A raven’s been hanging around the neighborhood. This is unexpected, though it’s not unprecedented. Ravens are at least casual winter visitors here. Last winter, I saw a raven along state Highway 20 north of Larimore, N.D. This winter, a raven was seen during bird count week near Grand Forks.
And perhaps it’s only coincidence that this week’s raven showed up at almost exactly the same spot where I saw last season’s raven.
A raven was present in the neighborhood for more than a week during the fall. I heard it every day. I heard it a couple of times during the summer months, as well, and I saw a raven in early spring, while I was planting the garden.
So, what is going on?
Perhaps these sightings represent several individual ravens. That would be in keeping with the notion ravens are casual here and not to be expected.
But there’s the possibility these sightings involve only a single raven, or perhaps a couple of ravens. A raven in summer would be unusual. A pair of ravens in summer would be—well, a pair of ravens would raise the possibility of a breeding population.
That would not be unprecedented. Ravens have nested here. In pre-settlement times, they were common, if not abundant. There is at least one recent breeding record for Grand Forks County.
Ravens are worth watching for.
Ravens are birds of open country, generally, and they are closely identified with wilderness—in North America, at least. These conditions occur in our area, and ravens are fairly common not too far away, in the Pembina Hills on the North Dakota side of the Red River, and in northwest Minnesota, in the transitional zone “where the prairie meets the pines,” as a promotional slogan describes it.
Ours are common ravens, or northern ravens, the same species that occurs across the Northern Hemisphere. This is the raven of the Tower of London as well as of the auguries of ancient Rome—not altogether a welcome bird, but an imposing one.
Ravens are relatively easy to recognize, once the field marks are known. Here is a description, with the adjectives arranged in the order you are likely to notice the characteristics they describe.
The raven is a big, black, heavy-bodied, long-winged bird. Its bill is prominent, and its tail is wedge-shaped.
Ravens are powerful fliers. They often appear to float on air, as if playing.
Several other species display some, or even all of these characteristics. There are differences that tell the raven from other species, however.
The species most often confused with the raven is the common crow, another black bird. The raven is larger in every respect: in bill, body, wings and tail. Crows rarely glide and only for short distances. Ravens do it habitually.
Ravens and crows do not sound alike, either, and voice is determinative here. Ravens do not caw, as crows do. Instead, their most common call—the one they use to let the world know they’re around—is a kind of “Rock! Rock!” sound, with the “r” strongly trilled. It reminds me of the call that pirates are supposed to have made: “Argh! Argh!”
It is possible to confuse ravens with other large, dark soaring birds, including eagles and vultures. Here, the overall impression is different, with eagles appearing broader in the wings with heavier flight. Vultures have naked, featherless heads that appear small, and vultures in flight hold their wings in a dihedral, or V-shape.
Pay attention to these characteristics, peculiar to each species, and you’ll soon come to recognize any raven you see. In fact, some day, a bird you initially dismiss as an eagle or a crow suddenly will turn into a raven.
My recent encounters with ravens have made me enthusiastic about the species.
The raven is not a subtle bird. In fact, of all birds, the raven is among the most conspicuous.
The raven breaks a silence.
The raven commands a landscape.
Could these be resident ravens?
The questions fires the imagination.
A decade ago, such speculation would have been dismissed as unlikely, perhaps even impossible. But perhaps the raven is reclaiming former territory.
If so, it quickly could become an iconic bird.