Discover the Brainpower of the Bird in Black

Flying raven

Generally, birds don’t get credit for being smart animals. Just think of the way the expression “bird-brained” is used. But corvids, which include magpies, crows, and ravens in particular, flutter in the face of this negative stereotype. Their behavior is often so clever, cunning, fun-loving, smart, and witty that it has motivated researchers to try to explain why. In fact, some scientists consider these black-feathered scavengers’ position on the intelligence spectrum to be on par with canids such as wolves, coyotes, and dogs, and have conducted experiments to try to quantify the raven’s brainpower.

In NATURE’s Ravens we see zoologist Bernd Heinrich of the University of Vermont work with ravens to see whether they could learn to distinguish between strings bearing food and strings bearing rocks and modify their behavior based on their understanding. The ravens performed well, even when the level of difficulty was increased by crossing the strings.

Heinrich has also used anecdotal evidence to point to raven cognitive intelligence. For example, the researcher flushed a bird off a frozen chunk of suet and observed upon inspection that the raven used its beak to carve a precise groove around the fat, allowing it to carry off a large chunk at once instead of several small morsels to eat one at a time. Heinrich commented that “the raven not only had thought ahead, but also had acted on that thought and shown intelligence.”

A central question that presents itself is whether the raven’s sharp behavior indicates complex cognitive processes associated with human learning. Johannes Fritz and Kurt Kotrschal of the University of Vienna, Austria, attempted to provide an answer with an experiment similar to Heinrich’s. Ravens were asked to perform a task — opening a box to get a reward — and then teach the behavior to their fellow birds. According to Henry Gee of Nature Magazine Online, while the birds’ performance indicates a high learning level, the results are inconclusive because it’s impossible to tell how the ravens learn: is it by a complex form of “imitative learning” or by a lesser process known as “stimulus enhancement”?

Gee suggests that while ravens might learn by stimulus enhancement, which means that a learner raven might simply come to link the act of opening a box with getting a reward, it seems likely that the corvids engage in imitative learning, which Gee states is “considered to be the most demanding category of social learning, because it requires the learner to translate what it sees (sensory input) into its own actions (motor output).”

How then can one account for corvids’ seemingly complex decision-making skills? After all, birds don’t have a cerebral cortex, so at one time their actions were considered robotic in nature. But in the 1960s, neurologist Stanley Cobb found that birds have a part in the forebrain, called the hyperstraiatum, that allows them to perform synonymous functions, and that ravens have among the largest brains of any birds as well as a relatively high number of brain cells. Natural history author Candace Savage writes: “Crows, ravens, magpies, and jays are not just feathered machines, rigidly programmed by their genetics. Instead, they are beings that, within the constraints of their molecular inheritance, make complex decisions and show every sign of enjoying a rich awareness.”

Beyond explaining how and why ravens act as they do, it’s how this innate intelligence manifests itself in behavior that makes these birds fascinating to observe. As seen on NATURE, ravens achieve mastery and possess manipulative powers over other creatures in their domain, often letting others do work for them. For example, ravens will call wolves and coyotes to prospective meals so they can expose the carcass and make the meat accessible to the birds. In addition, ravens will show their true scavenger colors by waiting for other birds with specialized foraging skills to make a catch and then cunningly seize the defeated prey for themselves.

Not all raven behavior is so devilish; some is merely mischievous and even good-natured. On NATURE, we are treated to a raven frolicking in the snow as well as the domesticated pet raven named Loki soothingly and majestically flying alongside her owner’s vehicle. Seeing how affectionate and keen these birds are, it’s easy to understand why one might want to keep a pet raven. As Loki’s owner, Rose Buck, says, “Loki’s bright, clever, very intelligent, and mischievous. Sometimes, he can be an absolute pain, but I wouldn’t be without him. He’s just great.”

Though it might be tempting to run right out to your local pet store to buy a raven, they aren’t available and, more importantly, are federally protected in the United States; it’s illegal to buy or even hold a raven (unless one has a difficult-to-obtain permit). However, many people successfully raise orphaned, nestling crows under 3-4 weeks old to the point where they are able to eat independently, and then release the birds when they are approximately eight weeks old. Information on diet and care of orphaned ravens, as well as a wealth of other material, can be found on the American Society of Crows and Ravens Web site.

  • brenda taylor

    do ravens kill baby chicks or peacock babies?

  • Anne

    I love ravens, my last means “raven” latin corvous, corbie etc… they are so smart i have seen them scare college students who were eating on the run into dropping their food so that they could have a free meal! I love the fact that a flock of raven or crows is called a Murder. Thank you for having this online!

  • vanessa

    How do they survive in the -40 weather and covered in frost?

  • Bud Revet

    I have had a pet crow, (Found on the ground as a young bird unable to fly and a pet Raven found the same way. I was working for the USFWS in Seattle when I found the Crow and for the ADF&G when the Raven was found. There seemed little difference except size between their behavior and both returned to the wild within a few months of learning to fly. In the Crow case I left for Alaska soon after and in the Raven’s case I did not see it again. They are great pets and very, very smart.

  • Alda Bouvier

    Are ravens spreading further into the Canadian prairies. I used to see them closer to or in the Rockies only. Are they destroying more of the songbird population?

  • Mark Merriman

    It’s interesting to note (in a religious-sense) that Jesus referred to the Raven in the Luke’s gospel. He could have used any bird as an example… but chose the Raven.

  • aly

    i hate raven sthey are stupid idioc and weird

  • Barry Groom

    In the story of Noah he sent out a raven twice before he sent out the dove. The first time the raven came back, having nowhere to land. The second time the raven did not return, so Noah sensing that land was near, sent out the dove who returned with the famous olive branch. I used to take care of a raven(and many other injured protected birds), at Liberty Wildlife in Scottsdale, Arizona. I enjoyed many hours in the ravens enclosure playing “catch” with dog food where the raven would catch the food out of the air and hide it for later consumption. When I was working alone the raven would call out “hello”, and then chuckle at me when i would go looking for the visitor that wasn’t there.

  • Rebecca

    When I lived in Montana there was a pair of Magpies (related to crows and ravens)that LOVED to torture my cat, Spooker. Spooker desparately wanted to kill a bird, but he had no skills. So when Spooker would chase one around on the neighbor’s roof, it’s mate would land directly behind Spooker and peck at his tale or pull out a chunk of hair. Spooker would spin around to try and catch the bird and the other one would swoop up behind the cat and get his tale or hair. My roommate and I watched this for almost an HOUR crying and rolling around on the ground because we were laughing so hard. Those two birds entertained us for the many years we lived there because they always came back to that tree to nest. My cat never caught one bird in his whole life.

  • kevin

    their really interesting

  • jose

    I had the most smart crow i named it `RAIN` `couse he fell off the sky he was being attacked by some other birds and landed on my lap i think it was fate becouse he became a part of my family and a really good friend he loved to be on my shoulder and take the sunlight he died almost a year ago all the family cried a lot …. we still missing you rain

  • Delia

    We named our place Ravenwood. We have lived here in the mts. north of Spokane,WA for 15 years. There has been a nesting pair of ravens living here before we ever arrived and the nest has been active every year. They always nested in trees up the draw from our place in a cedar grove. This Fall, the owner of that property had those trees logged. I still see the pair around but worry where they might leave and nest elsewhere now. I have watched them play in the snow with a stick, first playing chase with the mate and then even trying to play hide and seek with it burying it in the snow. They also like to roll around in the snow in play. We have several wild apple trees on the place that they visit all winter since not all the apples fall in Autumn.

    One year I saw one of the ravens with an apple on a corral fence post. One of the horses would cautiously approach and wiggling its lip,would try to steal the apple. The raven would take the apple and hop fly to the next post. The scene would repeat itself several times before the bird finally just grabbed his apple and left to eat it undisturbed.

    One raven also found his reflection in a window of one of our sheds. I saw him several times down there squawking at the reflection and puffing himself up like he was trying to intimidate the intruder.

    It is truly a treat to watch these intelligent sentinels of the mt. Hope the select a new tree close to us to nest this year.

  • Cheri

    I have always loved Ravens and Crows ever since I started to read Edgar Allan Poe. The Raven has always been my favorite story and if I am ever lucky enough to have one as a pet his name will be Edgar. They are the coolest bird out there and I just love have they are able to talk like a human and how they can trick people and animals at the same time.

  • Raven Keith

    Oddly, this says a lot about me… particularly the part about manipulating others to do work for me, being intelligent, and being witty

  • Jayne Flick

    I have a home in Southern VT that is left vacant during the week while we to to work in CT. When returning this past weekend, we discovered what appeared to be a breeding pair of ravens had raked havoc around the house. I noticed the (silk) flowers in my window boxes were strewn all over the deck. The next day I saw one of them sitting on another window box ‘rifling’ through the flowers. They were flying to various windows, pecking at them. They destroyed several window screens in the process ~ one of them at deck level on the sliding glass door. The bahvior of the two birds was rather unsettling to say the least. Has anyone else experienced this type of mischief from this bird?

  • lesli ann

    I have a broken winged raven hanging out…has been almost a month now. Have been feeding him, he was treated to a freshly killed squirrel today. Has anyone looked after a bird like this before. he is far too fast to catch, he still covers quite a bit of territory but the crows are stalking him. Should I capture him and have him looked at by vet or should I let nature take it’s course. I would hate to see anything happen to him after this long, he is pretty tough.

  • John

    In the last year we have learned a great deal about our Welsh ancestry and that our family crest features three Ravens-chosen centuries ago and specifically for their supernatural linkages and the ancient lore about them-using the symbolism of the Raven and its mythological connections to power in England actually led to one of my ancestors being publicly beheaded by Henry VIII—so, we are tuned in to looking for Ravens these days–and wonder if there are any near Burlington VT. We have some HUGE crows or ravens landing in our backyard everyday–but we are not sure if they are crows or ravens. Are Ravens much larger than crows? Do they make a crow-like call?

  • jayne flick

    It seems that the 2 ravens that were causing so much havoc at my VT home have moved off. I’m sure it’s because we have since moved UP, and the house is no longer vacant. I must admit they are wonderful to observe ~ as long as they are not being so destructive. They are incredible winged acrobats!

  • Beth Surdut

    I’ve been drawing Raven for a year now in the Southwest. Raven insisted I listen, and I finally did. http://surdut.blogspot.com/2008/08/drawing-raven.html

  • Susan

    Russell talking and muttering to himself! (We call him Russell Crow). He is truly a remarkable creature!

  • Beth

    Here’s a link to Crow and Raven calls: http://www.desertmuseum.org/books/nhsd_raven.php

  • Delia

    Someone shot one of my nesting pair of ravens referred to above. The remaining raven finished raising the young ravens in the nest. Fortunately,they were close to leaving the nest when this happened. The mate disappeared for about 2 weeks but has returned with a young raven with it. I don’t know if this is one of it’s own, which would be unusual since they usually run them off soon after leaving the nest, or if it has found a young replacement for it’s lost mate. Miss the antics and the insights into their lives for over 16years.

  • jane odin

    This is for #16. Please take the bird to a wildlife center to see if the wing can be repaired. Because the bird is definitely in pain.

  • tabitha

    How can any one hate ravens, they’re such beautiful birds. And besides and got to love ravens my best friends name is raven!

  • Tracy

    We are conditioned from birth to like warm and fuzzy animals that we can control. We’re not taught to just appreciate our animals for what hey are and respect their place on this Earth.
    Ravens are a wonderful species and much deserving of our admiration and respect. Why are they bad because their black and don’t have sweet voices?
    We love our neighborhood flock, and they love our peanuts. It’s a win-win.

  • Mad Max

    Where, O where, are the juvenile ravens to be found? I only see mature animals around here in Santa Monica, CA. I would love to find/befriend/raise a young one because they are so incredibly awesome!

  • mike

    I was researching a raven as a pet, and learned some things that i should consider. In Canada they are a protected species. I cant bring one over the Can/US boarder for it is illegal? (has any one informed the wild ravens that they needed to go through customs?) HA HA. However i was informed that if i was to aquire a raven as a pet that it would be more humane to have two. For ravens mate for life and can actualy die of lonelyness, They can easaly be trained to use a litterbox,talk,do tricks ect. However they need something to do…or they will find something to do. Like monkeys and raccoons they get into stuff. Also indoors they are very loud and have been known to answer calls (join conversations) heard from others out side. They can get a large wing span and need plenty of room to stretch. I still want 2 as pets however they would have to be wounded enough to not be able to survive in the wild. Then i researched wildlife rescue places only to discover that they put them down.

  • ulogoni

    Ravens (Corvus corax) are federally protected in the USA under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Therefore it is illegal to harm, kill or keep them as pets without the proper permits.

    If you see a fledgling bird that is not in immediate danger, please leave them alone and observe. It is likely that the parents are nearby or have simply gone hunting and will return to take care of their young shortly. There is a natural period of time in a birds life when they leave the nest, but may not be able to fly, or at least not efficiently so. This is the fledging period.

    If you make the judgement call to collect an injured or orphaned raven (make certain), be sure to contact your nearest Wildlife Rehabilitation Center or private individual with the permits and training to insure proper care and eventual release. Growing ravens require plenty of protein, calcium and other vitamins for survival. If they do not receive this, their bones and feathers will suffer.

    Many Wildlife Rehabilitation groups offer volunteer programs and training if you are interested in rehabilitating wildlife. There are people who have attempted to care for ravens illegally, were caught, and the raven was destroyed. For the ravens sake, you may want to not take that risk.

    Here is a directory of contact info for Wildlife Rehabilitation by State. Keep it on hand, you never know when you may come across wildlife in need:


    Also, if you observe someone harming or killing ravens (poachers), be sure to turn them in. Here is another directory, by state, with the necessary contact info:


    In my state, you can receive up to a $1000 reward for any information that leads to an arrest. I’m sure other states have similar programs.

  • joshg

    Is it illegal to own a corvid in Canada? Do you need similar permits? I love these birds, and aspire to keep one or two, having watched enough being rehabilitated I’ve grown familiar and fond of their ecentric behavior, and antics. Any feedback would be great.

  • jordan

    those birds are cool. i just love the football team.

  • Roberta

    I am a docent at our local zoo. I am looking for some ideas on enrichment for our raven, who appears to be bored. Anyone have any ideas? Thanks

  • Nora

    I have read that a flock of crows are regarded as a murder of crows but a flock of ravens is known as conspiracy of ravens. I love that.

  • Janice

    I was meeting with a funeral director in his office. The office had a glass wall and there were several crows outside looking into the office. The director said he feeds the birds around 4 pm because they keep the comparatively messy seagulls away. They follow him when he shows clients around the landscaped grounds and the cematary. I wonder how many potential clients were spooked by being followed around a grave site by black birds!

  • dawn

    living in the okanagan valley of british columbia, my corvid of choice is the magpie. i feed them peanuts everyday and have an unknown number who show up for handouts, although i’ve seen as many as 6 at a time in my yard. year before last there was an odd couple who visited me every day – a crow and a magpie. i was waiting to see if the following spring i’d see some strange babies. the following spring there were no strange babies, but there was a family of magpies who was being followed around by a crow. has anyone else heard or seen of such a mismatched pair?

  • Oak Mother

    You guys aren’t going to believe me but I saw three Ravens/Crows playing jump rope lol. It was in the parking lot and they had a really long french fry. At first I thought it was just a power struggle to see who’d get to eat the thing. But I watched awhile and they were playing. One one either end of the fry and the third was jumping back and forth over it. The two holding the fry would keep aligning their bodies so that they were in front of the third’s breast. The third would just jump back and forth over the thing. Finally, after about 15 minutes I’d say…the two on the end started to eat the ends, so the third got in the middle and ate his share too. There was a whole box of McDonald’s fries so I think they were celebrating their haul lol. They are strong too! When I was in high school I saw a huge Raven pick up and carry off a bag of trash. It was tied at the top and had a smallish bundle of trash in it. That was crazy to see. They are always first to get into my bags of trash at the curb even before the cats and dogs in the neighborhood. I don’t consider them rats with wings like some people do. Too intelligent for that. It looks like a moving black veil of lace in the sky when they flock together.

  • chris stewart

    In my town, ravens will hover over a garbage can, grasp the lid with their talons and fly up. If the lid comes off they get into the garbage. If it does not lift off, they move on.

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