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Seven Things You Didn’t Know About Ravens, Superbowl Edition

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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The triumph of corvids over numbers yesterday in the Super Bowl meant two things to me: first, that ornithology continues to trounce math in any contest that matters, and second, that I would have to follow up this weekend’s groundhog post with a post about the amazingness of one of the most clever of winged critters.

Here, then, are six seven things you didn’t know about ravens.

A corvid family tree. There are 120 bird species in the corvid family, which includes crows, ravens, magpies, jays, jackdaws, and rooks. There are actually ten species of raven! The two extinct raven species are called the Chatham Raven (Corvus moriorum) and the New Zealand Raven (Corvus antipodum). Among living ravens, there are so many more than the Common Raven (Corvus corax), which is appropriately the most common sort of raven, occurring across the northern hemisphere. Other types of ravens include: White-necked Ravens (Corvus albicollis), Australian Ravens (Corvus coronoides), Thick-billed Ravens (Corvis crassirostris), Chihuahuan Ravens (Corvus cryptoleucus), Little Ravens (Coruvs mellori), Fan-tailed Ravens (Corvus rhipidurus), Brown-necked Ravens (Corvus ruficollis), and Forest Ravens (Corvus tasmanicus).

Loyalty among birds. Ravens, like all other corvids, are monogamous, and the bond typically lasts for life. Ravens select their partners in the autumn, following impressive acrobatic displays. Following pairing, the duo preen eachother, and usually support each other in aggressive interactions with other ravens. Here’s what raven mating looks like:

Privacy, please! Raven pairs prefer to maintain a large territory for themselves, keeping interlopers away from their nest. In general, their territories last for life.

Adolescent rebellion. When ravens emerge from childhood and become teenage corvids, they usually leave their parents’ territory and are known to join with other adolescent runaways, forming teenage gangs. While it may be easier for a group of thirty young ravens to find a carcass to feed on, life in a gang is stressful. Scientists think that, eventually, the releatively stress-less bliss of monogamy outweighs the benefits of group living.

Farm-to-table menu. Like many new-age foodies, ravens only forage for their eats within their own territories, making them true locavores.

Theory of mind. Ravens, like other corvids, are known to cache their food. And when they do it, they try to hide their caches in locations that nearby others can’t see, like behind rocks or trees. This suggests that ravens are able to engage in “visual perspective taking,” or knowing what another raven can and can’t see, a basic form of theory of mind.

Playtime is for the birds. Even ravens like to play sometimes. In particular, they seem to enjoy using their bodies as sleds. In Play in common ravens, University of Vermont biologists Bernd Heinrich and Rachel Smolker point out that ravens do this quite a bit: “Observers from Alaskan and Northern Canadian towns routinely reported to us seeing ravens slide down steep snow covered roofs, only to fly or walk back up and repeat the slide. Ravens in our Maine aviary also roll down mounds of snow, and even do so on their backs with a stick held in the feet! David Lidstone, observing ravens at a deer carcass in Maine during the first snow storm of the year, reported that ‘at least three birds flew up to a stump on a 2-3m incline, and then slid down the slope on their backs.’”

For more on corvids:
Snowboarding Crows: The Plot Thickens

Clayton N.S. & Emery N.J. (2007). The social life of corvids, Current Biology, 17 (16) R652-R656. DOI:

Image via Wikimedia Commons/Cj005257.

Jason G. Goldman About the Author: Dr. Jason G. Goldman received his Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology at the University of Southern California, where he studied the evolutionary and developmental origins of the mind in humans and non-human animals. Jason is also an editor at ScienceSeeker and Editor of Open Lab 2010. He lives in Los Angeles, CA. Follow on . Follow on Twitter @jgold85.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Tim May 10:19 pm 02/4/2013

    I applaud Sci Am for covering this area. Animal stories that have some links to science, be it theories of mind or evolution or tool-making, are great.

    I’d like to see more on cephalopod intelligence, and how it differs from that of primates, porpoises, birds, dogs, cats, etc. I watched an octopus in his tank at the Monterey Bay Aquarium (49er territory, not Ravens territory!) and it was the high point of my visit. And the MBA also reports that calamari (squid) is high on the sustainability list. I love calamari, ironically.

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  2. 2. Postman1 11:15 pm 02/4/2013

    Ravens and crows are intriguing! Please write more on this. I have never observed the sledding, but I will be watching for it now. We have a pair of ravens in the area, but they seem to keep more distant.
    By the way, as a country gardener, I find outsmarting crows my biggest challenge. They are no dummies, and they recognize me and know how far away to keep. When the local family group is feeding, they always keep one watcher. He sits up high, where he can see my deck. When I step out, the watchman dives away from me with one short caw, and the rest take off. Twice I messed with their minds by going out the back and circling through the woods, so now they sit where they can see my path too. I fired my shotgun near them a few times to scare them off, but that is only a temporary fix as well. Now though, if I pick up a stick and point it at them, they stay at a distance. Guess they’ll figure that one out soon enough too, and I admire them too much to actually hurt one. My last resort is to be up before dawn and in the garden for the first couple weeks after planting. That keeps them from digging up my seed. Then, when it is ready, I have to pull my corn and pick beans and tomatoes in a hurry, or risk damage. My big mistake is that I leave some corn behind for the wildlife and they never forget and have never heard of patience.
    Thanks again for the interesting article.

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  3. 3. TheFunkmonkey 9:16 am 02/5/2013

    My mum is a teacher at a Kindergarten (Pre-school) – The same family of Magpies have been living there for the last 10 or so years.
    During summer, they will quite happily run backwards and forwards underneath the sprinklers playing in the water, and will play dead, until a couple of the other birds start pecking at them, when they suddenly leap up and squawk.

    They are very intelligent birds and great to watch.

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  4. 4. TheFunkmonkey 9:17 am 02/5/2013

    Dang enter button..

    As an access control officer on a worksite a few years back there were three maggies that we could play catch with bread with, if we tossed it over the fence they would jump up and grab it, and would on occasion boldly stroll into the guard house and wait for food.

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