Of all the magnificent birds associated with the desert Southwest, the Common Raven gets short shrift in the publicity department. Compared to the California condor, poster-bird for late 20th century conservation efforts, the quirky roadrunner immortalized by Saturday morning cartoons, or even the roly-poly quail that putter around every backyard from Tucson to Sedona, the raven barely gets a nod as having a place in Arizona's natural and cultural landscape.
While it's true that Common Ravens are found across the Northern hemisphere, there's something about the way these brash, brainy birds cruise around the rarified air of Sedona or flap nonchalantly through the majestic depths of the Grand Canyon that suggests they have a direct line to what makes these places so special. They might even tell you about it – if you make it worth their while.
Ravens are members of the crow family. They can be distinguished from your run-of-the-mill crow by their larger size, thick beaks, wedge shaped tail, and shaggy ruff of neck feathers. They have a rather rich vocabulary, but the raven's characteristic, cranky "Kaark, kaaaark!" is worlds away from the crow's nasal "Caw!"
From a distance, it can be hard to tell the difference between the two corvids, but if you see a crow in Arizona, and think, "Man, that's the biggest crow I've ever seen," it's quite likely you're looking at a raven. And he's probably looking at you. The birds' opportunistic, calculating nature is displayed, in an unscientific sense, in a keen bright eye that misses nothing. Folklore abounds with tales of amazing feats of observation and problem solving among ravens, and biologists have begun demonstrating the birds' impressive intellectual capabilities in lab settings in recent years. Some evidence even suggests that ravens possess a sense of fun and an ability to engage in play. Their aerial stunts, including rolls, loops, and even sustained upside-down flying, support that theory.
Ravens will eat absolutely anything, anywhere. Given this easy-to-please palate, you'd think they'd go for the easiest pickings, but they seem to enjoy a challenge when it comes to finding a meal. They'll hide their food to eat later, and more remarkably, will remember where other ravens have hidden their food. Even more amazing—they'll take food and fly far away to make sure no one else sees them hide it. Among ravens it's common knowledge that people are a fabulous source of chow. The ravens around Lake Powell are adept at locating the even best-secured food stash en route from a car to a houseboat, and when the humans' backs are turned, swooping in to peck at boxes, tubs, and bags to see what they can score.
Their omnivorous habits include scavenging carrion, which is probably how they became associated in European folklore with mercilessness, death, and bad news in general. Among the native people of the Pacific Northwest, however, the raven takes his place among the most important deities, alternately appearing in legend as both the Creator and Trickster figure, a top honor given to the Coyote among native Southwest cultures.
Article by Sarah Horton, Staff Writer