Why ravens are the world’s most fascinating bird
I’ve always loved ravens. They are beautiful birds—shiny black, regal, intelligent. So imagine how exciting it was for me to see the resident ravens during my visit to the Tower of London last week. I was very lucky to have met one very special raven named Merlin, whose fascinating life at the Tower is detailed here (along with nearly 20 amazing photos that showcase her beauty and unique personality!).
The Tower’s ravens hold special significance: Legend has it that in the 17th century, Charles II was tired of so many ravens interfering with his telescope—so he decided to get rid of them. That was until his astronomer persuaded him that killing ravens was unlucky, and the British kingdom would fall if the ravens left the tower. Charles II listened—and today, the ravens have transformed into an iconic symbol of the Tower.
But other cultures have revered ravens, too. For just a few examples: The raven is a hero, the creator and a trickster in some Native American mythology; the ancient Irish Celts saw the raven as a goddess of death, fate and war; and Norse legends associate both negative and positive traits with the raven.
Even literature loves ravens: Literary rock stars like Charles Dickens and Edgar Allen Poe (The Raven) are known for their fascination with ravens. Dickens, for one, had his beloved raven, Grip, professionally stuffed and mounted upon its death—and even included him as a character in his novel Barnaby Rudge.
Today, ravens are protected under federal law by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. I recently came across this article detailing the wonderful rescue of a raven in Alaska; he’d become twisted in some string and was hanging upside down from a tree branch 75 feet in the air, his raven companion keeping him company (and offering moral support) nearby. I read with anticipation as the writer detailed how he and a friend worked to set him free. The next day, the ravens appeared to “thank” one of the men by following him closely and landing atop boulders as he passed.
This isn’t all that surprising; science has shown that ravens show empathy and compassion, and even use “hand” gestures to communicate (something we previously thought only humans and primates did). The difference with dogs, who also use gestures, is that ravens do this naturally; they weren’t trained to do so. Ravens also establish bonded friendships and beneficial coalitions in the wild.
Ravens often get mistaken for crows, even though they are larger, have feathery “beards” (crows’ necks are sleeker), and different-shaped tails. Flocks of crows are called a “murder,” ravens an “unkindness.” Here’s a great article detailing the many ways we can tell crows and ravens apart.
I suppose it’s a good thing I love ravens so much; their populations are “soaring” here in the Bay Area. If I’m lucky to see some near my home, perhaps I’ll have the chance to offer Reiki to a raven. One can hope!
What bird do you find most fascinating?
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