Ravens Over Brooklyn and Elsewhere

Corvus coraxI saw my first Common Ravens (Corvus corax) in the Highlands of Scotland. We had walked up to a cave that had evidence of human habitation stretching back thousands of years. The ruins of a nest, washed down by a storm, were strewn about the cave opening, alone with some jet black feathers. Picnicking soon afterwards down below in the valley, I heard five ravens come around a bend, presumably the family from the nest. They are impressive animals. Huge, black as pieces of the night sky, famously intelligent, highly adaptable, they figure in much folklore and mythology across the Northern Hemisphere. Odin is accompanied by a pair of ravens named Huginn and Muninn, Thought and Memory. The Icelandic name for the birds is Hrafn. The Raven is a creator god in the Pacific Northwest.Corvus coraxPairs bond by playing in the air, touching bills, grooming each other. This Brooklyn duo did quite a bit of the latter. Found across the Northern Hemisphere, Ravens also have an evil reputation. As scavengers, they were much persecuted until modern times (and probably still are in places). It is so typical of humans to slaughter each other on battlefields and then blame the scavenging animals for all the meat humans have made of themselves. The birds have had much projected on them, being turned into gods, messengers, liminal figures between the land of the living and the empire of the dead. Corvus coraxI saw Ravens at eye-leve on top of Mt. Tamalpais, north of San Francisco, and in Iceland. I sometimes heard or saw and heard brief glimpses of the birds in the Hudson Highlands. But I only saw my first in Brooklyn two years ago this month: one was contesting the Green-Wood airspace with a Red-tailed Hawk. The raven was as big as the raptor. Sightings that spring by myself and others occurred in both Prospect and Green-Wood. Ravens have been seen intermittenly in Brooklyn since. Just about a week ago, friends saw one over Flatbush Avenue being harried by American Crows. When you see these related species together, you understand how much bigger Ravens are. They are like Crows on steroids, bigger, shaggier, burlier. After being driven from much of their eastern U.S. range, the birds are making a comeback, spreading out of their mountain fastnesses, and being found more and more in urban areas. There was a nest a few years ago in Queens and there probably is one in Brooklyn, now, too.Corvus coraxThey are omnivorous. This one seemed to be nibbling something along the side of a warehouse (which have an austere cliff-like look down in these industrial blocks). I sure hope it wasn’t eating paint!

Considered the largest of the passerine, or song birds, Raven’s are anything but golden-voiced. Nobody’s going to mistake one for a Wood Thrush. But their vocalizations are remarkable. The usual call is a croaking “crr-uck” or “brrronk,” but they have a wide-range of sounds (at least 33, listen to some of them here. ) These Sunset Park birds made all sorts of noises I have trouble characterizing. It was great just listening to them, though.

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