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Blane Klemek: Some reading up on the Raven

About mid-May, I was hiking on the "Challenge Trail" of La Salle Lake State Recreation Area. The trail, which most definitely lives up to its name, courses its winding way around beautiful La Salle Lake, following high ridges and along the lake and across tiny La Salle Creek just before it flows into the lake.

On one stretch of the trail, just a short distance from the creek on the south side of the lake, I encountered an area on the forest floor adjacent to a giant aspen tree that was colored in white. I knew immediately what it was (some birders call it "white wash") and so I looked up to see what I could see.

The white wash, you see, was none other than bird droppings — and a lot of it. My first thought was that perhaps there was a stout limb high up the tree's trunk that served as a perching spot for an eagle, osprey or owl. But what I saw instead was a large stick-nest, although smaller than what an eagle or osprey nest would be.

Taking the binoculars out from my backpack, I scanned the nest and canopy for signs of life. And sure enough, I saw the source of the white wash on the ground — not one source, but two, three and four sources. They were ravens, and young ones at that. By the size of the youngsters they looked almost adult size and surely ready to fledge. In fact, it surprised me that the birds were so crowded together in what appeared to be too small a nest for all four of them to occupy.

The common raven (Corvus corax) is the largest North American corvid: a full 2 feet long from beak tip 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.

Creation stories involving ravens abound in American Indian lore 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. 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.

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 longer than 4 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, 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. Wings, while longer than a crow's, are narrower and not as broad.

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's full length, ravens enjoy a wide distribution amongst diverse habitats.

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. 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.

Supposedly, ravens form lifelong bonds with their mates. Like bald eagles, ravens annually perform aerial courtship displays to strengthen these important bonds. Various vocalizations accompanying airborne dives are major parts of the ritual. By early spring four to seven eggs are laid in a stick-nest that the pair builds together. The female raven incubates the eggs for about twenty days, at which time the chicks hatch. Both parents then care for the hatchlings until they fledge.

Though modestly dressed in plain black plumage, ravens are far removed from the ordinary. Blessed with a vocal repertoire virtually unrivaled in the bird world, the so called 'common' raven communicates and mimics with supreme intelligence while performing 'uncommon' aerial acrobatics as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.