Montana Public Radio

'Field Notes:' All About Ravens

Apr 23, 2018

I was walking through Greenough Park in Missoula the other day, enthralled by the bright spring afternoon. A yellow cascade of dandelions popped out against the grass. Rattlesnake Creek swelled with snowmelt. The air smelled of shoots, buds, and fresh growth. Then I heard an echoing croak. A raven swooped down and perched on a park bench, a defiant figure of darkness in the daylight.

Without a sound it snuck a potato chip out of a bag someone had left, then rose into the air and glided across the creek out of view, barely flapping its wings.

On my walk back through the park, another raven croaked from a branch near the path, and the raven I saw earlier glided back across the creek to perch nearby. They sat on a low-hanging branch, covered by shade. They looked in opposite directions, slowly pivoting their heads.

What were they doing?

We see ravens in many cultures. They are prominent in Norse mythology, in Native American stories, native Siberian shamanism, Celtic stories, and more. But what are these birds really like?

Ravens are one of the most widespread birds in the world, living throughout the northern hemisphere. They live in all kinds of habitats, coastlines to deserts, forests to arctic tundra. Ravens are members of the Corvidae family which also includes magpies, jays, and crows.

Ravens are commonly mistaken for their cousins, crows, but are easily distinguished by their characteristics and size. Ravens are much larger than crows and more solitary, choosing one mate which they live with year-round. These monogamous pairs of ravens claim a territory and defend it from others, while crows are usually seen in flocks. Although, ravens will form flocks, called conspiracies, to compete with other scavengers when food is scarce.

Ravens can eat or stash twice their body weight in food each day, and these hearty birds grow up to 27 inches long and weigh from 2 to 3.5 pounds. One thing which makes ravens so successful in different habitats is their opportunistic, omnivorous diet. Ravens can and do eat nearly anything, which explains the potato chip snack I witnessed in the park.

Their intelligence and ability to communicate contributes to their excellent hunting and gathering skills. Ravens will work in pairs to steal eggs from other bird nests. One distracts the bird while the other sneaks behind to snatch the eggs. A Wyoming study found ravens were drawn to gunshots during hunting season, presumably anticipating food. There are even stories of ravens watching from trees while ewes give birth and ambushing the newborn lamb when it’s most vulnerable.

The Greenough Park ravens might have been a breeding pair, putting their hunting and gathering skills to work in their territory. But, they reminded me two ravens in Norse mythology: Hugin, who symbolizes thought, and Munin, who represents desire. These birds are Odin’s helpers, flying through the world each day, watching, and reporting back to him.

Whether these old myths are true or not, next time a deliberate shadow glides from above, or a croak from the darkness resonates in the light, wonder about the raven. It could be watching you. Or, just scanning for its next snack.

"Field Notes" is produced by the Montana Natural History Center.