ExploreNorth, your resource center for exploring the circumpolar North

Return to the Home Page The ExploreNorth Blog About ExploreNorth Contact ExploreNorth

Search ExploreNorth

The Raven

by Murray Lundberg

Dateline: January 11, 2008.


    The Raven. Corvus corax . "A scavenger" to those people who only get a quick look at his lifestyle. To many people, though, Raven is a spiritually powerful character who has been venerated as far back as written or oral history goes.

    In the Bible (I Kings), God commanded the ravens to feed Elijah when he was sent to the brook Cherith following his prophecies against Ahab. To the Haida, Raven was the Trickster, responsible for miraculous deeds that included bringing sun to the world and man to life. And to the Vikings, ravens provided both practical and spiritual support:

Odin kept himself informed about the affairs of the nine worlds with two faithful ravens. As Vikings at sea sent out ravens in search of land, Odin's own ravens Huginn and Muninn flew about and then whispered every scrap of news which they saw or heard tell of. The birds' names mean "tough" and "wisdom" respectively. (from Norse Mythology, by Arthur Cotterell).

    Depending on whose research you read, the raven has between 18 and 64 distinct vocalizations. Their antics as they mimic human speech, a dog barking or a squeaky door on the outhouse are often hilarious.

Ravens with Odin     Ravens, of which there are 103 subspecies, are one of the most successful of birds, and they can be found in virtually every part of the world except Antarctica, from the Amazon to the Sahara and the Arctic. They have the largest brains in the bird kingdom, with a brain-to-body ratio almost equal to dolphins and humans. The part of a bird's brain that is most responsible for intelligence, the hyperstriatum, is particularly well-developed as well. A subspecies in the Rockies, the Clark's Nutcracker, is known to assemble a winter cache of as many as 33,000 seeds in 7,500 locations, and is then able to remember where at least 1/3 of them are, even after they are buried by snow!

    The habits of Northern ravens at night is still not understood. They usually roost far from humans, and very few people have ever seen them. Beyond the fact that they roost in groups (from a half-dozen up to 800 birds), the 'whys' and 'wheres' are mostly still mysteries.

    The love that Yukoners have for ravens was made abundantly clear when, on October 28, 1985, the raven became the Territorial Bird of the Yukon. This declaration followed a huge public promotion by a group calling themselves the Raven Maniacs.

    Newcomers to the North quickly learn the folly of leaving bags of groceries in the back of their pickup for even a few minutes in the winter. Raven the opportunist quickly invites himself to partake from this new-fangled potlatch bowl. They are also up to much more complex challenges, and have been seen to pull up an unattended fishing line and eat the bait off the hook!

    The links that follow will give you a great deal more stories and information, as well as more graphics and sounds.

The American Society of Crows and Ravens
ASCAR's site has an excellent FAQ file, as well as a bibliography, and raven t-shirts and mugs for sale.

Raven feeding Elijah

Basic facts about the raven ands several photos - part of a large animal encyclopedia.

Common Raven
The life history of the raven and brief information on legends about him, from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Eldrbarry's Raven Tales
Storyteller Eldrbarry passes on "Raven and Crow's Potlatch", shows his Raven Screen, and has links to other Raven sites.

From Dumpster to Roost
From the Alaska Science Forum - an article about what happens to ravens at night, and where they roost.

Messages in a Raven Rattle
From the Alaska Science Forum, an article about the cultural significance of the raven rattle.

Raising a Corvid
The practical and legal aspects of caring for a raven, crow or magpie.

The Raven's Game of Hide and Seek
From the Alaska Science Forum - do ravens remember where they put food for storage? This article explores the ability of ravens to remember food caches.

Raven's Canoe
The Grand Hall at the Canadian Museum of Civilization was built in the shape of an enormous canoe, inspired by Raven's magic canoe.

Raven: Northern Bird of Paradox
This excellent article by Mark Schwan provides information on both the lifestyle and the legends.

Raven, the Spirit Helper
A Gwich'in legend of their creation as handed down in various forms by elder storytellers.

A watercolour by Gordon Miller, showing Raven on the bow of a Haida canoe at the village of Skedans.

Trickster/Transformer Legends
A brief introduction to this type of legend and the animals spirits included. Using the Search function on that site, many other Raven stories can be found.

When Different Civilizations Meet
From the Alaska Science Forum, an article presenting a historical document on the meeting of two cultures.

Wit on the Wing
From the Alaska Science Forum, an article about the intelligence of ravens.

Mind of the Raven
Subtitled Investigations and Adventures With Wolf-Birds, this book by biology professor Bernd Heinrich looks at ravens' behaviour in great detail.

A raven and a Canada Jay in the winter
A Raven and a Canada Jay

Raven graphics are all ©2008 by Clipart.com, and are used here with permission.

  • Odin with the wolves and ravens is from The Age of Fable by Thomas Bulfinch (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Company, 1894)
  • Elijah and the raven is from Old Testament - Vol. II by J. Tissot (M. de Brunoff, 1904)
  • the Tlingit raven design is from Traditional Animals Designs and Motifs by Madeleine Orban-Szontagh (Dover Publications, 1996)