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Bird of the Week

Bird of the Week: Australian Raven

Congrats to the people of Australia on this top-notch corvid.

Sometimes we like to go obscure on Bird of the Week, and sometimes we like to go populist. This week, we’re focusing on a variety of bird that everybody knows and loves: the raven. Specifically, the Australian raven.

First things first: ravens rule. I guess some people see them as low-key evil, but so what? Darth Vader is more evil than Luke Skywalker but Luke is boring as hell. Nature needs its villains as well as its heroes. Ravens are super-smart, look incredible, carry an iconic air of birdly menace about them…just a 10/10 bird. Anyway, the Australian raven is no exception to this. Picture time.

Credit: JJ Harrison

Holy moses! The regal bearing, the sleek plumage, the BEAK we’re seeing here?? Five stars no notes. There are several kinds of ravens all over the planet, but, Australia being a world of its own, the Australian raven exists specifically there and nowhere else. Like most ravens, it’s happy being in just about every kind of environment, including cities (though, judging from maps of its distribution area, it does not appear to enjoy the vast western Australian desert region, which, understandable!) Let’s do another picture:

Credit: Patrick Kavanagh

Just hell yeah. Part of the reason I’m focusing on the Australian raven instead of, say, the raven you’d find hanging around Chicago or whatever, is that I try to hop around the globe for this series. But the other reason is that, according to the experts, Australia is ground zero for ravens and crows. It’s where they come from! Here’s smart bird man Stephen Debus in The Conversation (emphasis mine):

Among birds, crows and ravens (or corvids) are the most intelligent. They have the largest brains for body size; they’re more like primates than birds. In fact, some people call them “flying monkeys”.

The family Corvidae originated from a forest ancestor in the Australian fragment of Gondwana. It’s thought that the mental abilities of the early corvids developed as a response to the challenges of adapting to a drying continent. As Australia drifted towards Asia, corvids dispersed and colonised the other continents.

Wow! So Australia was so punishing that it made the birds be smarter. This is actually a common theory about Australian birds and other wildlife—that they are smarter than animals in other places because the conditions of the land have forced them to be. French birds have wine and baguettes everywhere they turn. They’re living the easy life. Australian birds have a mega-desert and satanic spiders. They have to be faster, tougher, and, yes, smarter than the rest. And Australian ravens are very smart indeed. Here’s just one wild example, from the Ways to Nature blog:

Hikers will also attest to ravens learning how to undo zips on packs. Australian Ravens have been known to wait around campsites or designated rest areas for hikers to have a break and leave their pack unattended. They then specifically target the small outer pockets as they have learned these ones often house packets of trail food usually kept in easy reach for the hikers!

These birds are out here unzipping bags to get food. Mind-blowing. Another example, from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation:

Ravens love bread, but bread means more than food to their sophisticated minds. Ravens have been observed picking up bread, flying it to a pond and placing it in the water. The bird waits until fish begin to nibble at the bread and catches them, enjoying a big seafood dinner instead of a little bit of bread.

Unreal. But very real. OK, now I want to do some videos. The call of the Australian raven is fucking incredible:

Somehow it sounds both like a baby crying and also like a cartoon villain literally going “MWA-HA-HA.” Just think about, like, being on the street and suddenly that sound starts echoing around you. I’d dive for cover!

Here is another video of a raven attacking a drone. How can you not love these birds!

There’s also a sad video I will not embed of a bunch of ravens gathering around a raven that’s died and calling out together. (These are sometimes described as funerals, though there’s evidence that it’s more complicated than that.)

OK, one last picture.

Credit: Dorothy Jenkins

Soar, raven, soar! Congrats to the people of Australia on your top-notch bird.