Klemek Outdoors Column: Common Raven of North America

Blane Klemek

The common raven is one of the Northland’s premier birds. Epitomizing northern Minnesota and other high latitude and high altitude areas of North America, few birds are as associated with wilderness as common ravens are.

People often compare ravens to crows, which of course ravens are closely related to. Physical likeness aside, the two species of birds are very distinct from one another in behavior, preferred habitats, language, and more.

As mentioned, ravens are related to crows. They are also members of the family Corvidae, sometimes simply referred to as “corvids”. Other familiar Minnesota species of corvids include the blue jay, black-billed magpie, and gray jay, but there are several more species, too. In all, there are sixteen species of corvids inhabiting North America, five of which occur in Minnesota year around.

Of all characteristics that I enjoy the most about ravens is their complex and very interesting language. Raven vocalizations are among the most varied of any bird. Known as one of the most intelligent of all birds worldwide, it’s no wonder that the language of ravens is so developed.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “All About Birds” website, scientists that study avian vocalizations have placed raven vocalizations into “. . . as many as 33 different categories based on sound and context.” Indeed, while I have never counted the many different vocalizations of ravens that I’ve heard these birds produce throughout Minnesota and several western states, I’m always astonished and delighted by the diversity of raven language.

Sounds produced vary from knocks to croaks and from bell tones to startling mimicry of other animals and even objects. In fact, ravens are well known for their abilities to mimic. I once knew of a single raven in an area near La Salle Lake State Recreation Area that produced vocalizations that sounded exactly like a donkey, I kid you not. Captive ravens can even be taught words, they’re that talented. These incredible birds are without a doubt highly intelligent, vocal masters.

Widespread throughout North America including Mexico and Central America, common ravens are birds of mountainous regions, northern forests, tundra, and nearly every other habitat-type with the notable exceptions of eastern forests and wide open spaces of the Great Plains. I’ve personally enjoyed the company of ravens in many places throughout northern Minnesota, including here at home southwest of Bemidji, the Aspen Parklands eco-region in the northwest part of the state, the North Shore, and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

If you watch ravens long enough, you’ll soon notice stark differences in their behavior when compared to crow behavior. Ravens aren’t nearly as gregarious, for example, as crows are. In fact it’s rare to see large numbers of ravens flocked together. Ravens are often observed flying alone or in pairs, can soar like raptors do, and are well known for their aerial antics and penchant for play. I sometimes think of the common raven as the river otter of the bird world—they’re mischievous, agile, graceful, vocal, playful, and always entertaining. It always seems that a raven is up to something or will do or vocalize something surprising.

Mated ravens here in Minnesota will soon begin pair-bonding. Nest building usually occurs in February with egg laying and incubating happening soon after. Raven pairs build their stick-nests together high in the crotch of a tree, which makes the nests difficult to locate.

One time while on a nature hike in a mixed deciduous-coniferous forest near the Headwaters of the Mississippi River in the early spring, I happened upon a considerable amount of whitewash (bird droppings) on the forest floor. I was then alerted to the overhead calls of adult ravens. Straining to see the birds through the dense canopy, I spotted a nest more than 30 feet high. And with my binoculars, I saw the heads of four young ravens inside the nest while their parents watched and vocalized nearby.

Ravens are wild birds worthy of or attention and admiration. Smart, interesting, and ever the entertainers, ravens are sure to please as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Outdoors Columnist Blane Klemek