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Animal Spirits & Totems: Ravens & Crows

Raven have long straight beaks and ruffed necks. Image courtesy H.KoppDelaney@flicker.com

Raven have long straight beaks and ruffed necks. Image courtesy H.KoppDelaney@flicker.com

Facts About Ravens

Ravens and crows are both members of the family of birds called ‘corvids’. The corvid family also includes common birds like jays, magpies, and some varieties of nutcracker. Corvids are very intelligent birds and have been on earth for millions of years.

Ravens are much larger than crows, about the size of a red-tailed hawk, with a wingspan of over 3 feet, and they are solitary birds that prefer wild places. Although ravens will sometimes work together in pairs, they do not congregate in large numbers the way crows do. Their range is very broad; they can be found in deserts, mountainous regions, woodlands, seaside areas, and prairies.

Ravens eat almost anything, including nuts, seeds, insects, fruit, garbage, carrion, and small mammals. They often follow wolf packs so they can share the carcasses of a wolf kill. Ravens have been seen pranking wolves by pulling their tales or playing with their pups, and they can use other animals to find food for them. If a raven spies a good wolf kill, it will make sounds that attract the wolves so the animal can be opened and the flesh exposed for the raven.

Ravens can be distinguished from crows by their long straight beaks, their very large size, and the shaggy ruff on their throats. When ravens are in flight, their wings are more transparent and detailed than a crow’s wings. Ravens can caw like crows, but more commonly they make a very deep ‘gronk-gronk’ kind of sound, and they also make sounds that are very strange.

A common saying has it that if you hear a sound in the woods that you can’t identify, it is probably a raven. Some people claim that both ravens and crows can be taught to speak human words, (magpies can do this), but keeping either in captivity is highly illegal.

Ravens can solve complex problems on first try. Many ornithologists believe them to be more intelligent than chimpanzees, although these kinds of comparisons strike me as wrongheaded. All animals are smart in their own way.

Humans rank animal intelligence on human scales, but how useful is that, really?

Ravens can live to 40 years in the wild or 70 in captivity.

Two crows painted by Arthur Rackham. Creative Commons Attribution

Two crows painted by Arthur Rackham. Creative Commons Attribution

Facts About Crows

Crows are highly social birds that live in large, complex societies. They roost in large numbers at night, probably to protect themselves from their archenemy, the great horned owl, although the exact reason for their roosting behavior is unknown. Roosts of as many as one million birds are not unheard of.

Male and female crows mate for life, and family groups stay together over many years. Crows have only one brood of chicks per year and they lose about half the fledgling birds the first year, but the new crows who survive will stay and help the parents until they themselves are old enough to mate, much as humans do.

Female crows mate for the first time after their third year, males around their fifth year. If a crow survives long enough to mate, it will generally live to be between 17 and 21 years old. The oldest crow on record lived to be 29.5 years old.

Crows have a reputation for stealing shiny objects and hiding them, but in reality adults do not do this. Young crows will pick up anything and hide it however, as a form of play, so if shiny objects are available they will take those. Young crows have even been seen pulling the windshield wipers off of cars.

Adult crows hide food, covering it with leaves on the ground, storing it in tree hollows and the crooks of branches, or even leaving small carcasses in shallow water or birdbaths. They will eat almost anything, including other birds, but the notion that crows are a danger to songbirds is a popular misconception. Even when crow populations are removed, the population of songbirds stays fairly stable, so crows are not taking any more songbirds than would be taken no matter what. Birds of all kinds (including crows) have high mortality rates their first year.

Crows ‘talk’ to each other and will ‘talk’ to people as well, but few people can distinguish their caws and trills or understand their complex language. In recent years crows have moved into cities, where the night lighting and large trees helps to protect them from predators.

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Raven Wisdom, Crow Wisdom

Ravens and crows are both are keenly intelligent and are believed to inhabit a realm beyond time. They have sharp eyesight and can 'see' the past, the present, and the future all at once. Both birds have a complex language of calls and caws and shrieks that most human beings don't take time to understand.

The major difference between ravens and crows is that crows are very social birds and live in large groups, whereas ravens are solitary birds and are most often found in wild, lonely places.

This difference impacts the wisdom carried by the two animals. Crows are associated with divine law or tribal law, with social connection and proper conduct within the community. Both birds are associated with secrecy and both warn against spilling your energy and wasting it by talking too soon, too much.

Crows routinely warn each other and other animals, so if a crow speaks to you (and they do!) it is often a warning--either from the crow (to move along) or from the crow for you in your own life (that there is something threatening you that you need to get a clue about).

Crows are very, very smart and see things we don't all the time. Some people use crows for prophecy and advice--you can ask a crow a question and wait for the answer, and it will usually be an insightful, correct answer, but naturally, this method takes some practice, some intuition, and the consent of the crow.

Ravens are strongly associated with magic and healing, and with the realm of the dead. They are much larger than crows, and will sometimes 'play' with wind currents by rising high in the air and then letting themselves dive and whirl before pulling out of the fall, somewhat like a kite. If a raven appears in your life, you might have a calling, or you may be getting advice to tune in to your own power, your own wildness.

Ravens are strongly associated with shamanism and healing. Shamans connect with ravens for their amazing sight and perspective. In the popular series of books by Carols Castaneda, the shaman Don Juan routinely took the form of a raven to see what others were doing and to understand their motives.

In general crows are more about developing wisdom and power within the group, ravens with solitary introspection and personal magic and power. Both herald change, often transformative deep change, and both sometimes warn of the closeness of death or the presence of the dead.

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Encounters With Ravens & Crows

Many people choose the raven or crow as their ‘spirit animal’, and it isn’t surprising once you realize how intelligent they are and how much like people they are. Crows are often the first wild animal to ‘get in your face’, so to speak, and their motives areas complex as they are—they can be up to almost anything, literally.

Personally I find it difficult not to adore them, but many people find them ominous, scary, or annoying. Crows are legally protected from hunters, but people can still get special permits to take them if they declare them to be nuisance.

Contrary to the old saying about ‘eating crow’ as a form of penance or humiliation, crows don’t taste bad at all. They have a gamey flavor and dark flesh, somewhat like duck and were once hunting widely.

With no evidence whatsoever to back this up, I personally think the expression ‘to eat crow’ comes from the fact that they were at one time a poor man’s food source. The following nursery rhyme would seem to confirm this:

Sing a song of sixpence, pocket full of rye,

Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie,

When the pie was opened the birds began to sing!

Wasn’t that a dainty dish to set before the king?

I can just picture a medieval housewife waiting outside with a ‘pocketful’ of rye kernels to bait and catch some crows for that evening’s dinner—a dinner you really wouldn’t serve a king unless you were intentionally disrespecting him.

I have had many interesting experiences with crows, none with ravens, and I once worked for a business that kept a magpie in a cage, which always struck me as mean. The magpie did talk, but not often and never to me.

I will leave this group of corvids to the reader’s imagination and experience for mow, since lore and legend can scarcely top the everyday reality of their amazing lives. What's more, so many legends and stories have been told about ravens and crows that covering them all would take a book, or at the very least another hub or two.

Many, many native American tribes hold the crow or raven sacred--a topic for another book or hub.

What I can say for certain in this short space is this: When you form a bond with the crow or raven, like the bird itself you will cherish that bond for life.

Comments

kai overbeck on July 03, 2016:

Have a large family of crows living in the huge pines here in Oregon. Have been feeding them for a decade. Dad is my buddy. He likes to fly thru my hair; most likely telling me to feed them. I watched dad take down a six foot grey crane to the ground. Last week mom and dad worked together right next to me and both hit this falcon from both sides. Put that falcon in disrepair for a bit. It is nesting time and today I hear the babies for the firsst time.

Pamela Hutson (author) from Moonlight Maine on January 11, 2014:

That would be great Phyllis. I'd read it!

Phyllis Doyle Burns from High desert of Nevada. on January 10, 2014:

Thanks, CR. Jimmy was quite a character and so loved. Quite often though, Mom would realize an earring or little shiny objects had gone missing. Dad usually found them in Jimmy's favorite hang out. Maybe I will write a hub about Jimmy some day.

Pamela Hutson (author) from Moonlight Maine on January 10, 2014:

Phyllis, that is SO wonderful, thank you for sharing it here. I'm so glad you found the hub and shared your experience with Jimmy. I love crows too, they are amazing. :)

Phyllis Doyle Burns from High desert of Nevada. on January 09, 2014:

CR, I love to read and write about animal spirit and totems. When I was a kid we had a pet crow, Jimmy. He loved to sit at dinner with us and visit with all nine of us, hopping from one head to another for a tasty treat. If we did not give him a treat he would tap us on the nose. I came across this hub just now and I love it.

spiritwood from Wales, UK on December 28, 2013:

this is wonderful, i love ravens, thank you for writing it.

Pamela Hutson (author) from Moonlight Maine on November 19, 2013:

Thank you loveofnight! I really appreciate you taking the time to read and to leave such supportive comments! All the best to you. :)

Loveofnight Anderson from Baltimore, Maryland on November 19, 2013:

WOW!!!...awesome, useful, interesting and beautiful, I totally love this hub and have learned so much. Birds are my favorite pets/spirit creatures (although I found out that my spirit creature is a bear). This hub reminds me of my favorite poem by Edgar Allen Poe "The Raven". You have done a thorough job with this hub and I would love to refer back to you in a future hub. Well done, two thumbs up and be well.

Pamela Hutson (author) from Moonlight Maine on October 23, 2012:

Hi jdn! Thank you for reading and sharing. I also have an affinity for ravens and crows. They are really unusual birds!

John D Nathan from Dallas, Texas. USA on October 23, 2012:

Excellent article. My boyfriend's totem is a raven, so I had to share this with him. Strangely I'm a wolf so we go together quite well.

Pamela Hutson (author) from Moonlight Maine on July 05, 2012:

Aren't they awesome? We have SOOOO many crows here, but I love them. Thank you for the info on corvid talking. Amazing. I have fed these crows so maybe that's why I love them so.

Deb Hirt from Stillwater, OK on July 05, 2012:

Voted up and awesome. The info in this article is VERY accurate, except that all the corvids will talk. Young ravens tend to hang together and will visit in groups, as well as reside together. All corvids are very good birds and will never cause harm to anyone, unless they have harmed one of their kind first. They will also be helpful whenever they can. Feed them, and you begin a friendship.

Pamela Hutson (author) from Moonlight Maine on June 25, 2012:

Thanks kitty, I will. So hard to make time for family, writing, work, everything... glad you deciphered the message. ;)

Kitty Fields from Summerland on June 25, 2012:

I believe I figured it out actually. They're telling me a message that I need to focus on taking care of my family more. Even though I am now, maybe I need to spend a little more quality time with both my hubby and daughter. Each time it was 3 crows...the exact # of my family. Thanks!

By the way, check out my newest hub Pagans & Wiccans on Hubpages.

Pamela Hutson (author) from Moonlight Maine on June 25, 2012:

That's so cool Kitty. Once you figure it out, share it if you feel it's appropriate!

Kitty Fields from Summerland on June 25, 2012:

I was visited by 2 sets of a family of 3 crows today...in 2 different places...not sure what that means yet but I'm going to figure it out.

Pamela Hutson (author) from Moonlight Maine on May 03, 2012:

Thank you Mr. Happy! Special thanks for the link to your photos. They are beautiful!

Mr. Happy from Toronto, Canada on May 03, 2012:

Another very good, informative article on crows and ravens. Love your Avatar photo too! : )

Here are some photos You might enjoy which I took last summer in British Columbia's Rocky Mountains: https://hubpages.com/travel/On-Ravens-I-honor-them...

Cheers!

Pamela Hutson (author) from Moonlight Maine on March 18, 2012:

Kitty, thanks! So cool! I'm off to watch you video now...

Kitty Fields from Summerland on March 17, 2012:

Just lately we've had a "roost" of crows living in our neighborhood's oak trees. I took a video of them one time and it's on my youtube channel. If you go onto youtube and look up "rhiannondancingoak channel" you will find my channel. The video is "A Restless Flock of Crows". That was before you taught me that they're called a "roost". Thanks for this interesting hub! Loved it again. :)

Pamela Hutson (author) from Moonlight Maine on March 14, 2012:

Thank you ananceleste. I'm glad you stopped by. I can kind of understand your husband's fear--crows remind lots of people of that Hitchcock movie 'The Birds'. But unless they are nesting, they won't hurt you. :)

Anan Celeste from California on March 14, 2012:

Very insightful hub. I found it by accident,and it helped me understand the differences. For some reason my husband is terrified of crows and ravens. I have no clue why, he has never admitted it but he gets very nervous by them.

Pamela Hutson (author) from Moonlight Maine on March 11, 2012:

Thank you Lilleyth! Me too. :)

Suzanne Sheffield from Mid-Atlantic on March 11, 2012:

Very interesting information. My husband and I are avid bird-watchers.

Pamela Hutson (author) from Moonlight Maine on March 11, 2012:

Good point Lawrence. Crows have even been seen dropping nuts and shellfish onto highway so the cars will crack them open and they can get the food inside. Thanks for reading! :)

Lawrence Da-vid on March 11, 2012:

My opinion about raven/crows is as follows: I've never seen a crow get demolished by a speeding car or truck. Unlike other flying chickens, a crow will fly away from a highway.....while other chickens will fly directly in front of one. Indicating.....they have ability to reason.

Pamela Hutson (author) from Moonlight Maine on March 11, 2012:

I have seen it but weirdly, I don't remember the bird! It's true though that they are perceived that way by lots of people--same thing with Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven" who keeps saying "Nevermore!" What a downer of a bird! Thanks for stopping by, CWB!

Civil War Bob from Glenside, Pennsylvania on March 11, 2012:

Good hub. If you've seen Robert Downey, Jr.'s "Sherlock Holmes," is that bird supposed to be a raven? He certainly is portrayed as a harbinger of bad things.

Pamela Hutson (author) from Moonlight Maine on March 10, 2012:

Thanks Alastar! Yes I guess a big part of the reason crows are so comfortable in cities is that Great Horned Owls aren't. Nature can be ugly, that's for sure. So easy to forget that.

Alastar Packer from North Carolina on March 10, 2012:

Ravens and crows are birds of opportunity and will snatch up baby birds from the ground if they can get through the blitz bombing of the protective birds. I didn't know Great Horned Owls would prey on Crows but what's good for the goose is good for the Gander as far as Mother Nature's concerned. Nicely done hub on the Ravens and Crows CR.

Pamela Hutson (author) from Moonlight Maine on March 10, 2012:

OK, found the attributions no problem. The template says 'optional' so HP might want to change that. Better safe than sorry and now I know. :)

Pamela Hutson (author) from Moonlight Maine on March 10, 2012:

Thanks chelsea. :)

Pamela Hutson (author) from Moonlight Maine on March 10, 2012:

Hi Hattie! They might be starlings too. Starlings are big black birds. You'll know if they are crows because they make that loud 'caw' sound. :)

Pamela Hutson (author) from Moonlight Maine on March 10, 2012:

Thanks Denise, I'm glad you enjoyed this. And thanks for the heads up on the photo credit. (Yikes I hope I can find it now...)

Pamela Hutson (author) from Moonlight Maine on March 10, 2012:

Thank you A.A. for reading.

chelseacharleston on March 10, 2012:

Love this!

Hattie from Europe on March 10, 2012:

Hmm...I have lots of these black birds around my house! lol I think they are crows! :)

Denise Handlon from North Carolina on March 10, 2012:

CR-I'm thrilled that you wrote the hub...and it is filled with fascinating information. Thank you. Please be sure to add a tag under the photo giving credit to the source. Wouldn't want it to get flagged.

Voted it up/and all the way across including funny because of the reminder of the nursery rhyme. I'm so glad I now know the symbolism for these totems and can relate it to my next encounter with crows. (or ravens should any cross my path!) I think my house mate is a raven (solitary) and I am a crow, ( social ) LOL

Augustine A Zavala from Texas on March 09, 2012:

Ravens are fascinating. I watched footage of one robbing ice fishing lines. Thank you for sharing.

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