Ravens are the official Yukon Territory bird, and are well-known in cultures around the world as the creator of human beings and the Earth or the bringer of death, and always the trickster.
Common Ravens are a recognizable bird with shaggy coal-black feathers covering their body, a wedge-shaped tail in flight, a thick, long, and heavy bill. Though they may not seem like it, Ravens are a large bird up close with an average wingspan of 1.4 metres, 23 to 27 inches in length, and an average weight of 2 1/2 to 3 1/4 pounds. In the Yukon, their loud raucous calls are often heard echoing across towns, valleys, or any other place they inhabit. Ravens are well-known mimickers, and are able to mimic the sounds of other birds, animals, machines, and people, besides having a wide range of their own sounds such as dripping noises, whistles, and their main call: “CRAW!”. The currently known longest lived wild Raven was 23 years and 3 months old, which is amazing because the average lifespan of these birds is 10 to 15 years. Captive Ravens will live much longer, up to almost 40 years.
Berries, seeds, small animals, bugs, nestlings, carrion, bones, garbage, human food, dog or cat food… almost anything will do as food for Ravens. They are extremely self-sufficient and adaptable to new situations which is why they can be found in almost any type of habitat across Canada. They scavenge and forage socially, pass information about food sources to each other, and create caches to hide and store their food. Ravens will watch each other create caches, and then when the owner leaves they will steal whatever the owner stored. Because of this, some Ravens will pretend to create caches in order to fool the nearby on looking Ravens, then fly great distances to hide their food. This greatly reduces the chances of their stored food being stolen. Ravens often manipulate other animals into doing their dirty work for them. For example, in the wild Ravens will follow hunting wolf packs and eat their fill after the wolves have left their kill, or if they have found an untouched carcass they will lure other predators over to open up the carcass so they can eat.
Common Ravens are one of the smartest bird species in the world, with their brain being of the largest “bird brains” in the world. They are excellent at problem solving and are able to create and then use tools. Their intelligence has been tested many times by giving captive Ravens problem solving puzzles. One test had a piece of meat hanging on a string which was attached to the perch. There was no way the Raven could have reached the meat from the ground or the perch, and would be unable to pull it off the string in flight. The only way the Raven could get the piece of meat was to stand on the perch, slowly draw up the string and step on the loops the string made over the perch to get the meat close enough to grab. In this test, 4 out of every 5 Ravens tested succeeded in figuring out the trick and then performing it. Ravens play in flight, and can be observed doing barrel rolls, flips, flying upside down, and racing vehicles. They will also find “toys” such as sticks and play with them in a group by tossing the stick in the air. Young Ravens show their love of play by playing with “toys”, or even sliding down snowbanks on their backs during the winter.
Spring is an exciting time for Ravens, as it is for all birds. It is the season of love, and pairs that nest together for the first time will mate for life. The males perform flight displays, demonstrate their intelligence and their skill in finding food for the female. After the female Raven watches the male, critically cocking her head and looking like she would rather be any other place than there, she chooses the male with the best qualities to pass on to the next generation. In the Yukon from March to July you can watch them build their nests out of sticks and then carefully line them with finer materials such as bark or hair. 3-7 greenish eggs with green or brown markings soon appear and hatch anywhere between 35-42 days after being laid. Parent Ravens are very protective of their nests, and will drop rocks on predators climbing up to the nest.
Ravens are a part of legends and mythology around the world in almost every culture. Ravens are portrayed always as tricksters, in some legends the creator of human beings and the earth, and in others are an ill omen and/or represent death. One legend about the Raven was told on the Queen Charlotte Islands hundreds of years ago. It is told as follows:
RAVEN STEALS THE SUN
“Long ago, near the beginning of the world, Gray Eagle was the guardian of the sun, moon and stars, of fresh water, and of fire. Gray Eagle hated people so much that he kept these things hidden. People lived in darkness, without fire, and without fresh water. Grey Eagle had a beautiful daughter, and Raven fell in love with her. In the beginning, Raven was a snow-white bird, and as such, he pleased the Gray Eagle’s daughter. She invited him to her father’s longhouse.”
“When Raven saw the Sun, Moon, and Stars, and fresh water hanging on the sides of Eagle’s lodge, he knew what he should do. He watched for his chance to seize them when no one was looking. He stole all of them, and a brand of fire also, and flew out of the longhouse through the smoke-hole. As soon as Raven got outside, he hung the Sun up in the sky. It made so much light that he was able to fly far out to an island in the middle of the ocean. When the Sun set, he fastened the Moon up in the sky and hung the stars around in different places. By this new light he kept on flying, carrying with him the fresh water and the brand of fire he had stolen.”
“He flew back over the land. When he had reached the right place, he dropped all of the water he had stolen. It fell to the ground and there became the source of all the fresh water streams and lakes in the world. Then Raven flew on, holding the brand of fire in his bill. The smoke from the fire blew back over his white feathers and made them black. When his bill began to burn, he had to drop the firebrand. It struck rocks and hid itself within them. That is why, if you strike two stones together, sparks of fire will drop out. Raven’s feathers never became white again after they were blackened by the smoke from the firebrand. That is why Raven is now a black bird.”
Watching Ravens in their day-to-day doings brings me no end of amusement. The are incredibly smart birds, and are very aware of everything around them. Many people consider them pests because they get into the trash; how much of that trash is actually in a garbage can with the lid on? Many people toss their garbage bags on front of their garage, in the back of their trucks, or on their deck and then get angry if the Ravens take advantage of the easy-to-get-to food source. We should all appreciate Ravens with their cunning, ability to survive, and love of life. In my opinion, they are one of the most amazing birds in the world!
BIBLIOGRAPHY: The Trickster Bibliography