One of my favorite bird encounters happened when I was camping with a friend on the shores of Lake Tomahawk. It was a summer weekend with a lot of kids and families enjoying the area, and we heard what sounded like a kid making silly bird noises — “BRRAAAAWWK!” It went on for some time, to the point at which it became annoying. We walked over to the noisy campsite to investigate and found that it was not occupied by humans and the very fake-sounding noises weren’t being made by kids. There were two common ravens strutting around the campsite, sounding exactly like Morris Day in the classic ‘80’s funk song “The Bird.” “BRRAAAAWWK!” It was hysterical.
Ravens are fascinating birds. As their name suggests, they are solid black and can be distinguished from crows by their thick beak, shaggy neck and their gliding and aerobatic flight (crows usually flap their wings). They make an astonishing variety of sounds, from loud throaty croaks to shrill alarm calls, and can imitate both other bird calls and human speech in captivity. They live in a variety of habitats across the northern hemisphere, although you don’t see many of them in the southern half of Wisconsin. They make large nests in cliffs, on structures and in the crotches of trees. Scientists believe they are monogamous, mating for life.
The common raven’s reputation for intelligence is well-earned, as they have cognition and problem-solving skills (such as planning for future events) usually only seen in hominids. Recently fledged ravens will investigate and pick up almost anything novel that they encounter as they learn what is useful. There are a ton of videos and articles online where you can read about how clever they are, but you can observe some of these traits just by spending time around them. Hunters can attest to the their ability to understand cause and effect, as they often follow the sound of a gunshot in hopes of finding an animal carcass or the remains of a field dressing. I’ve observed the same thing with the sound of our chicken house latch in the morning: our pair of ravens appears soon afterward and feeds contentedly with the chickens or steals their table scraps — or their eggs. No other loud sound around the yard draws them in except that latch. I’ve seen them working zippers to get into tents and dropping things and then catching them in flight. They are so inquisitive that they can be destructive: the kitchen window screen at my aunt’s cottage in Spread Eagle was destroyed by a raven apparently attracted to the gleam of the kitchen faucet. The list of human items they’ve damaged or destroyed in search of toys and shiny things is endless: power line insulators, golf balls, car keys, airplane wings, cell phones, pacifiers and action figures.
Ravens are so adaptable that their population across the world is increasing. In fact, they are such effective predators and scavengers that they can be a hazard to other birds and animal species that are threatened or endangered. A pair of ravens will work together with one of them distracting an incubating bird and the other stealing an egg from the nest. They also are a problem for farmers due to crop depredation and attacks on baby animals such as lambs. Conservationists don’t recommend that you attempt to attract them to your yard as they may raid songbird nests (not to mention that stealing of personal items we discussed earlier). You can spot them almost anywhere around the South Shore, so there’s no need to feed them at home.
The common raven’s outsized intelligence and personality have inspired a long tradition of literature and folklore. If anyone has any stories or interesting encounters with ravens, feel free to send them to me.
Morris is a bird-watcher and outdoorswoman who explores northern Wisconsin from her home base in the town of Gingles in Ashland County. She can be reached at email@example.com.