CORNISH WILDLIFE: THE SECRET LIFE OF RAVENS
PUBLISHED: 10:54 02 March 2015 | UPDATED: 13:06 30 August 2017
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
We have seven members of the crow family in Cornwall 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, writes Wildlife Expert DAVID CHAPMAN
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 so that the end of it is wedge-shaped. When flying with purpose the raven’s wings are often noticeably bent in the middle and 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.
We certainly have plenty of superstitions which link crows with bad fortune and counting crows or singing rhymes is a way of measuring 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 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.
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. Though ravens are still kept at the Tower, where their wings are clipped to prevent them flying away, they do not occur in the wild around London any more. Their distribution in Britain is very mush biased towards the west with Cornwall, Wales and western Scotland being the most heavily populated though they are now spreading eastwards. In recent years the number of ravens has increased both in the county and nationally and ravens have started to spread further eastwards.
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.
February is a great time of year to get out and 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. 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. There can be few sights or sounds more evocative of the wilder parts of Cornwall than that of ravens courting.
Getting close enough to a raven to take photographs can be a challenge as I found out a couple of years ago. I decided to undertake a project to get some better photos of this bird. I found a pair near Prussia Cove which seemed quite confiding so I took down some bait, in the form of a road-kill rabbit and put it out on the headland near to where I had seen them. I walked back to another headland from where I could watch the bait and no sooner had I got there than the ravens were both down feeding on the rabbit.
Encouraged by this instant response a few days later I went back with another road-kill but this time I took my portable hide and camera gear. I set up the hide, put out the rabbit and sat in the hide and waited. And waited! I spent four hours in the hide and nothing happened, so I packed up and walked around to the other headland, which takes about five minutes. By the time I got there the ravens were down feeding!
So I thought I was a bit unlucky. A few days later I did the same again. Again I waited for four hours in the hide, again nothing happened, again I walked back to the other headland and again the ravens were down feeding.
Not wanting to be out-witted I tried again but this time I took my wife, Sarah, down with me (not as bait!). I set up the hide, put out the rabbit, got in the hide but then Sarah walked away from the hide. This was intended to fool the ravens into thinking I had left (evidently most birds can’t count). I sat for four hours and (you’ve guessed it) nothing happened. I packed up and walked back to the other headland and the ravens were down feeding!
I’ve never known anything like it. These birds must be supremely wary and/or intelligent and I must confess that I gave up. The obvious way round the problem would be to leave a hide in situ but I didn’t feel I could do that at this location.
However, I often find that when I put in a lot of effort trying to photograph a species something strange happens soon after and this was certainly the case here. Two weeks after giving up I went to the Cheesewring on Bodmin Moor and there I saw a raven’s nest in the quarry. I sat and watched for a while and shortly afterwards one of the ravens flew down towards me and landed on the edge of the quarry no more than ten yards from me.
Strangely enough I came across another raven while on holiday in Ireland the same spring. This particular bird had been hand-reared and was imprinted on people and, though it was free to fly away, it chose to hop around a visitor centre trying to pick-pocket visitors!
This illustrates how easily ravens can be trained. They are intelligent and where they come into regular contact with people and maybe receive food they will become quite tame. I have seen an increasing number of tamer ravens around Cornwall in the last couple of years and I think it’s great when I see so many people taking enjoyment from watching them. n