GRAND FORKS — The question is back: Could there be ravens? It’s a question for two reasons. Veteran birder David Lambeth raised it in a post to members of the Grand Cities Bird Club in early January. He’s seen big black birds coursing over Ralph Engelstad Arena, and he wondered, Could they be ravens?
Toward the end of January, I found myself with some time to kill on campus, and I stopped in the coffee shop in the university bookstore. I took a seat by a window and when I looked out, there were black birds coursing over Ralph Engelstad Arena. I remembered Lambeth’s post and wondered, could they be ravens?
This is a harder question than it seems. Ravens and crows are much alike. It takes a close look and a keen eye to make a determination. Better to use the ears. Ravens have a distinctive call, unlike the familiar cawing of crows.
But it was a cold day and the coffee was warm, and I didn’t figure I could get out the door before the birds disappeared. Besides, they might not call to allow a determination.
Lambeth faced a somewhat similar dilemma. He didn’t hear the birds either.
This kind of coursing flight is characteristic of ravens, though. They seem to ride the thermals along vertical surfaces, such as buildings or lakeside cliffs. I’ve never seen crows do this. Ravens sometimes soar in flight, as well. Crows seldom do.
These behavioral differences can help in identification.
So can some physical differences. Size is one of these. Ravens are bigger. Ravens appear bulkier than crows, and their necks especially seem more muscular. This may be an illusion created by the lay of their feathers. Nevertheless, it can give the raven a more massive profile, and that can be an aid in identification.
Crows, by comparison, appear both slimmer and sleeker.
The trouble here is that there’s often little opportunity for comparison. Crows and ravens are closely related, but they don’t often hang out together.
Other physical differences occur at either end of the bird. Ravens have larger, heavier bills than crows. And their tails are distinctly wedge shaped, rather than the more fanlike tail of the crows.
But these are subtle differences not readily seen from a distance.
Nor does location help tell the species. Crows and ravens occupy similar habitats, usually open forests. This describes much of Grand Forks, and crows have become common in the city. It also describes much of the rural countryside, which is crossed by shelterbelts. There are natural patches of forest, too, along the Pembina Escarpment and where the prairie and woodlands meet in northwestern Minnesota.
My impulse has been to count every big black bird as a crow, and crows remain the species most likely to be encountered.
But ravens have become more regular. I’m no longer surprised to hear a raven at our place west of Gilby, N.D. For the last several years, individual ravens have stopped by. The first was in 2009, my records show. In 2015, there were two, and I entertained thoughts of a nesting pair. They didn’t stick around, though. Of course that doesn’t mean they didn’t nest somewhere in the area. The Red River Valley is a big country and much of it is seldom visited by humans, other than those who are preoccupied with operating farm equipment.
Certainly ravens were not unknown in North Dakota before settlement by Europeans. Lewis and Clark saw ravens during the winter of 1804 and 1805, which they spent at Fort Mandan on the Missouri River north of Mandan. Thomas Say, one of America’s early ornithologists, reported seeing ravens when he visited Pembina on the Red River in 1823.
I’ve occasionally seen ravens in the North Dakota Badlands, but the better bet for ravens in the state is the Pembina Gorge near Walhalla. Ravens are usually found on Christmas bird counts there. They are also regular in much of northwestern Minnesota.
So ravens are close by.
This and the curious behavior of the big black birds at Engelstad Arena suggest ravens could have moved into the city, if only for the winter months.
So I think the answer to this week’s question is, There could be ravens.
It’s worth looking closely at big black birds, but it’s especially important to listen. Hearing a raven would settle the issue.