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Welcome Back, Corvids: As the Ravens
Croak, the Crow Flies

Ravens or crows? by Lakin Khan

It was the tail end of the semester and as the earth’s axis tilted the northern hemisphere away from sun, the evenings came sooner and sooner. When I walked out to the J lot at the end of a long day, I was accompanied only by the scurry of wind or the patter of rain. The coarse croaks of the watchful ravens, signaling that the bipeds were leaving in droves and the campus would soon be theirs, no longer echoed between Stevenson and Darwin as they had all fall. I missed them, those sentinels perched along the rooftops of the twin gray buildings, looming ghostlike in the fog.

If you are like me, crows and ravens can seem indistinguishable from each other. Both are annoying, raucous black birds. Okay, so one is larger than the other, but this is easier to spot when I see both species at the same time in the same place. Large crows sometimes seem like small ravens, and vice versa. I can more easily identify their calls and vocalizations. The raven’s croak is loud, deep and throaty, bossy and officious. The crow’s caw is slighter, at a higher, much more irritating pitch, kvetching and complaining constantly. I needn’t obey a crow; I might unwittingly begin to follow a raven’s gruff commands, subconsciously unsure of what might happen if I didn’t.

I loved seeing the ravens strut their peculiar swaggering stuff along the edges of the lawns: head high, beak jabbing out in front of them; dignified and ferocious guardians of that strip of territory. Or swooping through the airspace between Darwin and Stevenson, just fooling around perhaps, or heading for their messy nests of twigs and branches high up under the eaves on the open, east side of Stevenson’s inner courtyard. Both ravens and crows are acrobatic aerialists and will reward patient observers with air shows designed to impress potential mates, show off to their buds, or just to have a good time. They’ll play an aerial game of “chicken,” two flock mates flying straight towards each other until one ducks; they will joust and air-wrestle; they’ve even been seen to fly upside down for a brief time.

Crows and ravens are of the genus Corvus, within the Corvidae family of birds, which also includes jays and magpies. These creatures are noted for their intelligence, adaptability and boldness, some would say brashness. As a group, the Corvids are considered to have the best bird-brains in the avian world. They are inventive and mischievous, playing tricks on other birds, animals, humans. They will drop walnuts on roads so cars will smash them; they are quite capable of opening latches and gates; some will use twigs to capture insects.

Cheryl Moore, in the Dean’s Office of Science and Technology told me that she knew of a raven that would routinely lock the cage door behind her friend’s pet duck when it went into its cage for some duck snacks. The raven would then sit back and watch as the poor duck squawked and quacked to get out, ultimately being rescued by its humans. I can almost see that raven smirking around its beak.

What we see around campus are the American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) and the Common Raven (Corvus corax), species widely distributed across North America. In Sonoma County, they are year-round residents, not given to migrations or relocation. Yet eerily enough, now that I was paying attention to them, they vanished. Kaputski. Out of here. Walking among the buildings and around the ponds, it was surprisingly quiet without the awrrrk-awwrrkk! of the ravens or the brusque jibber-jabber of the crows.

Still confused about how to tell the difference between them, and not just due to lack of subjects, I contacted Dr. Nick Geist in the Biology Department for some hints. “You have to look at the beaks and the tails,” he said. “the crow’s beak is slimmer and pointier, the raven’s thicker and more curved. And for the tails, the crow’s is straighter, squared off or perhaps a bit fan-shaped. Think of the saying ‘As straight as the crow flies.’ The raven’s tail is longer proportionally and much more of a wedge shape.”

Also, I noticed, crows are gregarious, existing generally in loose flocks, sitting on wires and in trees in chatty clumps, scattering across a recently harvested hay field like a constellation of black stars in a blonde sky. Large groups are quaintly known in literature as a murder of crows, an apt description of them mobbing a perceived threat of any predator, be it avian, feline, or human. So the crows in Alfred Hitchcock’s movie “The Birds,” were not acting that far out of character, although perhaps just a bit more intense.

Ravens, Dr Geist noted, are not quite as clubby as crows, but more the rugged individualist. Nevertheless, they will gather for special occasions, such as the discovery of a large bovine carcass or to admire an unexpected piece of exquisite road kill or to gang up on a dog in order to steal its food. Fittingly, as a group, they are often referred to as a conspiracy of ravens; they do seem to whisper and pass secretive notes whenever three or four of them gather. Though, perhaps in reference to their air of authority and guardianship, they are also known as a constable.

Crows and ravens are intriguing, beguiling creatures: noisy, observant, inquisitive, clever. They are also scavengers, willing to eat just about anything left behind: carrion, road kill, garbage, spilled chips; it’s all the same to them. They have adapted well to the campus environment, swooping down to pick at food scraps littered around the outdoor food tables— performing a valuable custodial role.

Perhaps with the students packing up to leave for the winter break, the crows and ravens flew off for better pickings elsewhere. This means that with the return of the students, they are back: whooshing around the buildings, croaking from the rooftops, collecting bugs and grubs, snapping up muffin crumbs and French fries, getting into mischief, even harassing the owls.

Welcome back, Corvids.

ABOVE, ravens view their world from the top of a light post. (Photo by Linnea Mullins)

E-mail our amateur campus naturalist with any observations, stories or reactions you have about our shared environment with the natural world on campus. Khan is an administrative coordinator in the biology department and can be reached at lakin.khan@sonoma.edu.

 

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