Ravens are starting to build their nests

Chel Anderson is a North Shore naturalist. She lives here in Cook County and joins us periodically to talk about phenology or what’s going on in the woods right now. Welcome, Chel.

Anderson: Hi!

Well, Chel, I saw one fly overhead about two weeks ago: a raven with a stick in its mouth. It must be courting and nesting time.

Anderson: Indeed it is. Ravens, too, are getting in the act. Another one of those birds that gets an early start on the mating and nesting season. Gosh, who doesn’t love ravens?

They are an amazing, amazing bird.

Anderson: They really are, and, you know, throughout the course of the year I’m always marveling at their various antics, their incredible abilities, though, as fliers is one of the things that’s easiest to admire and be amazed by. But, it seems like during the courting and mating time is when their exuberance as fliers and their skills as fliers are really being shown off to the max. So, it’s a great time of year to really be paying close attention to opportunities to watch that, where the pairs will fly wing-on-wing in tandem and they’re doing barrel rolls and they’re doing flips and they’re flying upside down and just, incredible, incredible acrobatics in the air. Ravens mate for life; for as long as they live, I guess. If a pair has both partners still on the scene in a given winter, then their territories kind of become a little bit looser. They’re not doing as much enforcing of boundaries of territories during the winter, but starting in late winter they’re going to start enforcing the territories around their nests, which often are sites that they use repeatedly. They may have more than one. It could be in a big tree, could be on a cliff ledge, multiple sites and they’re going to be doing a lot of pair bonding around those nest sites, bringing sticks, bringing material of different kinds. Not just sticks, bones, you know, have been found in raven nests, soft materials, even, scraps of wool, plastic, colorful things.

These are pretty big nests.

Anderson: Yes, they are, even when they’re built from scratch. The initial nest is big, and then if they’re used year after year they become quite massive as, you know, each succeeding year the adults are adding a little bit of material to the nest. So, yes, they can become quite large, and that’s where the pair will be focusing their attention in terms of courtship and eventually the eggs will be laid in late winter. Two to four eggs isn’t uncommon, large eggs, and their seems to be quite a bit of variability in terms of how adults act around the nests. Some nests are really in secluded places and the adults seem very secretive and it’s really kind of amazing to discover them. But, others seem to build their nests in really obvious places and are real carefree around their nests in terms of people observing them. So, there’s really a wide range it seems of approaches to where to nest in terms of people’s habitations and how to act around the nest. But, if you happen to have one nest in your neighborhood or come upon one and have a chance to observe the birds around their nests it’s really interesting, of course, to watch how they incubate the eggs and feed their nestlings. It’s very interesting and fun.

Do crows act a lot like ravens?

Anderson: Yeah, although crows are much more social in flocks. They spend a lot more time in flocks. Ravens definitely gather up together and do things together, but not with the same kind of enthusiasm on an ongoing basis as crows do. They gather together when it’s useful to be together and for the sake of sharing and taking advantage of other food that other ravens have found to scavenge. But, generally, they’re more likely to spend time just as a pair or as single birds, versus crows which seem to be much happier mingling as groups more often than not.

There’s a lot of native spirituality around ravens, and I can imagine why. But, I think that this is one amazing bird that’s always fascinated me. I’m glad I live in an area that has so many of them.

Anderson: Yes, I know. We’re really fortunate to have them close by and not something that it takes a lot of effort to go and just observe, to be able to enjoy them regularly pretty much wherever we are in the county.

So, this time of year, it seems to be as long as there is snow on the ground and while they’re doing their mating and this sort of thing, that’s when we get to see the air shows. This is the time to look up.

Anderson: This is really the time to look up and pay attention, because you’re more than likely to see some pretty amazing acrobatics up there.

It’s amazing to see with those flips.

Anderson: Yeah!

I don’t know, why do they do that?

Anderson: Well, I don’t know, but I can’t help but anthropomorphize about it. They just seem to really enjoy flying. As do others, you know, they’re not the only birds that I sometimes interpret that kind of activity that way. But, they really just do seem to love to fly. You seem them out in the most horrific weather just playing in the wind and just seemingly enjoying their capacity to use their abilities to carve out space in the air and go places.

Besides being extremely bright.

Anderson: Oh my gosh, yes. Maybe that goes with intelligence, that playfulness. They are among the most intelligent.

Chel Anderson, botanist and plant ecologist. Thanks for helping us understand ravens in love.

Anderson: You’re welcome.

Photo courtesy of Sergey Yeliseev via Flickr.

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