Tue. May 17th, 2022

Raven is sitting on the fence

The ravens adapt easily to suburbs and hang around in garbage dumps and picnic areas. Photo: Ian Fraser.

Along with many other Canberrans, I loved the recent story of the nesting Gungahlin ravens that took exception, followed closely by direct action, against commercial drones that dared approach their nest.

Any nesting bird will react to a predator in their territory, and the only sure assumption about an unknown large flying object is that it is a threat to the brooding parent, chickens or eggs. Small birds will remain low and quiet; larger, more courageous will meet the threat frontally.

READ MORE: It’s a case of birds versus drones in Gungahlin’s sky

My favorite part of this story is the report that even though the raven on the first attack lost some feathers and probably got some painful blows from the drive machines, on the second day it had figured out how to avoid them and attack other parts of the drone. We learn from all this that ravens are big, not afraid to protect themselves and very smart.

Ravens and crows (we’ll get to that soon) have had bad press for centuries. My own suspicion is that it stems from their associations to ancient battlefields, but needless to say, they neither started nor fought the wars, they just helped clean up afterwards.

Ravn and Willie Vipstjert

Willie Wagtails is well aware of a raven’s predilection for eggs and wants to see them off. Photo: Ian Fraser.

In Australia, ravens have long been demonized as ‘lamb killers’. However, the myth was thoroughly disproved by many years of intensive research by almost legendary CSIRO scientist Ian Rowley in the area around Lake George 50 years ago.

Ravens certainly participate when sows lamb, but are not interested in healthy lambs that can easily see them away. They eat stillbirths and speed up the end of some weak and dying lambs, but make no difference to the total losses.

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Raven or crow? Well, we have chosen without good reason to call three of the almost identical Australian species ‘ravens’ and the other two ‘crows’, but that is a rather meaningless difference, as e.g. Kangaroo / wallaby and seed / toad. Locally we have two ravens – Australian and small, but if you’re used to calling them crows, I can see no reason for you to change.

Mostly in Canberra we see Australian ravens, which are larger, with distinct neck notches and a falsetto moan. They are generally in pairs and stay close to their breeding area all year round.

Small ravens are slightly smaller (though you have to see them side by side to recognize it), with a deeper, shorter call and are usually seen in migratory flocks. In the summer, they go up into the mountains to hunt Bogong Moths, but in a good cicada season, they also come down to take advantage of them.

Raven in grasslands

Small ravens are common on high mountain ranges in summer. Photo: Ian Fraser.

One reason for the success of Australian ravens is their very broad diet. They will eat insects, grains, roadkill, reptiles, mice, young rabbits and fruit and clean our garbage. A friend sent me a photo of a raven catching fish on a dam in Australia.

They are especially fond of eggs. When I was holding ducks, I could not figure out why they had stopped laying until I saw a raven on the back of a panicked duck and chopped its tail where it had learned that eggs were popping up! I put nets over races. Ravens are notorious for stealing golf balls, presumably confusing them with eggs.

They store food for later use, push it into cavities or bury it in soft ground. More importantly, they remember where they put it, which is more than I can do sometimes. As I have already noticed, they are very intelligent.

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Elsewhere in the world, closely related crows are famous for their remarkable tool-using abilities — but even more remarkable is their ability to construct these tools for specific tasks.

New Caledonian crows will carry a small tool kit with them, with hooks and probes and scrapers for extracting larvae from caves. They pick and cut twigs and palm leaves to suit them, using felled feathers as probes.

In captivity, they quickly learned to use and shape wire that was delivered to them. Japanese crows have been filmed putting walnuts on the road when the traffic lights are red and collecting the cores when the lights have changed and the cars have cracked the shells. Other crows pull up fishing lines to catch fish or bait.

I am not aware that such behavior is reported in Australia, but I would not be surprised if that were the case. These are truly amazing birds and we do not appreciate them enough. Drones beware.

Ian Fraser is a naturalist, conservationist and author in Canberra. He has written on all aspects of natural history, advised the ACT government on biodiversity and published several guides to the region’s flora and fauna.

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