By MILLIE BASDEN
Common Ravens are really big birds. Ravens are members of the order Passeriformes. As such, some like to call them the largest songbirds. Although they are very vocal, ravens don’t sound very melodious and so I prefer to call them the largest perching birds, another name applied to members of this order. It’s the arrangement of their toes that qualifies them for membership in this group of birds: three toes forward and one back, an arrangement that makes it easy to perch.
Male and female ravens look alike and are roughly the same size. They retain their all-black plumage throughout the year with no seasonal change. Common Ravens (Corvus corax) may be confused with American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos), another closely related, large, all black bird. Besides being larger than crows, Common Ravens have a more massive bill, a wedge-shaped tail, and have “hackles” (shaggy throat feathers). In flight, ravens are more likely to soar for long periods, whereas crows usually flap more frequently and faster. The voice of a raven is deeper and raspier, more of a croak compared to the higher pitched “caw” of a crow.
Ravens are omnivorous and eat a wide variety of foods, including carrion, human refuse, rodents, reptiles and the eggs and young of other birds. Young ravens learn what is food and what is not by picking up and examining any unfamiliar object they encounter as they walk on the ground. This interest in anything new is called neophilia. As they get older, their interest in any unfamiliar object transitions to fear of any unknown object, known as neophobia. But their neophilia continues throughout life and often overcomes their neophobia, allowing them to investigate anything unusual that they encounter.
Ravens are year-round residents in our area. Although they may travel long distances to forage for food, they do not migrate. They do not typically form flocks, but a group of ravens will often forage near each other, and large numbers will roost in the same location at night.
Although the populations of many perching birds have dramatically declined in the last 50 years, not so with ravens. Ravens have benefited from the changes humans have made in the environment: more roads and more cars have led to more carrion for them to eat; man-made structures such as the towers that support power lines have provided new nesting sites; more people results in more refuse, another source of food.
— Millie Basden is a trail guide at Mission Trails Regional Park.