Symbiosis: Ravens and Wolves

The raven story I share here actually happened two years ago, on July 17, 2018, but it describes a fairly common experience for me when I’m out in the forest with my dogs. Every time we’re shadowed by ravens, I vow to research the relationship between ravens and wolves when I get home. And then promptly forget.

First, the story behind that encounter two summers ago.

My dogs and I were enjoying a lovely early-morning trail run at a nearby mountain resort. We were the only ones out so early. As we moved through a section alternating between forest and open slopes (ski runs in winter), I noticed a raven was following us. I noticed because I heard the air against its wings as it approached us low, from behind. I ducked, and watched it fly past us, then perch on a tree limb alongside our trail just ahead.

raven, sun, sky
Hard to get a good shot as the raven approached from behind because I was looking directly into the sun.

I worried we were near a nest and would be strafed. When I was in college in Seattle, I was hit on the back of the head by a crow protecting a nest as I walked across campus. (Thankfully I was wearing a rain hat, but the unexpected impact was scary. Visions of Alfred Hitchcock’s movie The Birds flashed through my mind.) I didn’t know if a raven would attack dogs as well as humans when protecting a nest.

We kept running along the trail. I watched the raven closely, and it returned the favor. It watched us from the perch of a tree beside the trail, let us pass, then took to the air to swoop by us from behind, passing 20-30 feet above us, landing on another tree – or eventually, a chair lift – ahead of us, only to repeat the sequence.

My Aussie, Finn, also took notice of this new intruder, and took umbrage at the raven’s audacity. Finn started chasing it down the trail, occasionally barking. Finn got more agitated the longer this went on, chasing and barking, eventually stumbling over something because he was looking up at the raven as he ran. (His shoulder was sore for a couple of days afterward.) Conall was unperturbed and simply kept leading us all down the trail.

As this played out in real time, I recalled reading about ravens following wolves in order to feed on their kills, and in some cases, actually alerting and leading wolves to carcasses so that the wolves could tear them open, making them accessible to the ravens as food. I wondered if this raven thought Conall was a wolf and would lead him to a kill? Or knew where a carcass was hidden in the trees, and needed help but we weren’t interpreting his body language correctly?

Raven and Wolf Factoids

What follows is a mishmash of raven facts and information, derived from several sources (see notes at the end), along with my own observations and thoughts. I’ve been fascinated by wolves for many decades. It’s why I’ve connected so deeply to Alaskan Malamutes since bringing my first into my life in 1986; they’re the dogs most closely related to wolves. Ravens are a more recent interest, partly because I now live where they’re a regular feature of the natural landscape, but mostly because of their symbiotic relationship with wolves.

The intriguing Common Raven has accompanied people around the Northern Hemisphere for centuries, following their wagons, sleds, sleighs, and hunting parties in hopes of a quick meal. Ravens are among the smartest of all birds, gaining a reputation for solving ever more complicated problems invented by ever more creative scientists. These big, sooty birds thrive among humans and in the back of beyond, stretching across the sky on easy, flowing wingbeats and filling the empty spaces with an echoing croak.

All About Birds

The common raven (Corvus corax) – hereafter referred to simply as raven – is a large all-black passerine bird. [“Passerine” refers to perching birds, about half of all birds. The raven is among the largest and heaviest of passerines.] Found across the Northern Hemisphere, it is the most widely distributed of all corvids (crow family).

An adult raven averages 25 inches in length, has a wingspan of 41-55 inches, and weighs 2.6 pounds. Their brains are among the largest of birds. In the wild they live 10-15 years, although one banded raven lived to be 23 years and 3 months.

Ravens are extremely versatile in finding food, feeding on carrion, insects, cereal grains, berries, fruit, small animals, nesting birds, and food waste.

Ravens are larger than crows. You can distinguish a raven from a crow in flight by their tail shape, larger wing area, and more stable soaring style. In flight their feathers produce a creaking sound that has been likened to the rustle of silk. They’re acrobatic fliers, often doing rolls and somersaults.

The raven’s voice is distinct from that of the crow, its usual call being a much deeper prruk-prruk-prruk. They can mimic the calls of other birds, even human speech. Ravens have 15-30 types of vocalizations, most used for social interactions.

Ravens thrive in a variety of climates. They have an enormous range. Ravens prefer undisturbed mountain or forest habitat with expanses of open land nearby. They prefer rural areas over urban areas. So do I.

It’s no wonder I see mostly ravens where I live in Idaho’s mountains, on the edge of a national forest with open fields in the valley. Crows appear here, but they’re rare and in small numbers. When I lived in the Seattle area, crows were abundant, sometimes forming huge flocks close to sunset in winter (literally thousands; it’s a sight) before flying to their roost for the night. I rarely saw a raven near Seattle.

Ravens usually travel in mated pairs. Unmated juveniles will form flocks. Relationships between ravens are often noisily quarrelsome, yet they demonstrate considerable devotion to their families. If half of a pair is lost, its mate imitates the lost one’s call to encourage it to return.

Ravens have few natural predators. They’re good at defending their young by diving at, harassing, and driving off perceived threats. Humans are occasionally attacked if they get too close to a nest, usually hit on the head from behind (similar to owls protecting their nests from humans and predators).

Breeding pairs acquire a territory before building a nest. The size of a nesting territory depends on the availability of food. Females lay between three and seven eggs. The female incubates them for 18 to 21 days. The male may shelter the young by standing or crouching over them. Young ravens start flying at 35 to 42 days. They are fed by and stay with their parents for another six months.

Juveniles begin to court at a very early age, showing off their aerobatic skills, intelligence, and food-providing abilities, although they may not bond for another two or three years. In fact, juvenile ravens are considered one of the most playful species of birds. They fly in loops, interlocking talons. They slide down roofs and snowbanks, returning for multiple rides. They collect shiny objects. They engage in games with other species, such as playing catch-me-if-you-can with wolves, otters and dogs. Juvenile ravens are curious about all new things, a trait that seems to diminish with age. Rather like humans.

In addition to their playfulness, you can hear the typical raven call & the sound of their wings against the air in this video. You also see other animals feeding on the carrion: magpies, a raccoon, and raptors.

Once paired, ravens usually nest together for life, typically in the same location.

Ravens are “inventors.” They can solve problems, such as how to shorten a string to bring an otherwise unobtainable morsel of meat within reach. Not only do they solve problems individually, but they learn from each other. They also exhibit deceit, as when pretending to hide a cache of food in a particular spot when they know they’re being observed by another raven, only to actually cache it elsewhere else because, yes, they steal from each other. They also steal from fox caches.

Linguist Derek Bickerton believes that ravens are one of only four known animals (the others being bees, ants and humans) who have demonstrated displacement, the capacity to communicate about objects or events that are distant in space or time from the communication. One example: juvenile ravens roost together at night, but usually forage alone during the day. When one discovers a large carcass guarded by a pair of adult ravens, the juvenile will return to the roost and communicate the find through a series of loud yells, a behavior called recruitment. The following day, a flock of juveniles will fly to the carcass and chase off the adults.

In another sort of recruitment, ravens have been observed calling wolves to the site of a carcass. Raven’s beaks aren’t sturdy enough to open the tough hides of large animals; they need help. The wolves tear the carcass open and feed, leaving the scraps more accessible to the ravens.

Culture & Mythology

Throughout human history the raven has been a powerful symbol and a popular subject of mythology and folklore.

In some Western cultures, ravens have long been considered birds of bad omen, of death and evil, in part because of their all-black plumage and their habit of eating carrion. In Sweden, ravens are known as the ghosts of murdered people, and in Germany as the souls of the damned.

In Tlingit and Haida cultures (indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast of North America), Raven was both a trickster (a character in a story – god, goddess, spirit, human, or some combination – which exhibits high intellect or secret knowledge and uses it to play tricks or ignore conventional rules of behavior) and creator god (deity or god responsible for the creation of the earth, world, and universe).

Wolves & Ravens

Few mammals have symbiotic relationships with other animals. One exception is the raven and the wolf, causing ravens to sometimes be called “wolf-birds.” Their complex relationship is thousands of years old, benefiting both. It’s this relationship with wolves that has caused me to be more observant of ravens around me, and to revere them.

In The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species (1981), Dr. L. David Mech wrote, “It appears that the wolf and the raven have reached an adjustment in their relationships such that each creature is rewarded in some way by the presence of the other and that each is fully aware of the other’s capabilities. Both species are extremely social, so they must possess the psychological mechanisms necessary for forming social attachments. Perhaps in some way individuals of each species have included members of the other in their social group and have formed bonds with them.”

In Of Wolves and Men (1979), Barry Lopez explored the long and mostly dark history of man’s relationship with wolves. He also wrote about wolves’ resilience, strong family ties, intelligence and playfulness. “The wolf seems to have few relationships with other animals that could be termed purely social, though he apparently takes pleasure in the company of ravens. The raven, with a range almost as extensive as the wolf’s, one that even includes the tundra, commonly follows hunting wolves to feed on the remains of a kill.”

Ravens follow wolves to grab leftovers from the hunt, but also to tease them. They play with the wolves by diving at them to get a reaction, even pecking their tails to try to get the wolves to chase them. Wolf pups often reciprocate the ravens’ efforts by chasing them. The ravens’ play style isn’t all that different than that of the wolf pups, who nip each other’s tails and legs to start a game of chase. Over the thousands of years they’ve co-existed, ravens and wolves have learned to trust and rely upon each other. The ravens, as intelligent as they are, seem to have observed wolf behavior – play style, in particular – and figured out how to engage with wolves in a way that nurtures and promotes their symbiotic relationship. Smart move.

On a practical level, in Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds (2007), zoologist Bernd Heinrich has suggested a basis for the relationship between ravens and wolves is that ravens lead wolves to their prey, alert them to approaching dangers while they eat, and are rewarded by sharing the spoils after the wolves make the meat accessible for the ravens.

It is believed that the wolves respond to the ravens’ calls or other behavior that indicates food, and follow them as they fly toward the carcass or prey. This especially makes sense if the ravens aren’t able to feed on the carcass until the wolves break through the hide, making the rest accessible to them. After reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park, biologists noted that ravens – and aspen groves, but that’s another story – were the biggest winners, feeding on the wolf kills.

A recent study suggests that a primary reason wolves hunt in packs – after all, individual wolves are capable of taking down even their largest prey, e.g. moose – is to minimize the amount of their kill lost to ravens, who can steal up to a third of an animal carcass. Each raven can eat or cache roughly two pounds of food per day, which means that a group could scavenge as much as a third of what wolves kill. Wolves eat fast, rather than bury their kill for a more leisurely meal. It’s thought that wolves in larger packs lose less of what they kill by scaring off the ravens and other scavengers. This theory is still being researched.

But how to explain the mutual playfulness? As with most things we humans think we know about animals we share this planet with, I suspect there’s much more to the story than we know, or may ever know. For now, though, I like the idea that wolves and ravens enjoy each other’s company, just for fun.

***

Every time I’ve watched a raven follow me and my dogs for some distance, I’ve wondered, “Do you think I’ve got a wolf with me? That s/he will lead you to food?” Or are they being playful? I’ve witnessed this behavior so many times over the years. The ravens – usually a single one – never acted aggressively, so I don’t think it’s nest-protecting behavior. Rather, they follow, swoop, land and watch us pass, then follow and swoop again, several times until finally leaving, either bored by our lack of reaction, or turning back after reaching the edge of their territory.

Many years ago, walking in the forest with my two female Malamutes, we heard a ruckus in the trees just up slope from our path. In an instant I saw a red-tailed hawk with a vole in its talons flush from the trees and fly right in front of me, just feet away, two ravens fast on its tail, crying their dismay that a meal was stolen from them as they followed the hawk down slope through the trees. The girls and I stood still, watching, stunned at what we’d witnessed. I’ve no idea how that argument ended, but I was grateful I got to hear and see that small portion of it.

Lately, Finn has brought his disdain for ravens home. They sometimes soar over my house and field, and if Finn notices them, he barks and lunges from within the fenced yard. Silly boy; they’re far above and know he’s no threat. I try to tell him that ravens remember the faces of humans they like or dislike, so they likely also remember individual dogs and he shouldn’t be so snotty toward them. They might exact revenge someday. Finn doesn’t care, nor do the ravens seem concerned. Maybe it’s a game they play, and I’m simply clueless as to the rules.

***

Resources:

All About Birds: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Common_Raven/overview

Wikipedia, Common Raven: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_raven

Ravens give wolves reason to live in packs: https://isleroyalewolf.org/node/43

21 thoughts on “Symbiosis: Ravens and Wolves”

    1. Yes! The difference in size and the sound of their calls took some getting used to when I moved here and realized there were virtually no crows. They also do more soaring, like a hawk, which is fun to watch. Well, I enjoy watching them; Finn gets annoyed and starts barking when they soar over the house 🙂

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  1. We had a pair of nesting ravens in a 70 ft. palm tree in front of our house. A strong wind came by and blew the nest out of the tree along with a nearly adult chick. The chick hid in some nearby shrubbery and for days the adults continued to feel it and attack anyone who came near the nest. There are a couple of cats in the area but the nestling was almost as big as they and one of the adults was always near.

    Eventually it fledged and the parents left, probably for another palm tree. We took the tree down soon after that because neighbors were complaining about palm fronds falling on their cars.

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    1. Cool story, Fred! Too bad the mating pair had to leave and the tree had come down to appease those neighbors. I admit to a fantasy of someday coming upon an orphaned raven chick, nursing it until it fledges and in the process forming a bond that keeps the raven nearby and interacting with me throughout its life.

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  2. Very interesting post. Thanks for sharing all the information on Ravens. I am happy that this Raven did not hit you in the back of the head. He must have been following to see if he could get that free meal. Quite a story.

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  3. Thank you for the story! Yes we observed ravens in Washington state playing games with our Siberian husky. They would occasionally accompany us on hikes in the mountains. Love reading about wolves too, such fascinating intelligent creatures! In reading about the Indians and the mountain men explorers of the west, they mention ravens as guides to kills too. Love how you observe so much on your mountain hikes and bring that to your stories! Thank you yet again!

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    1. Yes – love the Norse mythology, including Odin’s ravens.
      I started researching ravens in mythology and culture for this post. I quickly realized that was a whole other rabbit hole I could fall down, making the post way too long, so I kept that part short. Barry Lopez’s book, Of Men and Wolves, does an amazing job of creating a historical timeline showing the cultural stories and mythologies about wolves of various societies and how/why depictions of wolves became so dark (much blame rests with the Black Death/bubonic plague of the mid-1300s). Fascinating stuff.

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  4. I never considered ravens to be ominous. Maybe it’s the Poe fan in me, who sees the complicated majesty of these creatures, I dunno. But man, are they ever smart! To mimic speech and fool others by hiding food, wow? And the rustle of silk when they fly . . there’s that majesty thing I was talking about . . .

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    1. When I read that description of the sound of their flight as like the rustle of silk, I thought, “Yes! Perfect!”
      Complicated majesty, indeed; good viewpoint, Marc. Clearly, native peoples, who observed ravens closely and revered and protected the natural world around them, realized how perfectly ravens fit the role of trickster for origination stories, or as a representative of knowledge, transformation and creation. It’s sad that in Western cultures the raven (and crows) got a bad rap, along with wolves, bears, and other animals that were (are) feared rather than understood and admired.

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      1. It really is.

        Doesn’t it feel like our culture has turned into a disposable one in so many ways? We should know and appreciate more than we do, but that’s just my opinion maybe.

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  5. Wow, your raven story is creepy. I’d find that pretty disconcerting if I was alone in the woods. From your map, I see that Ravens may live in gettysburg, but I don’t think I’ve seen one here. Interestingly, they don’t live in Baltimore. I wonder if that bothers Ravens fans.

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    1. For some reason I’m much more wary of crows than ravens, probably because crows tend to be in noisy flocks where ravens are typically alone or in pairs. But ravens are bigger, so there’s that. Back in western WA, owls are the real danger to trail runners; every spring I read stories on a trail runners’ Facebook page about owl attacks. And they’re silent fliers! So far, the ravens here are just curious, not mean.

      Interesting about the Baltimore Ravens. I guess that’s like US teams choosing tigers as mascots 😉

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