There is nothing common about the raven. Okay, that’s not true. The raven has 8 different classifications and can be found all across the northern hemisphere, often in large numbers. But lined up against its avian peers, the raven stands out as truly spectacular. Anyone with a curiosity for animal behavior is likely already aware of the many ways in which ravens had provoked our imagination: their intelligence, their habits, and their relationship with humans. I won’t bore you with a run down of biological studies, but they deserve every bit of praise they can get for their truly unique capabilities. You probably know they are capable of solving surprisingly complex puzzles, but they aren’t just smart. They’re fun.
Only four animals are recorded to have the ability to communicate about things that are far away in location or in time: bees, ants, humans, and ravens. In insects, this behavior is very clear cut and mechanical. Bees must constantly be communicating information throughout their hives so that they can stay safe and nourished. Ravens however communicate (and remember) in far more interesting ways. Sure, they can get food by communicating to other ravens where the body was found, so that they can return in larger numbers and scare off competing predators or older ravens. That’s not all, though. Ravens can also understand when they’ve been ripped off. If they feel a human exchanged with them unfairly, they will remember your face and communicate to peer ravens that you are not to be trusted, and before you know it a grouping will hold a grudge against you as somebody unworthy of their attention. This is the sort of social dynamic unseen in many animals even internally, let alone involving a human. They detest cheaters and enjoy the company of fair giving people. The sophistication of their grasp on language is second only to humans among vertebrates. This sophistication extends to cooperation with other animals such as wolves to locate and access food.
Most interesting of all though are juvenile ravens. Younger ravens seem to do something very few birds do: play. They’ll slide down snow banks for enjoyment, perform tricks in the air, play chasing games with their aforementioned wolf partners. Juveniles are also typically the culprits of theft: taking shiny round objects from humans and keeping them as little treasures. Perhaps the most compelling part of this behavior is that scientists don’t quite know why they do it! One theory is that they are creating impressive displays for social (perhaps mating) purposes, but the evidence behind this isn’t very strong. Notably, older ravens tend to become far more wary of new objects and don’t like to steal cool shiny things the way their young do. In other words, a form of curiosity seems to wear off of ravens as they age. Instead of investigating unusual objects, they start to avoid them. To me, this suggests an innate behavior that fades away, not something that is socially rewarded.
Given what they’re capable of, it’s no wonder ravens are so widely feared. Edgar Allen Poe famously imagined one as a looming antagonistic force for a haunted student. Norse Mythology painted them as duplicitous spies, reporting to Odin the All-Father. Their stark black plumage, imposing size, mysterious behavior and intelligence, all easily provoke suspicion. But instead of avoiding the unfamiliar, let’s follow the example of the juvenile raven and meet it with curiosity. Why did Poe choose the raven as the center symbol and title of his poem, one of the most famous in the English language? Much of his upbringing, like myself, took place in the mid-Atlantic region, where ravens are incredibly rare. They’ve been seen in Baltimore, but rarely. If an East Coaster tells you they’ve seen a raven, they’ve probably seen a crow. I include myself here. As I previously recounted, it took a weeklong trip to California for me to get a good long look at a raven, ever. So the odds that Poe had a direct experience with the birds is incredibly slim, and no such experience has been recorded.
There is in fact an answer, and it predictably has nothing to do with the real birds. As is often the case, we have a case of cultural hand-me-down. Poe had read the book Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of Eighty by Charles Dickens. In it, the titular Barnaby had a pet raven named Grip who floats in and out of the story, one might say mysteriously. Our Baltimore poet was taken aback by the bird’s presence. Going even further, Dickens included Grip in the story for a reason: he himself owned a pet raven with the same name. Gifted to him by a friend who knew he loved the creatures, Dickens was a very spineless parent to his pet. Grip would torment horses and dogs, steal cheese, bury items in their lawn, and was even banished to the shed after biting Charles’s children.
This didn’t dissuade Dickens’s love of the bird, though. After the bird died (likely of lead poisoning, corvids enjoy peeling off paint and eating it), he had its corpse investigated in case it had been intentionally murdered. Afterwards he had it stuffed and kept its body with him until his own death. Today, it sits in the rare book section of the Parkway Central Library in Philadelphia. Immortalized, both in his writing and literally through taxidermy, Grip remains a touching part of Dickens legacy. Writing about his death, Charles said:
“On the clock striking twelve he appeared slightly agitated, but soon recovered, walking twice or thrice along the coach-house, stopped to bark, staggered, exclaimed 'Halloa old girl' (his favourite expression) and died. He behaved throughout with a decent fortitude, equanimity, and self-possession, which cannot be too much admired... The children seem rather glad of it. He bit their ankles. But that was play.”
Yes it was. Ravens are playful whether we like it or not. Some people might be intimidated or even frustrated by the extent to which these birds refuse to be outsmarted and controlled. But it’s worth remembering that the poem depicting them as evil omens was written well outside of their usual range. The writer who inspired it, and actually knew of their exploits and personalities, fell for their bright minds and their spunk. What I admire most about them is their inquisitiveness. Young ravens seek out interesting new things, possibly for the simple joy of discovery. They experiment, they try different strategies to complex problems, and they work together. There is so much for us to learn from these imposing creatures. Most of all: don’t lose your curiosity as you grow old, and don’t eat lead paint.