A “Love for Living Animals” Essay


Edgar Allen Poe’s classic poem,  The Raven, has through generations, led people to know about this bird for the first time. The poem turned Poe from a nobody to an overnight celebrity. Children followed him everywhere he went, flapping their arms like birds. Poe would turn around and face the children, crying in a frightening voice, “NEVERMORE!” causing the children to disperse.

Ravens play, are intelligent

That was in the 1800s, but today more people, including children have even more reason to be fascinated by this intelligent bird. For starters, ravens like to play. In Alaska and Canada, they were seen sliding down snow-covered roofs. In Maine, ravens roll down ramps and hillsides. They also play “keep-away” with dogs, otters, wolves, and other animals. They make their own toys using rocks, sticks, pinecones, and golf balls. The toys are used to taunt other animals or play among themselves.

The raven is a gymnast in flight. In the air, it rolls,  somersaults, does acrobatics, and flies upside down. Adolescents play games on the air using sticks. They will drop them, then dive to catch them before the sticks hit the ground. In the wild, ravens push rocks on people to protect their nests.

These large black birds have brains that are relatively big for their size, which may be why ravens can do so much. They even craft and use tools to get food, plan for the future by hiding their food, and play games like hide-and-seek.

They also barter. In one experiment, ravens were given chances to exchange their bread for cheese with a scientist. The first scientist always gave cheese in exchange for bread. A second scientist would take their bread but eat the cheese. In forthcoming sessions, the birds only bartered with the human who always gave cheese in exchange for bread.

Some scientists rate the intelligence of ravens on par with dolphins and chimpanzees. Recently their level of communication was elevated to that of humans and apes.

In a scientific test, a raven was made to reach a piece of food that was hanging on a string. The solution was to pull the string, anchor it with its talon, and repeat the movement until the food was within reach. Many ravens got the food on the first try, and some got it within 30 seconds.

Ravens can mimic human voices. In captivity, they do it better than parrots.  One raven was videoed overnight practicing human words. You can see it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rk0jyySGMck&t=55s.  They mimic anything, including other animal sounds, a dog barking, different bird calls, a toilet flushing, or a car alarm.

Sometimes a raven may come across a carcass that they can’t break open. To enlist help, they imitate the sounds of wolves and foxes to draw them to the carrion. After the animals have eaten their fill, the ravens enjoy the leftovers.

Ravens have also pretended to be dead beside a carcass to fool other ravens into thinking the carcass is poisoned. Others enter stores such as Costco, where customers see them grabbing packaged meats from their shopping carts.  Ravens also eat mammals, birds, eggs, and invertebrates such as insects. A favorite delicacy is the desert tortoise.

Ravens vs crows

Ravens belong to the crow family. They’re the  largest crows, distinguished by their loud, low croaks, compared the the cawing of crows. Ravens also have a distinct walk on the ground, interspersing steps with hops on two feet. When flying, ravens ride currents and soar high. Crows flap their wings more than ravens do. In flight, the raven’s tail is like a wedge. The crow’s is round and fan-like. Ravens are the most intelligent bird of the crow family.

Storing food

 Ravens hide their food from each other. In a BBC documentary, a scientist pretended to hide food under a stone. One raven named Elias by scientists, took the food under the stone and put it in his throat pouch. He then looked for a new place to hide it. Three scenarios of ravens hiding food are: (1) If another raven is watching, Elias “fakes” hiding food by laying grass on an empty spot. (2)  A raven was observed pretending to be busy hiding food while peeking at Elias on the sly. If Elias lets his guard down and hides it, the bird will steal it. (3) Elias makes sure that all the ravens aren’t watching, then hides his food.

In another case, a scientist pretended to cook as the ravens watched. Then the scientist closed the wooden cage window but peered through a peephole. The birds surreptitiously and quickly hid their food, and they didn’t revisit other caches of food they’d hidden before, lest they be discovered.

Social behavior, sense of time, and problem-solving

 A raven’s life stages parallel human life stages. In adolescence, they leave home and dwell with other young ones forming “gangs”. Adolescent ravens are more stressed than adults. In adulthood, ravens are monogamous and stay together for as long as they live, unlike other animals that mate, separate, or stay together only long enough to raise a young one.  Adult ravens spend the rest of their lives defending their enclave from other ravens.

These birds can live in any environment like the tundra, (frozen lands north of the Arctic Circle or above the timberline on high mountains [alpine tundra]), high deserts,  forests, and urban areas. Ravens are found in Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America. These birds’ predators include coyotes, eagles, large hawks, owls, martens (weasel-like animals), humans, and other ravens. Usually, predators attack nests, not adults. Wild ravens live for 17 years, but in captivity, they live for 40 years.

Ravens can compete, cooperate, and plan their future. Researchers trained the birds to use a rock to open a box with food inside. The birds had to drop the rock into a small tube. The stone was in a box with “distracter” objects like a toy car, a wheel, and a ball. After the raven chose its tool, the bird saved it to open the box later.

First, they waited for 15 minutes before they were given the tube. Then they waited for 17 hours. They succeeded in both tests, but the success rate was higher in the second test at 88%.

Chimpanzees, humans, and ravens

 In the past, scientists only studied animals similar to humans like chimpanzees and other primates. Now we know that ravens have a lot in common with people. For example, they communicate using gestures (which humans sometimes do), like “pointing” with their beaks. When  mating, they hold an interesting object in their beaks.

Ravens, like people, have an “episodic memory” (memory of recent or past experiences). They remember human faces and associate them with distinctive qualities, especially relating to emotions or incidents.

This makes ravens have both friends and enemies. If someone cheats a raven, they’ll hold a grudge sometimes for a month and won’t work with the cheater until they’ve gotten past their animosity.

Ravens are empathic

Ravens are kind and empathic to their friends. If a friend loses a fight, the raven will console his buddy. They are friends for life. The friend may be gone for three years, but when they come back, it’s as if time has never passed.

Ravens in cultures

 All over the world, ravens play a role in different cultures. For example, in Europe, they’re allies of witches and wizards, and they have psychic powers. They are symbols of the occult and are omens of death.  Other cultures’ beliefs are:

  1. Native Americans. Ravens are sly and tricky. They played a role in the earth’s creation.
  2. Haida culture. This indigenous group near BC, Canada says the raven has curative and mystical powers. If you see a raven you’ll have visitors.
  3. Folklore considers ravens as symbols of war.
  4. Hindu god Shani rides the back of a giant raven.
  5. Ravens symbolize children’s loyalty to their parents.
  6. Ravens cause bad weather in forests as a warning that the gods will pass by.
  7. Ravens symbolize fortune and wisdom.

The raven is the first bird that was mentioned in the Bible. In Genesis 8:6-7, Noah sent the raven out, and it flew back and forth until the flood receded, but not enough for Noah to leave the ark. The raven likely feasted on all the dead flesh that had drowned in the flood. Sending birds out was a common trick used by sailors to find dry land.

The first raven didn’t come back, indicating there was little food to scavenge. Noah didn’t know how much land was in sight until the dove returned carrying a branch. This meant that although the dove returned because there wasn’t enough flora to survive, the earth was slowly returning to normal.

In 1 Kings 17:2–6, God sends a pair of ravens to feed Elijah after he has been fasting for 40 days and nights in the wilderness. The prophet’s food supply runs out when God sends strong winds that prevent any rain from falling. The ravens’ arrival provides Elijah with enough food to survive until God sends rain again.

Note: Formerly published in Enrich Magazine, January 2024.