Friday, 23 February 2018

King of the Corvids

When you think of a raven, the first thing that may spring to mind is the fact they are synonymous with the Tower of London. But there is far more to them than being part of an iconic tourist attraction. In today's blog, we take a closer look at these great corvids.

Ravens have lived alongside humans for thousands of years. Being birds of a scavenging nature, they benefit from the messy way of human life. This, combined with the fact that they can easily adapt to the changing environment around them, allows the raven to reside in a wide range of different habitats, as well as live on a varied diet. They have few predators and can live long lives: 17 years in the wild and up to 40 years in captivity. 

The ravens of the Tower of London date back to the time of Charles II, who insisted on them being protected. Six corvids are resident at the historic site, and tradition says that if they ever leave the Tower, then the kingdom of Britain would fall. 

Ravens are highly clever and skilled animals, ranking alongside chimpanzees and dolphins in terms of their intelligence; they even understand water displacement to the same level as a seven-year-old child!

 You may already know that ravens can recognise and remember a human's face, but did you know that, if you do something unpleasant to them, not only will they remember, but will pass their grudge onto other corvids! They also show empathy for each other, remembering birds they like and responding to them in a friendly way for years to come. Furthermore, they have been known to hold funerals when a fellow corvid has passed away; they gather around the body, caw, and then fall silent. Our book Animal Grief details Professor Marc Beckoff's observations of corvid grief, and how they respond to the loss of a comrade.

A group of ravens is known as an 'unkindness,' and though they are mostly good-natured, they can show unkindness if provoked. In 2015, the University of Vienna gave a group of ravens a task where they would only receive a reward if they cooperated with one another. Those who cheated their companions out of their share of the reward would find themselves ostracised, with ravens preferring to work alongside those who played fair. This type of behaviour had only previously been seen in humans and chimpanzees. 

In Edgar Allan Poe's famous poem, the raven is said to repeat the phrase "nevermore." In captivity, ravens can actually learn to talk and mimic noises better than parrots can. Wild ravens will use this ability to their advantage, imitating wolves or foxes in order to attract them to a carcass that the raven itself is unable to access, thus being able to feast on the leftovers once the larger animal is done! To communicate amongst other ravens, they have even been known to use non-vocal, "hand" gestures to get the attention of other corvids, by using their beak to draw attention.

These aren't the only tools in a raven's arsenal. Ravens can successfully carry out complex puzzles, and are able to fashion make shift tools from twigs, leaves and bark. During research in 2015, one corvid caught on camera dropped one of its tools, then later recovered it from the ground, showing that they value their tools, and don't simply discard them after use. 

We may never know the answer to the Mad Hatter's riddle "Why is a raven like a writing desk," but one thing we do know is that corvids are truly remarkable beings, and that there is certainly much more to be learnt from observing them. 

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