Cerulean Blue and Midnight Black – A Raven’s Return to the Poconos

by Don Miller

Nature's Notes . . . Now You Know

As we move into winter here in northeastern Pennsylvania, Nature has again worked its magic on the forests, fields and wetlands that make our wild landscapes so treasured and spectacular.  In just a short month Nature has transformed the thick lush mantle of overhead forest green from a sometimes dazzling splash of reds, oranges and yellows to a luxurious and crunchy carpet of brown that is one of the real pleasures of living in this ever changing natural panorama.  As one can now move much more effortlessly through sylvan habitats, the cool shade of lush greenery that once shielded our eyes from the heat of the summer sky and carefully hid many of the avian residents from our sight has again yielded to the cerulean blue of the sparkling winter sky.  The overhead haze of humid summer skies punctuated by giant, billowing white cumulus thunderheads now reveals the incredible blues of the winter sky that all too soon will be framed by snowy scenes of brilliant white.  It is across this deep blue sky that we now have our best opportunities to see the aerial antics and hear the distinct calls of our largest passerine bird dressed in midnight black, perhaps made most infamous by Edgar Allan Poe’s, The Raven.

“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary . . . While I nodded nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping . . . As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door . . . Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December . . .”
So while the cheerful sounds of our summer’s avian songsters are now gone along with the autumn cleansing of the dense forest green into a carpet of crusty crunchy brown, our eyes can now look more easily skyward to witness the clash of black of raven flights across the icy blue of the winter sky.  And our ears can better tune to the characteristic winter calls of these now recently returned and resident birds as they haunt our arctic chilled northeastern landscapes.  While most are familiar with the other large black bird – the Common Crow regularly seen throughout our landscape, this returning resident to the Poconos – the Northern Raven (Corvus covax) has been increasingly making its presence known.  The Northern (or Common) Raven being the largest of our planet’s passerine (perching) birds is far from “common”.  With a range that now includes much of the United States, almost all of Canada and some portions of coastal Mexico and Central America; these incredibly intelligent and interesting birds are again making our Pocono Mountains part of their home range.

While Northern Ravens have occurred over most of the Northern Hemisphere in nearly every habitat, our heavily timbered Eastern forests and the great grasslands of the Midwestern open plains were excluded from their historic ranges.  Though once present here, as Eastern forests were intensely timbered (clear cut) in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Ravens disappeared from large areas of eastern North America including our Pocono landscape.  As our northeast Pennsylvania forests have regenerated and now begin to mature, Ravens have begun to find our local habitats acceptable and are taking up residence here.  Welcome back!! 

Worldwide Ravens are often associated with human activity and habitation by taking advantage of the changes we make to the landscape and the additional food supplies that our agricultural and animal husbandry and societal practices create.  As omnivores and scavengers, Ravens have often accompanied people in both their travels and taken up residence in their stationery habitations - benefiting from the convenient meals that our development habits provide.  Incredibly intelligent (among the smartest of all birds), they are also crafty, wily predators working in mated pairs to flush other birds from their nests to steal eggs and hatchlings; to monitoring sheep and other small livestock births and then working in family groups to swoop in and feed on the newborns; and as a study in Wyoming documented, being drawn to the sound of hunting season gunshots on the chance of a significant meal from a downed carcass or left-behind entrails.  Ravens may stash larger meat meals like a squirrel or woodpecker will stash nuts and acorns to feed on later and in food shortfalls may feed on livestock droppings to survive. In winter, young ravens finding a carcass will call other ravens to the prize. They apparently do this to “overwhelm the local territory owners by force of numbers to gain access to the food”. Their intellect and curiosity have also gotten them in trouble for causing power outages, pecking holes in airplane wings, stealing golf balls, opening campers’ tents, and raiding cars left open at parks.  They are also accomplished mimics of both avian and mammal sounds including, with training, the human voice.

“People the world over sense a certain kind of personality, ingenuity and familiarity in ravens. Edgar Allan Poe clearly found them a little creepy. The captive ravens at the Tower of London are beloved and perhaps a little feared: legend has it that if they ever leave the tower, the British Empire will crumble.  Native people of the Pacific Northwest regard the raven as an incurable trickster, bringing fire to people by stealing it from the sun, and stealing salmon only to drop them in rivers all over the world.”  And many recent scientific studies are shedding light on their incredible intelligence to perhaps dispel or quite possibly just reinforce their darker legend of myths and mystery.

So a maturing Northeastern forest (including a number of large forested areas protected by PHLT) has returned this incredibly interesting, intelligent and beautiful midnight black beauty to our landscape, but how can it be easily identified from our other very common large black resident bird, the Common Crow?  Ravens differ from crows in appearance by their larger bill, tail shape, flight pattern and by their significant size.  The Northern Raven has a very distinct call often voiced while flying and soaring overhead (crows seldom soar). “Raven know and regularly use a variety of calls and vocalizations including these sounds: "croooaaak", "cr-r-ruck", "tok", and "wonk-wonk". The typical crow call is instead a loud "caw" often repeated over and over.”   So paying closer attention to that large black and very vocal bird flapping and soaring overhead may one day soon give you your first confirmed sighting of the Northern Raven.  In flight, Raven tails are noticeably wedge shaped or spade shaped in contrast to Crow tails’ which are more squared off and fan shaped.  Raven wings are shaped slightly different than are crow wings, “with longer primaries ("fingers") with more slotting between them”. Their flight pattern is a more circular wing beat that closely resembles a swimmer’s rounded breaststroke.  Ravens are also incredible aerial acrobats often doing somersaults in flight and even flying upside down.  And finally Ravens are considerably larger than Crows, more noticeable to a trained eye, when both perched and in flight.  Ravens are the size of a Red-tailed Hawk while Crows are more pigeon or grouse sized.  When perched and especially when vocalizing, Ravens frequently display a neck hackle (an evident ruff of feathers or beard) not found on Crows.

With this new information and a bit of outdoor exploration and purposeful study of “large black bird” calls, perched behavior and overhead flight - all made appreciably easier by a black bird in a blue winter sky and snow white landscape, you’ll soon see that what were probably once dismissed as yet another Common Crow may indeed be the legendary Northern Raven, one of our newest, more spectacular and certainly most interesting and intelligent avian residents to the “north woods” of Pennsylvania.  So now that these fascinating birds have again returned here from the “back of beyond” (the far north woods of Canada, see range map), you should probably get out at least once to search the winter woods and scan our cerulean blue skies for our midnight black avian acrobats - Northern Ravens.
Article by Don Miller, November 2017.  More Northern Raven information available from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology’s website  www.allaboutbirds.org

*Want to learn more about Ravens, their habits and habitats and see them and their nest sites, join well known local naturalist and Stewardship Volunteer, Don Miller for a late winter walk Northern Raven exploration on the Kurmes Paradise Creek Preserve in Paradise Township on Sunday, March 4 from 1:00 to 4:00 (more details about this and other PHLT events on the PHLT Website at www.phlt.org).  More information about the Kurmes Paradise Creek Preserve can be found in the PHLT Winter 2018 Newsletter.