Like a lot of other folks, you might think Edgar Allen Poe when someone mentions ‘raven’, and in fact many western poets, authors and cultures have associated the raven with danger and death. But not all is midnight dreary with the oft maligned raven, which has also symbolized wisdom. Northwest Native Americans revere ravens as creators of just about everything, including the earth and moon, the sun and other stars. However, at the same time they also recognize ravens as tricksters and cheaters. It’s unlikely that any other bird has been so involved with mystery, myth and misinformation, in spite of more than 1,400 research reports in scientific literature.
Ravens are one of the most widespread naturally occurring birds in the world, and are found in nearly every land habitat except rain forests of the tropics. In southeastern Arizona, we’re fortunate to have both species of North American ravens, the Common and the Chihuahuan. Where they overlap (as around SaddleBrooke), the two species are often confused and are difficult to tell apart. American Crows are also hard to differentiate from ravens, but at least we’re spared that confusion in southeastern Arizona, since Arizona crows are limited to the north and central mountains. If you are from an area east of Colorado, you’re more likely to be familiar with crows than ravens, except for the far northern parts of the Midwest, Maine and the Appalachians. Where you do find them together, such as in Colorado, note that crows are smaller (by six inches in length, a foot in wingspan) and have a short rounded or square tail compared with the raven’s wedge-shaped tail. Crows are also well-known for their ‘caw-caw’ call, which differentiates them from the hoarse croak of a raven.
Telling a Common Raven from his Chihuahuan cousin is much more problematic. The desert grassland dwelling Chihuahuan is smaller (by four inches), but unless they are side-by-side, this distinction is difficult. There are identifiable differences in vocalization, but there is also overlap. Probably the most-cited diagnostic difference lies in the base of the neck feathers, which are gray on Common Ravens and white on Chihuahuan. Note that this is found in the base of neck feathers, which remain hidden unless the bird is neck-preening or standing in a neck feather exposing wind.
Both species are opportunistic and omnivorous feeders, with a diet that includes almost everything: insects, rodents, reptiles, eggs, small birds and mammals, seeds, fruit, road-kill and garbage. Fortunately this includes scorpions, but unfortunately it also includes several threatened and endangered species, such as the desert tortoise, California Condor, Marbled Murrelet and Least Tern. Ravens are often considered an agricultural pest, as well, for their fondness for newborn lamb and calf eyes, which might loom larger than their appetite for rats. Talk about midnight dreary! Like it or not, however, they are likely to remain with us forever. They adapt well to human encroachment and the loss of wild habitat, and survive equally well in high mountain tundra, prairies, deserts, sea coasts, Arctic ice floes and even Chicago, which might be a stretch for some of us. Poe might better have quoted the raven as ‘Evermore.’
(This article originally appeared in the October, 2014 issue of the Saddlebag Notes newspaper, Tucson, Arizona.)