In his excellent book “Ravens in Winter,” published in 1989, University of Vermont professor and field biologist Bernd Heinrich writes: “More has probably been written about the raven than about any other bird. But definitive scientific studies are very few, appearing mostly in obscure journals and often in German. Most of the literature consists of notes and anecdotes, and many of the conclusions are false or misleading. Furthermore, much of our ‘knowledge’ is clouded (or illuminated?) by centuries-old myths and folklore, as well as by misidentification … Even now the raven is truly a bird of mystery.”One of the false or misleading conclusions that Heinrich may be referring to is that the common raven (Corvus corax) is a species only found inhabiting wilderness areas far from human activity. In another of my reference books, also published in 1989, authors Donald and Lillian Stokes describe this large, hawk-like corvid as being extremely wary of people, spotting and reacting to our presence at a distance of a half mile from nest sites, and showing a strong preference for nesting in remote areas.
So it was quite a surprise to many when ravens successfully nested atop a water tower in Queens in 2010. Over the next six years, ravens have established nests on the Brooklyn waterfront, at Co-op City in the Bronx, and on one of the George Washington Bridge towers.
Closer to home, a pair of common ravens successfully bred in Hampton Bays, building their large stick nest on a Suffolk County Water Authority tower in 2011.
Common ravens have a wide distribution throughout North America and Central America, North Africa, Europe, and Asia. Their disappearance from most of eastern North America in the early 1900s is thought to be related to the clearing of virgin forest by European settlers, yet the common raven inhabits areas that are not forested in the Arctic. It should also be noted that ravens, along with many other species of birds, were often shot. Two centuries of unregulated shooting had an enormous impact on many of our bird populations in eastern North America.
By the early 1900s, its breeding range in the East was limited to uncut mountainous areas, and, in the case of New York State, limited to the western Adirondacks. It was extirpated from New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire.
Its breeding range started to expand in the 1970s for a variety of reasons: abandoned farmland reverted to mature forest, and an increase in its main food supply (carrion) in the form of carcasses from roadkills (particularly deer). As well, the expanding distribution and population of the eastern coyote provided a source of carrion in the form of their uneaten kills. It first recolonized Massachusetts in 1982, Connecticut in 1987, and New Jersey in 1993.
Biologists noted a dramatic shift in its population and behavior in the Northeast in the 1980s. The Christmas Bird Count tallied two ravens in New York State in 1980, 59 in 1990, and 357 in 2010. Summer counts in Connecticut documented two in 1992 and 111 in 2010.
In many cases, the new generation of ravens have not only opted for urban nesting sites but have shed their wariness of humans. Dumpster diving is now listed among its many and varied foraging techniques.
Standing 2 feet tall, with a wingspan of just over 4 feet, and weighing in at 2.6 pounds, the common raven is slightly larger than the red-tailed hawk. By comparison, the American crow stands 17 inches tall with a wingspan of just over 3 feet and weighs one pound. Yet many references warn that ravens are not easily differentiated from crows using size alone, unless a direct comparison can be made in the field. Ravens often soar much like hawks; crows do not. And ravens have a distinctively wedge-shaped tail, and among their common calls is a deep, baritone croak. Both are features not found among the crows.
An acrobatic flier, excellent mimic, and considered a “thinking bird” by some who have spent a lot of time observing them, the raven has mythical status among some Native American groups, who have nicknamed it “the trickster.” Cornell’s excellent “All About Birds” website describes the raven as “one of the smartest of all birds, gaining a reputation for solving ever more complicated problems invented by ever more creative scientists.”
It’s certainly an exciting and welcome addition to our fauna here on Long Island.