Common ravens are magnificent birds: large, glossy, black, intelligent and playful, that are not to be confused with their cousins, American crows.

“Why is a raven like a writing desk?” asked Lewis Carroll in Alice in Wonderland.

A flurry of people attempted to solve the riddle: “Because outstanding bills are found on both of them.” “Because one has flapping fits and the other has fitting flaps.” “Because they both come with inky quills.”

Then Carroll quipped, “… because it can produce a few notes, tho they are very flat and it is nevar put with the wrong end first.”

Winter lingers, a white layer of crunchy snow covers lawns, the forest floor, the roadsides. The roads themselves are finally clear of ice and snow as are many of the smaller ponds. Birds know, though, that spring is coming, for as soon as there is a glimmer of light in the morning, robins, blackbirds, titmice, nuthatches and cardinals start singing, announcing their presence to all, often changing tone and tune when a female of their species lands nearby.

Birds are definitely on the move. One morning (March 6) I see and hear my first song sparrow of the year, and, on the same day, a little way down the road, a brown creeper sings that 3 or 4 note, high-pitched song as it jerkily makes its way up and around the trunk. Ah, Spring!

Every day during my 4-mile walk, one or two ravens grace the skies, often calling to one another. At this time of year, usually only one appears, the other perhaps is on the nest for they, like predators, begin nesting in February. This sleek black bird might loudly croaaaak to the world at large as it sails about, twisting this way and that. Or it may land in a treetop, sit and twitch about, all the while emitting grunts and growls punctuated by solid, guttural syllables of cras, brrrronks, prrrks as if talking to itself.

Common ravens, Corvus corax, were formerly known as northern ravens. They are magnificent birds: large, glossy, black, intelligent and playful, that are not to be confused with their cousins, American crows, Corvus brachyrhynchos, birds that are also large, glossy, black, intelligent and playful. Both of them are well established in our area. Both species are also considered crafty, resourceful and adaptable.

To tell them apart from a distance, watch the way they fly: a raven’s flight is smooth and regular interspersed with swoops, glides, and dives much like a hawk, while a crow has a regular pushing movement with both wings as if it were rowing through the air. Look at the tail: Ravens have a distinct wedged-shaped tail, while crows' tails are shorter and more squarish. And listen. I was taken aback when a couple of my friends said that all big black birds found around here were crows which made a variety of sounds. “But,” I splutter, “they don’t even sound alike.” Ravens croak, while crows caw.

Many years ago when Danny, that city boy, was putting in the garden in the field, he heard a loud crrroooak and thought a person was imitating a raven, but not very well. He had never seen or heard one, but knew immediately this sound was raven-like. Then, surprise, a huge black bird flew over, adding another to his lifelist.

If you see the two species together, up close and personal, identification is easy. Ravens are about 1/3 again the size of crows. The wingspan of a raven is four feet or so, while for a crow, it’s around three feet. The raven has an enormous beak that is surrounded at the point where it meets the head with spiky, bristly feathers. The crow has a smaller, sharper beak and no whiskers.

Curiously, that large prominent beak of the raven cannot rip, tear or pierce pelts or hides so it is a dedicated carrion eater that relies on nature or others to make food available to it. These birds are not stupid. They follow predators … cougars, eagles, hawks, and even hunters … as they stealthily stalk and capture prey, so they, the ravens, can feast on the leftovers. This is even depicted in the prehistoric hunt scenes in the caves at Lascaux.

Ravens are birds of the treeless tundra, the seacoasts, the forests and the plains. They can live anywhere there is a food supply, people not a problem. Ravens were fairly common here in the U.S. in the late 18th-century and early 19th-century, but the population was seriously reduced by the destruction of the bison herds, the ravens’ main source of food in the Great Plains, by the the widespread deforestation to create cities, villages, farms and ranches, and lastly by the the wanton shooting and poisoning of them en masse in mid 19th-century by farmers and folk who believed that ravens were destroying their crops and they just didn’t like these supposedly evil birds.

Ravens' nestlings.jpeg

The birds Clellie Lynch sees and hears everyday are from the huge, stick-built nest, wedged into a window space of the three-story, stone Shaker barn in need of restoration at Darrow School in New Lebanon, N.Y.

By the mid 20th century, with reforestation, the raven population in our area increased. They breed in the Berkshires, and not just in the mountainous areas. The birds I see and hear everyday are from the huge, stick-built nest, wedged into a window space of the three-story, stone Shaker barn in need of restoration at Darrow School in New Lebanon, N.Y. In the late spring and early summer I usually see five as I amble along, for this pair (they mate for life) usually has three chicks each year.

Birds by their very nature, being aloft, being able to fly from place to place, and appearing at certain times of the year, were easy for ancient cultures to turn into gods, prophets and messengers. And since the large and noticeable, black raven primarily survives by feasting on carrion, the bird came to represent darkness and death, sin and sinning to many ancient and medieval civilizations.

The raven is the first bird mentioned in the Bible, failing to return to Noah’s ark with a landfall report. Thus it is also a symbol of irresponsibility. Pliny thought these birds ominous and mournful. He transcribed the call not as a crrrroak, but as "cras, cras, cras" which, in Greek, means "tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow." A god of procrastination, too!

Not all cultures were so damning. Druids claimed that ravens predicted the future: good or bad. Zoroastrians considered ravens pure because they cleaned the earth, ridding the world of rotting bodies and corpses. In Native American culture, the raven is a god, head and shoulders above all revered spirits, especially if it’s at the top of the totem pole. This totem is, on the one hand, known as the creator of life, the bestower of light and, on the other hand, a trickster, a bringer of mischief and mayhem.

Even in later years, the bad rep overwhelms the good. The 19th-century term of venery for a gathering: an unkindness of ravens or, occasionally, a conspiracy of ravens. That Poet Poe claimed about the raven, “… this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt and ominous bird of yore”…forever saying “nevermore, nevermore.”

Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.