Corvus Corax, also known as the common raven, is one of Earth’s creatures that tends to get linked to darkness and death. It makes sense, as their plumage is pitch black and they are opportunistic scavengers that are often seen eating carrion on the battlefield or on the side of the road. They are also known to exploit the kills of hunters and fisherfolk, as well as attack crops. Even though their beaks can cut and rip, they generally are not strong enough to penetrate thick hides, so they tend to rely on kills made by other animals or cars.
It’s hard for the raven to shake the association to doom and gloom found in literature, religion, art, vocabulary (e.g. raving mad), and legends- and it doesn’t help their case that a group of them is called an “unkindness” of ravens. One of the more interesting legends, which comes from Jewish folklore, suggests the raven was once white, but was changed to black due to its deceitful conduct. There is also the mention of a white raven in Ovid’s Coronis and the Birth of Esculapius – in this story a white raven brought Apollo bad news and in Apollo’s anger the bird’s feathers were turned black.
There is so much more to the raven than omens of bad luck. Ravens are highly intelligent animals with evidence of problem-solving, counting (non-verbally), and recognizing shapes. They can even mimic human speech, which admittedly is creepy. So perhaps there is some truth when “Quoth the Raven, Nevermore?”
In many cultures around the world, the raven is revered. It is a messenger, a prophet, and even a pet. The Norse god Odin was accompanied by two ravens- Hugin and Mumin (memory and mind) – that would gather information about the world and deliver it to him each night. In fact, Odin is often referred to as Hrafnagaud, or the raven god. Charles II kept ravens at the Tower of London to ensure that the kingdom did not fall and this tradition is carried on today with the assistance of a ravenmaster. Charles Dickens had a pet raven named “Grip” and upon his death, Dickens took him to the taxidermist. One can pay homage to Grip, who currently resides at Philadelphia Free Library Rare Books Room.
Perhaps, in order to smash the raven’s bad rap, we must better understand them. Ravens are of the order Passeriformes (songbirds), which is surprising, since they are not known to sing pretty songs. However, ravens have mad vocal skills- they scream, trill, croak, cackle, warble, yell- and can mimic the sound of dripping water, bells, and wood blocks. They belong to the family Corvidae, which includes crows, jackdaws, rooks, jays, nutcrackers, and magpies, and to the genus Corvus, which includes crows, ravens, jackdaws, and rooks. Taxonomically speaking, a raven is a type of crow, but do not tell that to the raven.
It can be difficult to distinguish a common raven from a black crow, but there are some differences to look for- or better yet to listen. Ravens are very loquacious. Crows tend to stick with cawing, while ravens will ‘kwark’ and express a variety of tones. By the way, the species name for the common raven is Corax which is Greek for croaker. Hrafn (Old Norse), possibly where we get the English word raven, means to clear one’s throat.
Visually, ravens tend to be larger than crows and have a diamond wedge-shaped beak. They also tend to walk in a more dignified manner- sort of like a soldiers in a military line- while crows walk in jerky motions. Should you see a raven in the sky, more than likely it is soaring and a crow tends to continuously flap its wings.
There is much more to be known about the raven and I encourage everyone to learn more about this smart and beautiful creature before passing any further judgment. The following books will help get you started:
The Common Raven by Richard L. Knight and Mayo W. Call (1980 )From the series: Technical note #344, Bureau of Land Management, 344
Gift of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave like Humans by John Marzluff and Tony Angell (Free Press, 2012)
In the Company of Crows and Ravens by John M. Marzluff and Tony Angell (Yale University Press, 2005)
The Raven: Soaring Through History, Legend, and Lore by Lynn Hassler (Rio Nuevo Publishers, c2008)
Did you think I would not even mention Edgar Allan Poe’s Gothic short story The Raven in a post about ravens? Of course not. You can read the Library’s exquisite 1884 copy of the Raven or listen to a 1913 recording of The Raven Part 1 and Part 2.
Our LC bloggers have also written about Poe and the Raven: