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Search Magazine

The raven

David Chapman / 08 February 2022

Ravens are one of the British birds bucking the trend and increasing in number across the country.

The raven
A raven, photographed by David Chapman

The decline of many species of bird in the UK is well-documented but not all species are suffering. The raven, Corvus corax, is a great example of a species on the up with a definite spread from its strongholds in the rugged and remote western and northern parts of Britain to the softer, low-lying south and east. Ravens are still more common in the upland, sheep-farming regions of the country but they now breed across the entire country.

Ravens are essentially scavengers, often feeding on carrion such as road-kill rabbits, no doubt they have been seen taking sickly lambs and maybe other compromised creatures, which has brought them into disrepute with farmers, landowners and game-keepers who blame ravens for attacking their animals. Some have tackled the issue with poisoned bait which kills ravens along with other crows and many birds of prey. It is for this reason that ravens, along with buzzards, were until recently forced to live only in the more remote areas of the country.

In the last couple of decades the illegal and indiscriminate poisoning of birds has become less common (though it is still an issue for some species) and ravens have spread back to areas where they would once have been numerous.

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How to tell the difference between ravens and other crows

Superficially ravens resemble other members of the crow family, most notably the carrion crow, but in comparison they are much larger with a heavier bill, glossy black plumage and a shaggy mane around their throats.

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 raven has a characteristic deep, throaty croaking call and they also honk sometimes sounding vaguely duck-like. The name of the raven is derived from the Old English ‘hraefn’ which is thought to be an attempt to mimic the bird’s call.

How big are ravens?

The raven 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.

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Ravens and superstition

Crows, including magpies, have a long and quite negative association in our folk-lore. They are often connected with ill-omens and even death, but unlike the rest of its family the raven seems to have been excused a lot of the negativity, even being revered in some circles. In Cornwall, where I live, there is a belief that King Arthur was reincarnated as a raven so to harm a raven would bring bad luck. There is also a belief that if a blind person befriends a raven then it will help them to regain their sight.

Our superstitious behaviour towards ravens can also be seen 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 because the kingdom would fall if they left.

We are probably all aware of the rhyme about magpies but there is a similar rhyme 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.

Fortunately it is rare to see a single raven, because they almost always occur in pairs and usually the two birds call to each other frequently. In spring and early summer, when they have young, we may see family groups of up to six, but three or four are more common. There are a few places where ravens gather in the winter to form massive roosts, but generally we don’t see flocks of ravens like we do rooks and jackdaws.

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 one of the best times to see ravens, as at the end of winter their minds turn to pair-bonding and nest-building. In hilly areas they make their huge nests on cliffs and in quarries but elsewhere they take to large trees and can even be found nesting in gardens.

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.

Best time of year to see ravens

For most of us, the best chance of seeing a raven is when they fly overhead and it is during February when they become most animated, showing off a skill which few birds possess, the ability to fly upside down! When displaying to each other ravens intersperse their flight with tumbles, twists and turns, watch these aerial gymnasts carefully to spot the moments when they glide upside down to impress their mates.

Where in the UK are ravens found?

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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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.