Past Birds of the Month can be found here.
Which bird is most like the lilies of the field, which famously toil not, neither do they spin? You might say the cuckoo, which hijacks the nests of other birds rather than toiling over its own. You might say the swan, seeing in its curved neck an echo of the lily’s curved white petals.
But if you look up the verse about the lazy lilies in St Luke’s Gospel, and go three verses back, you will find this:
Consider the ravens, for they neither sow nor reap, which have neither storehouse nor barn; and God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds?
Few birds resemble the lily less than the raven, yet Jesus uses them to the same purpose here: neither flower nor bird works anxiously to secure its future, yet God takes care of both. (The message of the parable is to focus on the spiritual and trust God to sort out your material needs.)
There are a lot of references to the raven in the Bible, though far more in the Old Testament than in the New. The Hebrew word for raven is orev. However, the same word describes most of the members of the Corvus family, to which the raven belongs. So when the Old Testament refers to the orev, it could be talking about a crow, a rook or a raven – or just a generic crow-like creature. But most English translations of the Bible go with ‘raven’ because the raven is the largest corvid, and has the greatest gravitas.
Like all birds in the Corvus family, ravens are black or mostly black (some species have patches of white or grey). The most widespread species is Corvus corax, or the common raven, which lives throughout the Northern hemisphere. The average common raven is about 25 inches in length and weighs 2.5 pounds. It is entirely black, from the tip of its heavy beak to the end of its sharp claws, and can look quite forbidding:
This, together with its liking for carrion, makes the raven a common symbol of bad luck and death. The collective noun for ravens is an unkindness – only marginally less ominous than that other corvid collective, a murder of crows.
(Stormy seas, craggy rocks, ruined castles: the 19th-century raven’s Gothic associations, as depicted by naturalist Philip Gosse)
For all their appearance and reputation, ravens – and corvids more generally – are among the most playful of birds. Young ravens sometimes slide down snow-banks or snow-covered roofs, just for fun. They put on gymnastic displays mid-air, looping round each other and locking talons, or dropping twigs in order to dive and catch them again.
Last month I wrote about the owl, which looks much cleverer than it is. Corvids really are clever. They have a higher brain to body size ratio than almost any other kind of bird, and the common raven has the biggest brain of all. Nature-writer David Quammen suggests that corvids play because they are far more intelligent than they need to be to manage the day-to-day business of survival. As a result, they are bored. Play is a distraction.
Sometimes their intelligence serves a more useful purpose. One of Aesop’s fables describes a thirsty crow finding a pitcher of water. The water level is too low for him to reach with his beak, and the pitcher too heavy for him to knock over. He collects a pile of stones and drops them into the pitcher one by one until the water level rises enough for him to drink. This story has been told and retold by many authors, sometimes with a moral about the virtues of persistence, sometimes illustrating the value of intelligence over strength. In the first century AD, Pliny the Elder confirmed the fable by recording an account of a real-life raven behaving similarly.
More recently, researchers have observed corvids fashioning tools for themselves out of twigs and leaves. Ravens that live near the coast work in pairs to raid seabird colonies, with one bird distracting an adult seabird and the other snatching its eggs or chicks. Like crows, ravens are monogamous. And since they can live for up to 30 years, their fidelity is no mean feat.
Ravens’ cooperative abilities go beyond their own species. In cold, mountainous areas, they live alongside packs of wolves. They draw the wolves’ attention to carcasses and feast on the insides of the dead animals once the wolves have torn open the skin. Wolves and ravens are linked in mythology as well as in reality: the Norse god Odin has two pet ravens, Hugin and Munin, and two pet wolves, Geri and Freki.
(18th century Icelandic manuscript showing Odin with Hugin and Munin, who accompany him into battle. Geri and Freki not pictured.)
Clever birds tend to have a wider range of calls than stupid ones, and ravens have dozens. Some of these we can interpret (danger, food, courtship), while others remain obscure. Some are very familiar to us indeed: like parrots and mynah birds, ravens can mimic humans – the words that we say as well as our tone of voice.
An English pamphlet published in 1694 spoke – possibly not entirely truthfully – of a raven telling its listeners three times to ‘Look into Colossians, the third and fifteenth.’ This is what Colossians 3:15 has to say:
And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body; and be thankful.
Today’s ravens are not so Biblically-literate, but here’s one who can say ‘hello’ and ‘hi’ in different voices:
Somewhere between the 17th-century Bible-quoting raven and the secular bird above is the raven in Edgar Allan Poe’s 1845 poem ‘The Raven.” A ‘weak and weary’ young man sits at his desk at midnight, trying to distract himself from thoughts of his dead lover. Enter a ‘stately raven’, who answers the young man’s theological and romantic questions by repeating a single word: ‘Nevermore’.
The young man tortures himself to the point of insanity by wondering ‘what this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt and ominous bird of yore/ Meant in croaking “Nevermore”’ – even as he recognises that the word probably has no meaning whatsoever, and is simply something the bird happens to have picked up from his owner.
You would think that Poe’s poem would have resulted in hordes of raven-owners teaching their birds to say ‘Nevermore’. This is not the case. The most ominously croaking raven I can find is this one, whose name is Julian:
Like Poe’s young man, I know that the only reason Julian can say ‘Who’s a good bird?’ is because he’s been trained to do so, but still I find his breathy self-congratulation unnerving. I would not meet with equanimity his midnight arrival in my room.
(Illustration to ‘The Raven’ by Édouard Manet)
Images via Wikimedia Commons. For more information on ravens and their fellow corvids, see Crow by Boria Sax.
Hannah Rosefield likes writing about books and birds. She lives in London and tweets.