By John G. Woods
The last week of February, a local birdwatcher saw a raven carrying a long stick in its bill as the bird flew up into a tall Douglas Fir on the southern flanks of Mt. Ida.
Ravens often select these large trees as nesting sites. The stick was obviously intended as material to either build a new nest or repair an old one. That’s all I needed to declare that spring is upon us.
Officially known as the common raven, these birds are thought to be uncommonly smart. Stories and traditions of peoples across North America, Europe, Asia and North Africa chronicle a species that attracts human attention. Here in the Shuswap, they are our companions on hikes and skis across the mountains and valleys, during all seasons. As the largest species of the largest group of birds in the world, the perching birds, we take notice of ravens and they take notice of us.
A large tree or cliff face are typical raven nesting sites. The birds are intolerant of intruders near the nest, especially hawks. I’ve seen a pair of ravens aggressively chasing a red-tailed hawk that had accidentally (or so it seemed) flown high over the raven’s nest.
Raven mastery of flight can seem almost magical as they tuck their wings to dive, spread their tails and wings to soar, and flip over on their backs to fly upside down. While you can see all of this simply by looking up, my favourite raven-watching is from the tops of cliffs where you see them eye-to-eye instead of eye-to-sky. The Shuswap has many cliffs suitable for ravening-watching. Two of my favourites are the Enderby Cliffs and the lookout on the Rose-Swanson trail.
It takes about three and half weeks for a clutch of raven eggs to hatch. It’s another four to seven weeks before the young leave the nest, and even then, the young stay in contact with their parents an indeterminate amount of time while frequently making loud calls that I decipher as “feed me!” From stick-carrying to helping juniors graduate into adult raven society takes many months, the likely reason for their early nesting.
While it might seem odd to think of birds laying eggs while still there’s still snow on the ground and ice on the lake, ravens aren’t our only early-nesters. Great horned owls and Canada jays also are renowned as early breeders. Incubating adults of these species will often have a dusting of snow on their backs as their body heat and downy feathers keep their well-nestled eggs warm beneath them.
How do you tell a raven from their smaller cousin the American crow? Great question and sometimes it is hard to be sure. Mostly, I rely on their different voices. While both have a great vocal range and variety, in general, ravens make a deep croak or cronk, while crows have a higher pitched caw. Of course, they say a lot of other things, but if you listen for these species-specific calls, you’ll likely be able to separate them. If the birds are silent, identification is harder because other body features are more difficult to judge. Ravens are larger, with a stouter bill, and a tail that often looks diamond or wedge-shape in flight. Crows are smaller, with thinner bills, and often have a more perfect fan-shaped tail.
Not long after the first stick-carrying raven was seen locally, a different birder in Salmon Arm saw a mature bald eagle flying with a stick in its talons. Another sign of spring! Expect a flood of birds and a sea of their voices as we move through March and April.
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