Ravens are amazing, intelligent birds. We are fortunate to see them on the CC campus and the general area; they seem more prevalent here during fall and winter. Ravens can be differentiated from crows by their much larger size, a heavy-duty beak and their deep, resonant voices. They are among the geniuses of the bird world with a high brain-body size ratio, a large repertoire of sounds and behavior, complex social interaction, definable (if simple) cultures, and the ability to make and use tools. They can live for decades and mate for life; they are affectionate mates and good providers for their young.
Those interested in learning about raven behavior and intelligence can turn to Ravens in Winter (originally published in 1989) and Mind of the Raven (1999) by Bernd Heinrich. Heinrich, a professor of Biology at the University of Vermont and a marathon runner, became interested in studying raven behavior in Vermont and Maine.
Ravens in Winter reads on three levels: a scientific mystery, the experience of conducting research in frigid cold and deep snow, and descriptions of raven behavior and ecology. The mystery that Heinrich investigates is raven feeding patterns on animal carcasses - why is it that sometimes only a pair feeds at a carcass, sometimes a huge gang, sometimes none at all? While trying to answer this question, the author describes living in extremely cold temperatures, obtaining and dragging heavy carcasses around in the snow, climbing trees, building blinds; fascinating stuff for the reader who is safe and warm at home. In the course of his studies, Heinrich realizes just how intelligent ravens are and how complex and seemingly baffling their behavior is.
Mind of the Raven is a followup, after years of more research. He has captured ravens and kept them in aviaries, and hand-raised some birds. Here he describes the individual behavior of various ravens, detailing their social interactions, how they paired up into couples, their caching behavior, and how some ravens quickly learned to do things that were not innate at all, such as pulling up meat on a string. Particularly interesting are the descriptions of raven play - they perform acrobatics in the air, roll down snowy hills, hang upside down from branches, pull the tails of wolves. He concludes the book with a discussion of neuroscience, and argues for the intelligence and possible conscious awareness of ravens.
These are both fascinating books for anyone interested in animal behavior, in ravens, or in the process of scientific inquiry when the subjects under study are difficult to observe and their behavior so complex it's difficult to quantify. However, these books are not for the squeamish. Heinrich frequently describes the dismemberment of carcasses and roadkill, and more potentially stomach-turning scenarios. Also, there is an element of personal ego; Heinrich has something of an attitude that seeps into these books. Finally, readers may take offense at the sometimes callous way Heinrich treats his captive ravens, after describing them as such intelligent individuals. He starves them for experiments, some birds escape from his aviary, and two captive ravens die in different incidents. These caveats aside, the books are must-reads for raven fans.
Ravens in Winter QL 696.P2367 H45 1991
Mind of the Raven QL 696.P2367 H445 1999