The Hatter once riddled to Alice; ‘Why is a Raven like a writing-desk?’ and Mr Carroll later wrote that while he had not intended the riddle to have an answer it could be that the Raven ‘…can produce a few notes, though they are very flat; and it is never put with the wrong end in front!’ – which seems quite sensible to me.
The Raven, Corvus corax, largest crow species and indeed largest passerine (perching bird) in the world, is a mighty beast. Its range covers almost all of the northern hemisphere from the Arctic to Morocco, America to China; its success coming from being highly opportunistic in feeding and nesting choices. It is the type species of the genus Corvus, the very word being Latin for Raven, and its specific name corax is ancient Greek for Raven – so it is funnily enough the ‘Raven-raven’. In the wild they can reach ages of 15-20 years, not having natural predators, although a few of the Tower of London ones have reached 40 years of age.
Being bigger than a Buzzard the Raven is quite imposing, even from a distance, its cruciform shape in flight with twisting diamond-shape tail and long thick neck distinguish it readily from other crows. Up close the bulk of the bird is astonishing – the bill is as big as the head, its neck is like a bulls – with a ruff of ragged feathers, its wingtips reach the end of its tail and in the light it has a purple sheen. But what gives it away most of the time is not its size but its voice; in flight or from the top of a pine it will ‘cronk’ repeatedly with a deep resonance as though it were shouting down a well.
Despite its huge range the Raven has not done well in Britain in the past, from the middle ages onward it was persecuted heavily along with all the other large predatory birds (and mammals). It is only in the last 30-40 years that the Raven has spread its great black wings once more over eastern England – it now nests in small numbers as far as the cliffs of Dover. This is a welcome return for birders such as I, the sight or even sound of a Raven makes my heart leap and my mouth drop open – the only word for it is majestic.
But this corvid has more than size and a deep voice on its side – it is one of the most intelligent of all birds and displays traits we usually associate only with ourselves. Ravens are very social, especially when young and unmarried (they pair for life), they converse with each other using up to 30 different vocalisations. They have also been observed using toys – breaking off sticks to twist and flick to other ravens, as well as behaving in a way that can only be described as ‘play’ – such as sliding in snow, teasing wolves and engaging in complex aerobatic displays. They are also great users of tools (such as sticks) and problem solvers – seeming to use intelligent insight to work out how to access food.
All crows have attracted a certain amount of folklore and superstition about them, the Raven is no exception though there is as much positive as negative lore concerning them. They were often seen as omens, both good and bad, either predicting death or success in hunting or war. Many traditions state that they contain souls of the damned or devils or even naughty monks. Odin himself was in possession of two Ravens; Hugin (thought) and Munin (memory) who brought him news from around the Earth, however in Koyukon culture (from Alaska) the bird itself is the god. In many European traditions the Raven possesses magical stones that can either release you from imprisonment, turn you invisible or control life and death – but are extremely difficult to get your hands on.
I once came across a conspiracy of Ravens (which is the old collective noun) on the welsh isle of Skomer in mid-august. These great hulking crows were a constant presence on the isle but it was not until later in the day that I came across a loose group of some twenty or more individuals playing in the wind or perching on the rocks cronking. I had never seen so many in one place before, they must have been mostly pairs or that seasons youngsters, they were very impressive though they did little other than float in the breeze.
Despite this remarkable species’ very recent recovery from persecution it would seem that they are already under threat again from landowners in Scotland who want the birds added to the general license so that they can be shot – as many and as often as they want. I have read a number of balanced articles recently debating the subject and it would seem to me that whilst it is certainly and unavoidably necessary to shoot Ravens and other livestock pests when they threaten people’s livelihoods, it is quite another thing to allow unregulated persecution of a bird that has only just got back onto its feet.