Kindness in an Unkindness of Ravens

Two Ravens sitting on the back of our truck at Parker Ridge Parking Lot, Banff National Park


On Science, Jasper Fitzhugh, March 31, 2011

The ravens came at each other with talons lashing and beaks open, the maw of one so wide it bared the pale pink of its inner cheek. Their wings were thrust back, tail feathers tucked under as they grabbed at one another while RAAAWWWWKKKING in a way no one could ignore. They were fighting over the scraps of an elk hide, the last shavings of flesh scavenged from a carcass left by wolves.

It’s a scene witnessed by many of us who live with ravens. Whether it be a conflict over food or mates, or while defending a nest, aggression is a normal part of raven life. Perhaps this is the reason a congregation of ravens is called an “unkindness.” Aggression is also part of establishing social hierarchy, but conflicts can be costly. Individuals that engage in them use a tremendous amount of energy, risk injury, and potentially damage relationships with other ravens. Since ravens tend to help each other find food and support one another in conflicts, damaged relationships may come at too high a price.

A recent study suggests that ravens may limit these costs by consoling one another after a fight. Consolation may appear as various forms of touching and preening that happen within the first minutes following a clash. These behaviours tend to happen most frequently between ravens that share a close social bond. The authors of the study suggest that in showing consolation behaviours, ravens may be sensitive to the emotions of others.

Being sensitive to emotion is beyond just being clever. For a bystander to console a victim, it must first recognize the victim is distressed then act appropriately to provide comfort. The bystander must think beyond its immediate needs to the well-being of another individual. Emotions like empathy require a lot of brain-power, and not all animals are capable of it.

Ravens have big brains relative to their body size. Some think that animals evolve larger brains to increase their capacity to interact with social companions. Prior to forming breeding pairs and the onset of territorial behaviour (around the age of three), ravens form large “non-breeder” flocks in which they experience a broad and complex network of social relationships. Ravens recognize each other not just as other ravens, but as individuals. They are able to distinguish between one another and remember past events: “Hey, is that Frank, the raven I was fighting with last week? No, no, it’s George. He’s the one who led me to a wolf kill. Phew.”

Some components of raven relationships may even be similar to those of chimpanzees. For example, in addition to consoling one another, groups within both species co-operate to solve problems, and appear to be able to plan for future events involving others.

However, unlike a community of chimpanzees, ravens are able to leave a group if there is a significant conflict. Chimpanzees have very specific ecological requirements and limited habitat. Ravens are generalists, and can live most places people can. A raven once tore a hole in my husband’s tent in the middle of the Wapta Icefield because it had learned to associate tents and food. Even in the snowy expanse of the Wapta, that raven had learned how to make a living (much to the dismay of the mountaineers that travel there)!

So if they are so resourceful, what motivates them to continue to live in a group where there is conflict? There is a growing body of evidence that ravens’ social relationships are far more complex and profitable than previously thought. Beyond consolation, food sharing and security, there may be a host of social interactions that we are just beginning to understand. The types of relationships ravens share are being shown to influence how ravens learn in a group, how they learn on their own, how they approach new situations and objects, and how well they pay attention.

The research is a reminder that in addition to sharing the natural landscape with other species, humans appear to share an emotional landscape with more species than we might have imagined. Whether it be ravens, dolphins, elephants, chimps or wolves, our actions have the potential to impact more than the ecological needs of a species, but also their emotional well-being. It’s worth pondering the ethical implications.

As I wrote this, I could hear a cacophony of raven call and answer outside my office window. I went out to investigate, and spotted one sitting on the eaves of the adjacent building. I gave it a loud “RAWK!” It flew over to a group of ravens sitting in a lodgepole pine, making me wonder exactly what I had communicated, if anything. Maybe I had simply interrupted a disagreement, and they were now getting on with the business of smoothing things over. Or maybe they were doing something yet unknown to us, the discovery of which will further confirm the depth of their intelligence, and maybe even their feelings.

Telling ravens from crows

With thanks to Ben Gadd’s “Handbook to the Canadian Rockies”

•Ravens are larger than crows, with heavier bills.

•Raven feathers are “scruffier” around the neck.

•Ravens tend to stick around for the winter, while most crows tend to migrate.

•Crows flap steadily while flying. Ravens tend to glide and soar more of the time.

•The end of the raven’s tail is pointed, the feathers convening in a “v” while the crow’s is flat, or slightly rounded.

Link to article at the Fitzhugh: