Common Ravens are widely distributed and thrive in many habitat types throughout Mendocino County. They can be distinguished from crows by their larger overall size, big bill, and deeper ‘gurgling croak’ vocalizations. Ravens are omnivores so have been just as successful at adapting to human infrastructure as they have to natural environments. They have always been closely tied to human culture and are the subject of many myths and folklore. There is evidence of ravens following pre-historic human hunter-gather settlements 30,000 years ago, feeding on mammoth scraps and possibly serving as another food source for the hunters. Since then, the close relationship between humans and ravens has had time to evolve.
Ravens hold a prominent role in various cultures and diverse civilizations around the world. Ravens are revered for their intelligence and ability to communicate. They appear in literature and art and have served as symbols of wisdom, knowledge, death, transformation, and rebirth. A raven served the Greek god Apollo as a messenger. In Viking culture, the god Odin is often accompanied by two ravens, Huginn and Muninn, representing thought and memory. Odin sends these ravens out into the mortal world each morning, and upon their return they deliver all the news which they see and hear, thereby extending Odin’s senses. In the book of Genesis, Noah sends ravens from the ark to gather information on the flood waters.
Ravens also play a prominent role in Native American culture. Several tribes along the Pacific Northwest Coast feature the raven in their creation stories. The raven is always portrayed as a magical creature that is able to take the form of human, animal, and inanimate objects. He is a trickster, and his creative nature reveals itself through circumstance and random turns of events. The parables surrounding the raven tell of how worldly things came to be and offer suggestions to children on how to behave.
Ravens have also served as symbols of death and transformation, particularly in Western culture. As scavengers of carrion, the appearance of a raven is often interpreted as a foreshadowing of impending doom. This is often depicted in popular culture and art, like the common scenes in Westerns as someone struggles to make it through a desert or other harsh landscape. The most notable example is Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven, which depicts a view of ravens as dark and foreboding. A recent example of ravens representing transformation is the three-eyed raven that appears in the character Bran’s dreams in the series A Game of Thrones. A progression of visions guides him in his quest to achieve the magical abilities to perceive the past, present and future. Ravens are also used as messengers in the series.
These examples illustrate how raven biology and natural history have become intertwined with the human experience. Legends and mythical stories about the raven, both positive and negative, have grown from the mutual relationship between humans and ravens. Ravens have been observed calling and alerting wolves to the presence of prey, helping themselves to the leftovers after the wolves had their fill. Early hunter-gatherers and ravens relied on each other in the same way to locate food sources. The raven’s intelligence and ability to adapt serve as an inspiration to persevere and overcome hardship. The next time you are faced with a Common Raven, perhaps it will serve as a conduit between you and the spiritual underworld!