Many an October morning ago, while spending a few hours perched on a portable tree stand while hunting during the Minnesota archery deer season, I heard what sounded like a donkey. Yes, believe it or not. But I immediately knew what the sound really was. It was just another of the many and varied vocalizations of the common raven.
Common ravens are special northern latitude birds that we’re lucky to be able to see and appreciate. This large, black-colored species of bird, which belongs to the avian family Corvidae, is related to a few other Minnesota corvids, too. Among the raven relatives are the blue jay, gray jay, black-billed magpie and American crow.
Ravens look a lot like crows, or I suppose crows look a lot like ravens. Yet it’s often the case that people confuse the two species. After all, crows do in fact occur in the same habitats and both species are solid black in color. There are, however, a few physical characteristics that separate the two species fairly easily.
For one, ravens are larger than crows. Two, they have wide, wedge-like tails when in flight. And three, the bill of a raven is much heavier than that of a crow’s. Ravens also flap their wings less than crows do when in flight and they soar more than crows do. In fact, when in flight, ravens are sometimes confused with hawks and other raptors.
There are few birds more intelligent than ravens. These resourceful and interesting birds are a joy to observe and listen to. Over the years I’ve delighted in watching ravens interact and vocalize with one another. I find their voices to be the most appealing characteristic of all.
Raven repertoire is difficult to describe, if not impossible. Some field guidebooks do a woeful job in describing ravens’ calls by simply writing that ravens “croak.” Anyone who’s been around ravens knows full well that ravens say much more than mere croaks.
What comes out of ravens’ mouths go much beyond croaking. Indeed, ravens produce an assemblage of vocalizations unmatched, in my view, save from our own voices I suppose, in the entire animal kingdom. Their vociferous calls is a language all their own and a code that would be fascinating to crack.
To be sure, ravens do in fact emit croaks and caws in degrees of varied intensity. But beyond croaks and caws, ravens can mimic both animate and inanimate sounds, too. Ravens also have distinct dialects depending on what part of the world they reside in. Ravens can produce sounds that are remarkably similar to the sounds of bells and gongs. Their voices rattle, chortle, and roll in bewildering variation.
Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s "All About Birds" website writes this about the language of the raven: “Scientists have placed their vocalizations into as many as 33 different categories based on sound and context.” I would argue that there are even more categories.
Additionally, other sounds that ravens produce include loud beak-snaps that can be heard from long distances, knocking sounds, back-of-the-throat gurgles, and the classic croak, as well as musical notes, scratchy caws, shrills and -- at least in one instance heard by yours truly -- donkey-like calls. Captive ravens can even be taught simple human words.
The common raven, like most of its Corvid clan, are communal birds that have highly organized social structures. Ravens, for example, struggle for dominance and status among their peers and recognize rank and their own individual place in their respective “pecking order,” including possessing an understanding of group dynamics of other colonies of ravens they don’t belong to. In fact, ravens are believed to have social abilities that were only previously observed in humans and high-order apes.
Ravens are extraordinary birds. They’re playful, mischievous, and have astonishing abilities to problem-solve, scheme and predict. What a wonder it would be if we only knew how to speak their language and communicate with them as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.