Posted by: atowhee | January 20, 2019


And here’s Peter’spic of a pair cavorting over the sea at Fort Funston…baby, the wind must blow, as Glenn Yarborough said.ravens at funston

I put this together to send to one of the research biologists who made an excellent presentation yesterday at the Willamette Bird Symposium.  She is researching ravens in eastern Oregon, especially to understand their relationship with nesting Greater Sage Grouse.


A bit of my own ravenology, collected over years of watching and living around these spectacular birds. I am the guy who stopped by your table at the symposium with the tale of the ravens collected at a fresh coyote roadkill in Yamhill County.

In your talk I was glad to see you divide the raven and crow by voice and beak and tail shape and those rictal bristles.  I really wanted to intervene when you got the flight question after your excellent presentation, but I was too far from any microphone.  Here’s what I always tell my birding classes, mostly beginners or early intermediate in experience:

The raven can soar as well as many large raptors.  A crow must flap its wings to stay aloft.  You may see a crow glide on fixed wings when it is landing or dropping down on the back of an enemy, say a buteo or raven.  But ravens literally soar with the eagles…or red-tails or osprey or Turkey Vultures.  When we lived in Ashland each fall brought the convergence of migrating TVs heading south.  They would gather above I-5, circling on sunny, warm September afternoons, gaining altitude so they could soar over the Siskiyou Summit, highest point on their way south at over 4300’ elevation.  The TVs would form a bird tornado, circling, each circle they would ride the thermals a little bit higher.  When they finally go high enough, the top layer of the tornado would break off and make a straight line for the pass and then disappear beyond the horizon.  Rarely did you see more than a single wing flap by any individual bird for a short span of time.  Even when they broke out of the merry-go-round it usually took only a flap or two and some wing adjustment to get onto the right path, then gently they soared, even if there was steady head wind as there often is…hot air escaping from Redding, eager to reach cooler Oregon.

One day I took a photo of one of those TV tornados. Later I looked at it up close.  Aha, hidden treasures! Next day I went back out in the afternoon, found a circle of hundreds of TVs over Emigrant Lake.  Through my scope and binocs I started counting, and about every thirtieth TV was, in fact, a raven.  They simply stayed inside the swirl.  None were migrating.  They were just enjoying the lift, the wind and the spectacular view of the Rogue Valley which is most assuredly their kingdom. For the ravens it was recreation.

When we lived in San Francisco, we were near the ocean and Lands End.  There the young ravens who hung out at Ocean Beach all day were especially pleased when when a major storm headed inland. Usually there would be strong wind, sometimes gale force before the rain began.  That wind forced songbirds into cover.  Gulls would gather on Seal Rocks or the Cliff House, tuck their wings and face into the wind.  Willets and other shorebirds would hide up in the dunes, hunkered down. Even red-tails usually sought shelter in the cypress trees.  Not the young ravens.  They were like fourteen year olds facing a steep hill on skateboards.  They would hang in the wind. Some sudden gusts would blow a raven twenty or thirty yards away but each time one would rudder back and re-join the gang, hanging up and out. One or another would break off from the gang and go out over the Pacific and do a roll, or rotating dive or even back-flip.  There would be an occasional admiring croak from another bird.  Then the show-off would return to the group hanging in the air and another would go out and do his turn.  This was “my tricks are as good or better than your tricks.” The California equivalent of back-sliding on snow.

My ultimate raven flight story happened one gentle spring evening as my wife and I waited in a line along California Street for a movie theater ticket office to open.  At first I heard the croak.  I visually checked all the rooftops, no bird.  Then I looked straight up.  About two hundred feet over the nearest ten-story apartment  building were a pair of courting ravens flying in tandem, occasionally croaking, but mostly just flying close together, rolling, dropping, swooping straight up with tail pointed to the earth. A wing-tuck on one side by both birds and they would seem to be a single organism pivoting and falling but not ever losing control. Wow.

I have witnessed some pretty fine flying in my birding days.  Pratincole flying at belt-level after large insects in Spain.  Griffon Vultures flying beneath our feet as we stood atop a six hundred foot deep gorge in Provence hill county.  Black Terns hawking insects over Klamath Marsh.  Sandhill Cranes circling the Platter River at dusk when their landing gear dangling and their bugles blowing against one another in the icy Nebraska air.  Common Swifts jetting down narrow streets and alleys near Jardin du Luxembourg, their cranking sound echoing off buildings that seem only a few feet from wings seen only as a blue.  Swallow-tailed Kite glowing in tropical sun over the Amazon with a flight of ease, pretending to be lighter than air.  Osprey into the lake, disappearing beneath the surface, then reappearing wing-tips first, finally lifting off with water beading and glistening as it falls from their feathers…fish proudly clutched in those beaded talons.  A Common Egret flapping evenly past a Shinto Temple in a royal garden in Osaka. The jet-powered straight-arrow flight of merlin wherever you may see one.  Nighthawks’ flight booms over Malheur in spring.  Barn Swallows at ankle height blazing across a field being mowed–where insects have not had time to settle back into the safe grass. Pin-tailed Whydah floating across grasslands in Uganda, a bird more feather than flesh, a living paper airplane in stark black and white.  I’d trade any and all of that for one more chance to watch those anonymous ravens making aerial art over the oblivious city totally engrossed in the things of man. Besides my wife and I, nobody else in line ever looked up.

As for the range map, I suspect ravens were fairly widespread across the continent before white men arrived with guns and the Eurocentric distrust and prejudice against large, black birds.  There is no evidence in Alexander Wilson’s ornithology that he ever actually saw one in the U.S.  Neither in Nuttall’s ornithology…until he came west with Townsend and the Wyeth trapping party.  (You know they camped on Sauvie Island.)  In 1944 Joseph Grinnell wrote a treatise on distribution of birds in California.  At that time he supposed the only surviving ravens were to be found in remote parts of the Sonoma Coast. He blamed persecution for their decline.  As soon as people stopped shooting them as vermin (along with crows and jays and hawks), ravens rebounded and are now one of the dominant species in the coastal part of San Francisco, Marin, et al.

Here is some evidence from my library (books identified below the images):raven1-cooper, 1850raven2-chap1895raven3--reed 1914raven4--reed 1915raven5--1954
Above, from the top: Rural Hours by Susan Fenimore Cooper of Cooperstown. 1850.  If southern Indians really included their plumes it is likely the birds were known locally though the feathers could have been traded for, like obsidian.
Handbook of Birds of Eastern North America by Frank Chapman. 1896. These next two items are from Chester Reed, 1914 and 1915 respectively.

The Bird Book, then Land Birds Bird Guide.  This latter pocket-sized book was the first field guide with color images and one was used and worn out by the young Roger Tory Peterson.

The last item is from American Wild Life.  W. H. Wise publisher, 1954.
Finally in the index of A Guide to Bird Finding East of the Mississippi, Second Edition by Olin Sewall Pettingill, Jr., I note he lists locations for raven in several states: GA, ME, MD, MI, NH, NC, PA, TN, VT, VA, WV, WI.

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