of the kill. As such, this leaves an opening for a raven, or two, or four, and usually more.
The carcass, if not taken over immediately by coyotes or eagles, is now available for ravens to scavenge. And since the carcass is now a mere fraction of what it once was, not intact and certainly no more than bits, scraps, and other assorted pieces, the raven can more easily pick, peck, probe and, do you suppose, postulate on where the next meal might be? Ah, the raven already knows, you see. It’s the wolf beneath the forest canopy.
With these truths aside, creation stories involving ravens abound in Native American lore. 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. In these many and varied stories, ravens are often said to have become black in color as a result of the bird flying through an open smoke-hole of a teepee or lodge.
The common raven is the largest North American corvid: a full two feet long from beak to tail. Related to crows, magpies and jays, ravens share a similar trait with their relatives: intelligence. And of these kin and other birds, ravens are thought to be the most intelligent.
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 over four feet across. When compared to its lookalike cousin, the American crow, ravens are notably larger.
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 throat of an adult raven are shaggy, while a crow’s appear smooth. In a resting state with wings folded back, one will notice that the primary wing feathers of an adult raven extend beyond its tail. In the same state, a crow’s wings come up just short of this mark. The raven’s wings, while longer than a crow’s, are narrower and not as broad.
Natural opportunists, ravens eat almost anything. From berries, nuts and seeds to insects, road-killed animals and garbage, their resourcefulness is renowned. For example, 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 and other food. And though ravens follow wolves to their kills and will wait patiently on the limbs of nearby trees for the wolves to eat their fill and leave, wolves, in turn, have been known to keep their eyes and ears tuned in to the flights and calls of ravens. Raven body and vocal language, while not spoken by wolves, is understood by these mammalian predators. A sudden sky-dive from a group of ravens aloft, along with excited raven chatter, is analogous to a dinner bell.
Despite modest plain black plumage, ravens are far removed from the ordinary. Blessed with a vocal repertoire virtually unrivaled in the bird world, these unique birds communicate and mimic with supreme deftness — that, and demonstrating their unlikely relationship with brother wolf.
Raven and wolf, two extraordinary and highly intelligent species of wildlife — unrelated, yet linked together — for us to observe and appreciate as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
BLANE KLEMEK is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at email@example.com.