Black is Back

(Photo by Clara MacCarald): A pair of common ravens communicate at the Thompson Park Zoo in Watertown. Raven populations have been slowly rising with the regrowth of local forests.

A large, dark bird soars overhead and croaks, sounding like a crow with a sore throat. Is it a crow? A hawk? Nope, it's a raven. Along with fishers, bobcats, and black bears, ravens are returning to our area with the growth of our local forests.

Fifteen years ago, it was rare for Laurie Roe, a resident of Enfield, to see ravens, even at Lick Brook where there was a breeding pair. Now she frequently sees them in Enfield, especially on Connecticut Hill. Photographer Marie Read often sees or hears them flying over her house in Freeville. Bill McAneny of Trumansburg occasionally observes them as they cross from Taughannock gorge to Frontenac gorge. He suspected they liked the safety of the gorge walls, but he also hears them near the Trumansburg Public Golf Course.

“The data from the New York State Breeding Bird Atlas show a huge increase in ravens across the state,” said Kevin McGowan, a crow researcher at Cornell University. However, “they're still not abundant.” Compared to 15 years ago, when there were about six breeding pairs of ravens in Tompkins County, McGowan estimated the current number is between 10 and 20 pairs, not counting transient youngsters. Crows number 3,000 or more.

It wasn’t always that way. When John James Audubon passed by Seneca Lake in the nineteenth century, according to McGowan, he saw no crows but lots of ravens. Then the forests were chopped down and the ravens retreated to remote areas of the state, such as the Adirondacks and the Catskills. Crows like more open habitat and eventually moved in.

The story is more complicated than just habitat loss. Ravens don't need to live in forests. Known formally as common ravens, the species is found all across the Northern Hemisphere from above the Arctic Circle to below the Tropic of Cancer. They can live in tundra, grasslands, and even desert. In those more inhospitable habitats, ravens have expanded their range by exploiting the food and water brought in by human settlements.

Why was the northeast so different? “There's a lot of historical stuff that goes into it,” explained McGowan. “Here it was mostly a question of guys with guns and changing the habitat so drastically.” To English settlers in particular, crows and ravens were seen as varmints to be shot on sight, while many settlers in the southwest had a different heritage. When eastern forests became fields and pastures, ravens had few places to hide.

The ravens are still wary even where there’s no threat. McGowan has spent perhaps a thousand hours watching crows at the Cornell compost facility, which is near a raven nest on Mount Pleasant, and he almost never sees ravens. Any he does see leave when he arrives. Ravens love dumps in places like California and Alaska.

While ravens seem similar to crows when they gather at food sources or when groups of young ravens sleep in communal roosts, their social lives are very different, although both are highly intelligent. The larger raven groups are temporary - ravens only have long-term social bonds with their mates. McGowan pointed out that crows, on the other hand, must navigate intricate social interactions with many individuals.

Crow families can be enlarged by youngsters that stay home to help their parents raise their siblings, but young ravens leave home at a young age to form juvenile bands. Rowe was thrilled one day as she returned from skiing on Connecticut Hill to see a dozen or more ravens making a racket as they flew down the road together. McGowan has seen up to 35 youngsters together. These groups are very fluid and their members very mobile. Although McGowan has banded perhaps a hundred young ravens, he's never seen any of the banded birds again.

Another difference is size, both of the birds, with ravens half again as large as crows, and their territories. Linda Orkin, the field trip chair of the Cayuga Bird Club, recalled one incident near Route 89 where she observed a crow in furious pursuit of a raven. It was striking how puny the crow seemed in comparison. McGowan said that if a big crow-like bird is flying straight down a road like Route 13, it's likely a raven. Crows don't patrol such long distances because they would bump into their neighbors.

Uncertain if you're seeing crows or ravens? McGowan has an informative YouTube video called Caw vs. Croak which can help.

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