We have seven members of the crow family in the UK but one stands head and shoulders above the rest. The raven is not only bigger than the others but it is also more wary and possibly more intelligent.
How to tell the difference between ravens and other crows
The raven, Corvus corax, is the most impressive bird in the crow family, much bigger than its close relative the carrion crow with a wingspan of up to 130cm and an extremely chunky body. Size is difficult to judge when a single bird is seen at a distance but there are several other features which help make the raven quite easy to identify.
When a raven soars it has large broad wings with splayed wing tips and its tail has a distinctive diamond shape, an effect created by the wedge-shaped tip. When flying with purpose the raven’s wings are often noticeably swept back from the middle and can look quite pointed at the tips. The heavy bill and thickset neck are visible from a distance but the most obvious identification feature of the raven is its voice.
The name of the raven is derived from the Old English word ‘hraefn’ which is thought to be an attempt to mimic the bird’s call. It has a wide range of gruff honks and croaks which are very distinctive and when raven’s fly in pairs or small family groups it is common for them to be heard calling to each other.
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Ravens and superstition
We have plenty of superstitions which link crows with bad fortune. Counting them or singing rhymes is regarded by many as a way of foiling this misfortune. The best known of these rhymes is attributed to the magpie but it seems that we have a different rhyme for each species. Here is just one about ravens:
One raven means sadness is in store,
Two indicate happy days ahead,
Three mean a wedding,
For four there will be a birth.
The raven has been excused a lot of the negative associations which characterise our relationship with the rest of the crow family. This seems strange since ravens are carrion-eaters and were known for taking the flesh of humans from battlefields. In fact the raven seems to have been immortalised by us in many ways. One significant Cornish legend associated with ravens is the belief that King Arthur was reincarnated as one and so to harm a raven would bring bad luck.
Ravens in the Tower of London
This attitude to ravens is replicated at the Tower of London where ravens have been kept, or have lived, for centuries. King Charles II decreed that at least six ravens should be kept at The Tower as it was believed that the kingdom would fall if the ravens left. Ravens were once common around London and they were well known for gathering around meat markets and gallows so a link with the Tower of London is a natural one.
The raven seems able to sense carrion from great distances and is well able to tear flesh apart with its large bill. When arriving at a casualty the raven will first eat the fleshy parts such as the eyes, a habit which has led to the belief that the raven has excellent eyesight. In turn it was thought that if a blind person befriended a raven it would help them to regain their sight.
Spotting ravens in the UK
February is a great time of year to look for ravens. Like other birds they need to coincide the hatching of their eggs with the time of greatest plenty but unlike other British birds, for the raven this occurs quite early in the year. Since ravens eat carrion and the greatest amount of carrion occurs in spring ravens must nest early. So during February ravens will either be nesting or establishing territories and displaying to each other, a process in which birds fly to a great height and tumble through the air.
Historically ravens were widespread birds found across most of the UK but through persecution they became restricted to the more remote western districts of Scotland, Wales and the West-Country. In recent years their numbers have increased and their range has spread so they can now be found across most of the country. Ravens are unlikely to visit your garden, unless it is very big, but when you are outside listen for a throaty, croaking call from up above. It isn’t out of the question that a raven might be flying over and if you see a pair you might be treated to a courtship display.
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