Saturday, October 11, 2014

A look back at a Raven nest and more

This is a fresh newspaper column I finished today.

A week or so passed before I ventured far enough down-slope to see the spot where a family was started.
The flat rock, protected from weather by a rock/earth overhang, had been used not too many years previous by a nesting pair of Common Ravens. A collection of sturdy, weathered sticks – likely pulled from snags and live trees – marked the nesting site. I photographed it at least a dozen times, but those pix were taken with slide film and I just can’t fathom the notion of loading tray after tray of slides onto my aged projector to find the Raven nest pix. (The slides are priceless as slide film and slide projectors aren’t freely available anymore.)
Ravens, known by the scientific name Corvus corax, haven’t nested now for at least two decades on that ledge that’s part of the Council Cup promontory overlooking the Susquehanna River valley. But Peregrine Falcons returned as nesters a few years into the new century, a sign that a bit of avian wildness had returned to the river valley.
Ravens, though, remain a favorite of mine because even to hear one croak as it flies over, oftentimes too distant to see with naked eyes, is a positive sign of Wild Nature.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Web site says this about the calls of ravens: “Common Ravens make many different kinds of calls varying from a low, gurgling croak to harsh grating sounds and shrill alarm calls. Scientists have placed their vocalizations into as many as 33 different categories based on sound and context.
“The most commonly heard is the classic gurgling croak, rising in pitch and seeming to come from the back of the throat. It’s much deeper and more musical than a crow’s simple, scratchy caw. Ravens make this call often. It’s audible for more than a mile, and ravens often give it in response to other ravens they hear in the distance. Among their other calls, ravens make short, repeated, shrill calls when chasing predators or trespassers, and deep, rasping calls when their nests are disturbed.
“Dominant females sometimes make a rapid series of 12 or so loud knocking sounds that lasts about a second. Common Ravens can mimic other birds, and when raised in captivity can even be taught words.”
You can listen to the classic cr-r-ruck call and other sounds ravens make at
In Pennsylvania, ravens like forested mountainous areas. Many times, though, while observing and tallying birds for the Southern Bradford County Christmas Bird Count, ravens voiced their thoughts, their rasping notes carrying for long distances across the otherwise quiet early-winter landscape. But the species sometimes shows up in spots closer to humans. On overnight visits to a friend’s home at Boalsburg, Centre County, it was commonplace to both see and hear ravens nearby.
How do tell a raven apart from the more common American Crow? The principle field mark is size: Ravens are much larger. offers these clues: “Not just large but massive, with a thick neck, shaggy throat feathers, and a Bowie knife of a beak. In flight, ravens have long, wedge-shaped tails. They're more slender than crows, with longer, narrower wings, and longer, thinner ‘fingers’ at the wingtips.
“Common Ravens are entirely black, right down to the legs, eyes, and beak. Common Ravens aren’t as social as crows; you tend to see them alone or in pairs except at food sources like landfills. Ravens are confident, inquisitive birds that strut around or occasionally bound forward with light, two-footed hops. In flight they are buoyant and graceful, interspersing soaring, gliding, and slow flaps.”
A raven that was rehabilitated from an injury is now among the educators at The Wild Center, the natural history museum of the Adirondacks, Tupper Lake, N.Y.
Nieces and I watched studiously as a museum docent – raven perched on his gloved hand – told museum visitors the bird’s life history. For me, it sparked memories of “Ravens in Winter” author Bernd Heinrich’s visit to Penn State Hazleton for an early 90s’ public lecture.

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