Ravens Are Surprisingly Intelligent Birds, So Why The Spooky Reputation?

Oct 27, 2017


Ravens have historically been depicted in popular culture as creepy and supernatural, from the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe to – more recently – the popular TV series, Game of Thrones.

But the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, a conservation group, notes there’s much more to ravens than these representations.

The group recently took in its first raven, Zachariah, from a retired raptor rehabilitator and educator in Maine and plans to introduce the bird to the public on Saturday.

Zach injured his wing when he was a fledging, which made it impossible for him to ever fly. Since then, he's been in captivity and used for educational purposes. 

Lauren Parmelee, Audubon's bird expert and senior director of education, said she’s excited to start teaching Rhode Islanders about ravens, including their cultural depictions.

"There’s lots of myths and stories about ravens going back as far as the Greek myths and ancient indigenous cultures even in the US, and then of course Edgar Allan Poe turned them into sort of a macabre animal," Parmelee said.

Macabre because of a poem called The Raven that was published in 1845. In it, the narrator is grieving the loss of a loved one named Lenore when a talking raven visits. The bird keeps repeating "nevermore," which causes the narrator even more distress.

Jim Egan, English professor at Brown University, said Poe claimed he purposefully chose to use the raven in this poem.

"He very specifically chooses the raven because of it’s association with darkness," Egan said. "Ravens would fly around the Tower of London, which was the famous prison in London for years, so he’s very self conscious about it, bringing all of that kind of dark history and mystery with it when he chooses the raven."

Egan said even though Poe didn’t invent the raven’s dark image, his poem can be credited with popularizing that association in American culture.  

"It’s hard to overstate how popular this poem was and how popular it was into the late-nineteenth, early-twentieth century, and it’s never really lost its popularity," Egan said. "It’s now hard to write stuff about the raven in America without linking it to (the poem)."

Examples of The Raven's influence include The Simpsons' Halloween episode from 1990 and Disney movies, such as Sleeping Beauty and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, showing ravens as companions to villains who are plotting to kill princesses. 

However, Parmelee said ravens in real life are not dangerous. She said they’re actually very smart birds that have the ability to problem solve.

"For example, if you put food in a container and they have to figure out how to get the container open or find the right button to push they can do that, they figure things out," Parmelee said.

Parmelee said ravens also plan ahead by stashing food for later, communicate with each other using more than 2,000 different noises, and even have a fun side.

"Ravens can be seen playing in the sky, playing with each other, flying upside down, doing loop-de loops, they’ve been known to slide down snow banks and take snow baths, they really build play into their whole social structure," Parmelee said.

Staff at Audubon have been trying out different things to see what Zach likes to play with.

Inside his bird mansion, as Parmelee calls it, Zach has a bucket of balls and a box his food is stashed in sometimes so he can look for it.

Ravens are omnivores and opportunistic eaters, so they eat a wide variety of things. Audubon has been experimenting with Zach's food, and so far, he likes lobster, hard-boiled eggs, peanuts, raisins and applesauce.

"No tomatoes," Parmelee said. "It’s a really good tomato year but he won't eat tomatoes."

Zach is also a fan of female song artists, such as Carole King, Bonnie Raitt and P!nk.

Audubon is introducing Zach to the public for the first time tomorrow during a Perfect Pumpkin Party happening at their Environmental Education Center in Bristol, Rhode Island.