Intellectuals in Black Intellectuals in Black
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Photo: Michael Jerrard/Unsplash
Nature

Intellectuals in Black

An Ode to Ravens
Adam Zbyryt
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time 10 minutes

They learn fast, use tools, and beat the great apes at intelligence tests. Even so, in many cultures they’re considered a harbinger of misfortune and death. It’s time to give ravens their due. 

They’re the heroes of many beliefs, myths, and stories. References to them appear in the Bible, the Koran, the Torah, the sacred Hindu and Persian texts, Scandinavian legends, and the stories of indigenous South Americans. In many cultures the raven is a devilish, clever bird, serving the forces of darkness; a messenger of death, a sign of misfortune. In certain beliefs it’s a hero; in others, a coward. It symbolizes intelligence and wisdom but also guile. Its dark legend can surely be explained by the large proportions of its body, powerful beak, dark feathers, and deep voice. Ravens’ habits are also significant, particularly their love for carrion and carcases; they appear on battlefields and everywhere human or animal remains are found. That must have caused fear in early myths and legends. 

Complex Minds 

With an average weight of 1.225 grams in women and 1.375 grams in men, the human brain contains about 86 billion neurons. That sets us apart in the animal world and has allowed us to create civilization. In a brain with a mass of 10.2 grams, ravens have more than 2 billion neurons. Is that a lot? It’s enough to compare them to mammals with similarly sized brains which usually have half as many neurons. It’s no surprise that in experiments measuring intelligence, ravens do even better than certain primates. Scientists suggest that their level of cognitive ability is similar to what we observe in two-and-a-half-year-old children. At just four months, raven chicks can manage most of the tasks that orangutans and chimpanzees can handle only as adults. Ravens have a lot of time to develop their abilities because, compared to other bird species, they live a long time: in the wild, they can live up to twenty years. These creatures plan their futures and are also better at delayed gratification than some people. In one experiment, ravens were taught to give a token back to scientists in exchange for a reward of food. If the food was of a poorer quality, the birds chose the token, because they knew that they would soon get a better morsel. During another test, ravens had to get to a hanging piece of food, pulling on a string with their beaks and then holding it with their claws, repeating this action until they could grab the target. It only took them a few minutes of observation and then about half a minute to solve the task, even though they had never done anything similar before. 

Some time ago I had the opportunity to live under the same roof as a three-month-old raven who for health reasons had ended up under the care of a friend of mine who specializes in treating and rehabilitating animals. He was called Gamoń (bumpkin), which didn’t reflect his nature; he was hellishly smart. This raven loved buttons. When Gamoń saw me for the first time, he was upset for a moment, which he expressed by squawking loudly and hiding behind his carer’s back. But before five minutes had passed, he was on my shoulder. For a moment I felt like Odin himself, to whom two ravens, Huginn (Thought) and Muninn (Memory) would bring the latest news every evening. But instead of whispering rumors into my ear, Gamoń started to play around with the buttons on my collar with his beak. I was surprised at the precision with which he grabbed them and tried to pull them off. After a dozen or so attempts, he got bored and went back to my friend’s shoulder. When she opened a box of buttons and set it on the floor, the raven immediately flew over to it. He looked through it for a moment or two, and, when he had made his choice, he flew to the couch and pushed the button under the cushions. After some time, he started to look for a new game. He loved to explore his surroundings, often causing quite a ruckus at home. He would go after the dog, who also fascinated him. Ear-pulling was a daily occurrence, but fortunately the mild-mannered Labrador bore it patiently. Ravens are known for this kind of behavior. When it comes to defending a piece of carrion, they can poke at a much larger white-tailed eagle, pulling its tail over and over until it flies away in irritation. 

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Companion Bird 

Around the world, there are eleven species of raven: the common, thick-billed, white-necked, Chihuahuan, brown-necked, dwarf, fan-tailed, little, forest or Tasmanian, and the Australian, as well as the pied crow. The most widespread is the common raven: it has settled in almost all of Europe, Asia, and North America, as well as the southern part of Greenland, and North Africa. 

For centuries, ravens were companion animals for humans. Birds with the intelligence of a two-and-a-half-year-old child can bring a lot of joy, but they can also cause real damage if you take your eye off them for just a moment. The best-known ravens that lived with humans include Korasek, famous for his rebellious nature, who lived with the biologist Simona Kossak and her partner, the photographer Lech Wilczek, in Poland. He stole numerous things—from small items of no value to jewelry, documents, and money—and attacked the ankles of passersby and the heads of cyclists who visited their home in the heart of Białowieża Forest. 

Another person who shared his life with ravens was their most famous researcher, Bernd Heinrich, author of the book Mind of the Raven. The birds lived in an aviary, specially designed and built by the scientist near his home, where he could carry out fascinating experiments that contributed to a better understanding of these animals’ complicated nature. 

But there are probably no ravens more popular than those of the Tower of London. Legend has it that if they disappear, the Crown will fall, and with it, Great Britain. Seven tame birds live in the tower: Jubilee, Harris, Poppy, Georgie, Edgar, Branwen, and the youngest, Rex. Why seven? The superstition is that the minimum number that must remain to protect the Crown is six, and the seventh is protection in case something happens to one of them. The British treat the legend very seriously—to the point that the birds have their own carer, the Ravenmaster, who feeds them, and from time to time, trims their wings so they won’t go too far—as has happened in the past. No one is certain where this superstition comes from, but most likely Charles II, who ruled England and Scotland in the seventeenth century, was responsible for it. 

Around Carrion 

Ravens have developed strong bonds not only with people but also with wolves, as their habitat ranges largely overlap, and the birds like to eat the remains of the larger predators’ victims. There is anecdotal evidence that ravens actually follow wolves, hoping to benefit from their kills, and even point out potential prey to them. Sometimes the birds are the first to find a meal, but they’re not able to start the feast. The skin of the dead animal may be too thick, and that’s when it’s best to call in the wolves for help. How do they do that? By making noise in the forest, which will pull in the predators. With their powerful jaws, armed with sharp teeth, the wolves have no problem with even the thickest skin, and when they’ve eaten their fill, the hungry ravens join the feast. There are also reports that, for the same reason, they follow hunters, waiting for them to shoot a wild pig or deer, to eat the parts left over after the animal is field dressed. 

Carrion is a particularly tempting morsel for ravens. Because they’re territorial, adult pairs protect their prey from others. Young ravens usually lose this battle, unless they team up: if there are at least twenty of them, the older ones have no chance to keep their spoils. That behavior allows the young birds not only to protect themselves against the adults but also to harass and chase away other animals that want to join the feast: buzzards, wild boars, and even foxes and white-tailed eagles. Falcons are the only things they can’t handle. Attempts to scare these predators off by pulling on their tails—as ravens have a habit of doing with young white-tailed eagles—can end in tragedy for them. Falcons are trained in effective killing, and even the most intelligent birds can’t feel safe around them. Young ravens also work together on looking for carrion. Every evening, before dusk, they gather at their roosting spots, which they leave in the morning one by one, flying off in all directions. If one of them finds carrion, it makes a special sound to inform other nearby individuals of the discovery. While the finder shares the information with the group, it still wants to grab as much as it can for itself. It pulls off pieces of carrion and hides them for later, when it gets hungry again. Like people, ravens become very cautious when they suspect that they’re being observed. If they know that another bird has seen them hiding food, once they’re sure it’s no longer around, they’ll go back to the hiding place and move the food to a new spot. 

Fear of the New 

Ravens are extremely timid birds. When they land on a newly discovered carrion, they perform movements known as jumping jacks. This consists of going up to the find cautiously and jumping up every so often, flapping their wings. After the first bite, they can fly off in a panic and not come back for many hours. This surprising behavior makes a lot of sense. Ravens realize that an animal lying on the ground isn’t necessarily dead. Attempting to bite off a piece of its body, if it’s still alive, could end in serious injuries, if it starts to defend itself with the last of its strength. What’s more, it could be a predator using the tactic of feigning death to hunt for naive victims. Ravens also use this tactic—though not to hunt, but only to fool their kin. They sometimes lie down next to carrion they find, pretending to be dead when they notice competition in the area. For other ravens, this signals there’s a threat, and they usually leave the place so as not to expose themselves to unnecessary danger, which the poor bird on the ground wasn’t lucky enough to avoid. After a certain time, the clever fraudster can calmly go back to feasting. 

That reminds me of a story. It was a warm autumn day, and after a long ramble through the woods, I decided to lie down in a meadow just outside the trees. I lazily closed my eyes, warming myself in the last rays of the sun. Every once in a while, I would open my eyes slightly to look at the sky. After a few minutes, I noticed a raven, flying energetically toward me. My presence didn’t bother him, unlike what usually happens when one of these birds encounters a human. On the contrary: he seemed very interested, because he turned around right after he passed me and started to circle. Quite high at first, maybe about a hundred meters up, but descending minute by minute. He was clearly interested in something. Did he think I was carrion? I hoped he would land and try his jumping jacks on me, nibble, and fly off. Motionless, I observed him through half-closed eyelids. I decided to see what would happen and how close he would decide to fly. The whole thing took several minutes, and the bird was really close—maybe about thirty meters from me—but at a certain moment something must have aroused his suspicions, because he squawked loudly and then hurriedly flew away. That time, his timid nature won out. 

Fear is aroused in ravens not only by new carrion but also by certain shapes of objects. Like cats, they’re not fans of new, elongated objects with serpentine forms, but they don’t have any great problems with round ones, which they quickly accept. 

Hierarchy 

Young ravens who live in groups are perfectly aware of the social status of particular individuals: they know their place and others’, both in their own group and in other flocks that live nearby. Before beginning a meal, the dominant raven announces its strong position with a special sound, to which a subordinate raven replies with a voice intended to acknowledge the first one’s dominance. This is a very important behavior which allows them to quickly fit into the relationships in the group if they decide that they want to be a member. In other words, they know perfectly whom they have to please in order to join the pecking order without exposing themselves to unnecessary conflicts—though sometimes they provoke them intentionally. When they feel strong, they might not respond to the call of the dominant raven with a subordinate voice. Then a confrontation occurs, which may upend relationships within the group. Because males are stronger than females, these battles are segregated by sex. 

Ravens are fascinating birds who still conceal many secrets from us. I’m extremely hopeful that more and more new reports on their extraordinary cognitive abilities will prompt us to finally stop using the derogatory expression “birdbrain.” We could learn a thing or two from the ravens. 

ilustracja: Natka Bimer
Illustration: Natka Bimer

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