The raven is, along with other members of the corvid family, considered to be one of the most intelligent animals on the planet. Intelligence is defined to be the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills in order to adapt to the environment and solve problems. To measure intelligence in animals the traditional - and rather crude - way was to look at the size of the brain and to see how the test subject manages to overcome obstacles in order to get to a food source. Corvids perform exceptionally well with the latter, they plan ahead and make use of tools which came as a surprise to scientists when these experiments were first conducted because back then a small brain equalled low intelligence.
Today we know that brain size doesn’t matter at all. The octopus who doesn’t even have a brain in the traditional sense has turned out to be one of the smartest animals we know of. It recently became also clear that intelligence is much more than just the ability of problem solving. The social structures in which animals live together, the way they interact with each other and with their environment are also factors to quantify and qualify intelligence and it has come to light that some animals might even outperform us on that level. Cetaceans for example have a cortical lobe very different to ours which lets them perceive and process information from their environment in a much more sophisticated way, for example transform auditory input into an actual image.
So far nothing as extraordinary has been discovered in raven brains but this doesn’t make them any less intriguing. The raven is Ireland’s largest member of the corvid family, matching big raptors like the buzzard and large gulls like the herring gull in size and bulk. Its size and the distinctive feathers on top of the beak and around the neck make the raven easy to distinguish from its relatives.
Ravens are elusive but common all around Ireland and prefer remote coastal locations and lonely mountain regions where they find their traditional habitat: Grassy areas to forage and steep cliffs to built their nest. Ravens are omnivores and their diet very much depends on where they live. In Ireland insects and their larvae, worms and anything else they can dig up with their powerful beak or catch on the ground are their stable. Carrion is another important part of their diet and if they get the chance they will also grab eggs and hatchlings from nests. It is also not unusual that ravens team up and at times go to extraordinary lengths to secure food: Numerous reports have described ravens engaging birds of prey: One raven hassles and distracts the raptor while another takes off with its fresh kill.
Ravens have a reputation to be solitary birds that mate for live, reality however is a bit more complicated. While most birds form very strong partnerships that can last a lifetime, it is known that a change of partner or even affairs can happen. Relationships outside the immediate couple are also anything but straightforward. Younger birds, before they find a mate and breed which happens around the age of three, can come together in feeding flocks and at times also form communal roosts. After they have found a partner and established a territory mixing with other ravens becomes rare but American scientist and raven expert Bernd Heinrich has described that couples seem to form friendships with other couples or individual birds. He observed birds chasing away certain ravens while tolerating and mixing with others inside their own territory. This complex social behaviour is only one manifestation of the raven’s high intelligence.
Ravens here in Ireland are rarely seen in flocks or communal roosts unlike other corvids like the hooded crow or rook. Only in early summer there is a chance to see bigger groups of ravens when the recently fledged youngsters travel into the countryside to explore and learn in a group before establishing their own territories.
The Gull Island Maze
Ravens start breeding very early in the year, usually around March, and this is the best time to get an insight into their life. I had been trying to get close to our local pair for years, mostly to no avail, and all my raven pictures showed nothing more than a black spot in a wide landscape. Despite their size, strength and top position in the food chain they are very vigilant and cautious birds.
Our ravens are nesting in an area where the coastline performs sudden twists and turns which results in an intricate maze of bays and inlets surrounded by sheer cliffs and guarded by sea stacks. The nest sits out of reach for anybody without wings on a ledge of the mainland cliffs with a sea stack known as Gull Island as its next door neighbour. This aptly named rock stands some 50 meters away from the mainland and is home to a large herring and black backed gull colony that occupies the flat top of the stack.
My raven story started in early April when I was on one of my regular visits to the Gull Island area. I was strolling along the cliff edge when I saw my elusive acquaintance foraging a few hundred meters away. I stopped dead, dropped the camera bag and hunkered down. This was usually the moment the bird spotted me and would take off. Not this time though. He kept going about his business - I assume I was dealing with the male because of the behaviour that followed - walking and hopping closer and closer in the process. When there were less than ten meters between us the raven stopped, eyed me up and down, started croaking, neck feathers erect, and then began to violently ripping out vegetation and flinging it about, a behaviour which I interpret as a territorial power display. This went on for a few minutes after which my new friend went back to foraging along the cliff edge as if nothing had happened. I followed, keeping a respectful distance, making picture after picture and trying to contain my excitement.
I would have been more than happy with the events of the day that far but what happened next was even more exhilarating. We were now at the cliff edge next to the fully populated Gull Island and the raven’s nest visible close-by in the cliffs of the mainland. My raven interrupted his foraging endeavours in regular intervals to launch into the air to circle Gull Island and then dive bomb the resting gull population until all were in the air, panicking and shrieking. Once total chaos had ensued the raven returned to his foraging activities until the gulls had settled down again. Then it was time for another attack. Was this a power display and warning towards the gulls: Stay away from my nest or else…?
Over the following weeks I paid regular visits to my ravens, discovered their vocal repertoire and listened to my friend communicating with his partner who always seemed to forage along the cliffs to the east of the nest, while my bird stayed to the west close to Gull Island. Over time the power displays aimed at me became shorter, the space between us smaller - at times we were within touching distance - and I had slowly increased my visiting hours from around 15 minutes initially to an hour. After two weeks the parents also started approached the nest to feed their young while I was sitting on the cliff top nearby. If I had missed this earlier because of my short visits or if they stopped considering me to be a threat and had started going about their business as usual I can’t be sure of but I would like the latter to be the case.
I also started meeting the raven in more or less the same spot every time I visited and I couldn’t help wondering if I was spotted on approach and then welcomed. In a similar fashion I had one and sometimes both ravens following me back to the car, flying ahead and waiting on fence posts or circling over my head.
This ritual continued for about four weeks and I watched the youngsters grow from blue-eyed fluffballs into young ravens undistinguishable from their parents until one day in May the nest was empty. In the following days I saw the parents still hanging around in the area but because they were no longer bound by raising their offspring they could travel further inside their territory and our encounters became less and less and eventually ceased. In June and July I occasionally came across a group of four ravens, probably the youngsters from this year’s brood. The parents had vanished, taking a break from parenting and their gull neighbours.
Getting close to a wild animal is always an exciting privilege but being tolerated by a raven was particularly wonderful. Looking into his eyes I am sure he was as intrigued and curious about me as I was about him, two very different animals trying to learn about each other. I am looking forward to next spring…
Carsten Krieger, July 2021