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The Clever Ones: The truth about ravens and crows 

Ravens take center stage as Christmas Bird Counting season commences.

click to enlarge natural_world_ravens.jpg

"Tis the Season..." for the Christmas Bird Count (CBC), in addition to giving and getting gifts, of course. The CBC is more than a birding ritual, even though it's been going for over 100 years throughout the U.S.

The count period for this 112th Christmas Bird Count will begin on December 14 and you're invited. All you have to do is grab your binoculars (and/or spotting scope) and be in Drake Park at 7 a.m. on the count day (to be announced soon - watch for it on the East Cascades Audubon Society website: ecbcbirds.org).

Each of the citizen scientists who annually braves snow, wind or rain to take part in the CBC makes an enormous contribution to conservation. Audubon and other organizations use data collected in this longest-running wildlife census to assess the health of bird populations, and to help guide conservation action and look for "new" birds. With climate change affecting habitat worldwide, all forms of life, from butterflies to birds, are on the move.

From feeder-watchers and field observers to count compilers and regional editors, everyone who takes part in the CBC does it for love of birds and the excitement of friendly competition, and with the knowledge that their efforts are making a difference for science and bird conservation. And if you come with me on my sector out near the Knott Landfill, I can promise you a sight on ravens and starlings that will give you nightmares.

We see ravens every day, so, like crows and turkey vultures, when they're here, we just take them for granted. On top of that, the population of European starlings is expanding exponentially, and soon they'll become a biological nightmare if wildlife officials don't get to eliminating them.

But I'd like to discuss ravens and crows, so let's start out with the difference between the two. Crows are smaller than ravens, and, for field ID, crows do not have a wedge-shaped tail, while ravens do. Crows do not have a massive beak; ravens do. Crows "caw," ravens do not; they squawk, whistle, chirp, trill and make musical sounds that are sometimes amazing.

When you see a raven and a crow side by side, either perched or on the wing - the difference in size, shape of body, feathers and beak, and even black coloring, is noticeable. A raven's feathers on a day when the light is just right, shine with iridescence, while crows appears a dull black most of the time.

Crows are also newcomers. They were not in this neck-of-the-woods when I rolled into Bend on my Harley in 1952, but arrived some time around the '70s. In the more than 50 years I've lived here, I've witnessed Darwin's theories in action. Crows migrated to Bend from Madras, after migrating from Hood River, adapted to living here, etc., etc. On the other hand, ravens have been here forever, even long before, "The Sun was a tiny thing; there weren't no Moon and the Big Dipper was a little tin dinkin' cup." (Reub Long, circa 1958).

Another factor going for ravens is their brain size, which is among the largest of any bird species. If you don't believe that, just watch a raven work its way around a deer carcass with an eagle or two on it. They will even sit back until an eagle or coyote opens up a road-killed deer before barging in for their share. And if you think ravens don't play games and enjoy life, just watch the way they zoom around other birds in flight, and show them how to sing while doing barrel rolls and wing-overs.

Food was (and still is) the common denominator for raven and crow populations. Ravens are at home in a wilderness (and landfill) setting, whole crows are more suburban (except for the fish crow, corvus ossifagus.) Feed 'em and there'll be more of 'em, both are highly adaptable. I used to say that when the big bomb goes off, and all life on Earth is blasted to bits, there will be three organisms left: cockroaches, coyotes and Australian Aborigines. But niggling in the back of my mind is the raven, crow and the infernal European starling.

Ravens can be found throughout the Northern Hemisphere and, depending upon which bird book you're using, they are either the northern raven, or common raven - all in the genus, corvus, and species, corax, but, with at least eight sub-species thrown in for good measure. If you go to Arizona and Mexico, for example, you'll meet up with the Chihuahuan raven, corax cryptoleucus.

The raven, in addition to being revered by the Tlinget and Hiada cultures of the Northwest - who thought it to be the Creator God - also figures in the white man's literary circles, "The Raven" by Edgar Allen Poe being a familiar example. Then there's a legend that England will never fall to an invader, as long as there are ravens nesting in the Tower of London. Even Noah thought the raven could do anything; he is said to have sent it out of the Ark time-after-time, looking for evidence of dry land. And not to slight the crows, there's Joe-the-crow who became Josephine in my book...

The bottom line is: We might just as well enjoy our ravens, they'll still be here long after we're gone...

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