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A Bird in Hand

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A Bird in Hand

The Raven - Lord of the Forest

Editor's Note: In the print issue of the River Journal, this story was illustrated with a photo of a jackdaw, NOT a raven. This happened because I am a dork. Rest assured that this online version features the appropriate photo. - TG

I never understood Edgar Allan Poe’s selection of the raven for his poem of the same name. Why a raven? Because the symbolism of its color—black, like the night? Why not an owl? A great horned would have been a better choice as an ominous visitor. They just sit there and stare. Granted, owls can’t mimic words like a raven, but they are far more mysterious. Even better, why not something really strange, like a toucan? “Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter, in there stepped a stately toucan...” Hmm, on second thought maybe raven does fit the imagery better.


Nonetheless I prefer to not think of ravens as foreboding creatures of some poor fool’s mental anguish. Instead, I look at ravens as lords of the forest, gliding over their domain with regal purview. Oh, by the way, that is one feature that you can use to separate ravens from their smaller cousins the crow. Ravens can glide, crows can not.    


People confuse ravens with crows the same way they confuse Peterbilts and Kenworths. They’re both the same: big black birds. Excuse me, I don’t think so. They obviously have no trouble telling themselves apart. In fact, you will rarely see ravens and crows flocking together, let alone in the same neighborhood, although Peterbilts and Kenworths are less ecologically segregated. They will share the same interstate highway, but this proclivity might be because of shared genotype.


In contrast these two cousins from the family Corvus are quite distinct, in spite of common misconception. Size is one important difference. The Common Raven, Corvus corax, is probably the largest passerine bird in the world. The passerines are a large group of birds that are also sometimes referred to as the song birds. Ravens are much larger than crows, though this can be difficult to judge in the field. But there are other indicators to help differentiate between the two.


Note the size of the raven’s bill. It is huge and thick. Whereas the crow’s bill is more symmetrical and streamlined, the raven’s bill carries a distinctive upper mandible. Some have referred to this unique field mark as a “roman nose.” I am not sure if that is the best of terms, but I can’t think of anything better! Yes, the raven’s bill is significantly heavier and robust looking than the crow’s.


Ravens also seem to carry a full beard of feathers under their chins. These feathers sometimes give the raven a scruffier look than the crow, though in a good way. Hey, they live in the forest. They don’t need to be urban chic.


As noted above, ravens are capable of soaring, a feat that crows cannot duplicate except in a strong headwind . But if you see one of these large black birds in flight, look at the shape of the tail. The crow’s tail will be rounded on the hind edge, whereas the raven conforms to a pointed, wedge shape. At first this field mark isn’t always obvious, but it becomes clearer and more distinctive with practice. 


Lastly, ravens don’t caw, they craw with a trill. They also make assorted other noises that a crow could only dream of making. Notably the voice of a raven is always deeper and more robust than that of a crow. But the neatest sound ravens make is that of their wings in flight. While you are sitting quietly in the woods, the overhead flight of a raven is marked by the swish of their wings as they beat forward in flight. Distinctive and memorable.


Ravens are not urban dwellers. They are creatures of the forests and the mountains. And honestly, if I were given the opportunity to return to earth as any creature it would be as a raven. As far as I am concerned, they rule the roost. Happy birding!

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Author info

Michael Turnlund Michael Turnlund is a Sandpoint resident who teaches at Clark Fork High School. An avid birder, he's happy to share his knowledge of the area's avian wildlife

Tagged as:

birds, outdoors, raven

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