The Raven

Raven, Point Lobos, California

This all-black bird has either fascinated or intimidated humans for centuries. I am one of the fascinated fans. Corvus corax  have a versatile and wide-ranging diet; a full repertoire of vocalizations; and a rare ability to problem-solve.

 

A member of the Corvid family, the most intelligent birds on the planet, ravens have captivated humans for centuries. Hundreds of scientific studies and thousands of observations continue to prove how advanced a raven’s thinking is.

 

Corvids include crows, jays, magpies, rooks, jackdaws, and more.  Common Raven Wikipedia.

 

At the Golden Gate Bridge, SF skyline in background

 

They reside in our planet’s northern hemisphere; see range maps at end.

 

This photograph offers a good size comparison between a bald eagle (left) and a raven (right). It was very rainy day and we were all drenched and a little cranky.

Bald eagle (juvenile) on left, raven on right. Sacramento NWR, CA

 

It can be difficult to distinguish the difference between a raven and a crow. They look very much alike, differences are subtle.

 

Here are a few of the differences that help me with identification:

  • The raven is the larger of the two birds;
  • Adult ravens usually travel in pairs, whereas crows are often seen in large flocks;
  • The call of a raven is a deeper croak than the crow;
  • Ravens like large expanses of open land, while crows are more often seen in densely populated areas;
  •  A raven’s tail, which you can see well in the photograph below, has varying lengths and tapers into a rounded wedge shape; whereas a crow’s tail has feathers all the same length, the end is straight across.

Raven in flight

More info for distinguishing the two here.

 

Raven

 

We have a raven pair on our property who often come to roost at the end of the day. After the sun has set, I hear them call to each other. Caw, caw, caw says one. Then I hear the other one reply: caw, caw, caw. They can go on like this for several minutes. I think they’re discussing which tree to spend the night in.

 

Here they were captured by our camera trap. They are keen to collect our offering of mice, caught in traps from our storage space. Look closely in the right raven’s mouth. They take the mice and fly off with their cache; circle this stump from above on their daily hunting route.

 

Even the Tower of London has a long history with ravens.

 

Not everyone, including Edgar Allan Poe, find ravens to be a delight. But even Mr. Poe, in his poem, found them to be mysterious.

 

Common Raven, Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California

 

Big and raucous, and sporting the all-black color of the underworld, ravens have an intimidating effect on some cultures.

 

If you happen to see a raven blinking in a moment when their extra protective eyelid, the nictitating membrane, is revealed, they can look eerie.

Raven revealing nictitating membrane in eye

 

But observe them long enough and you hear dozens of creative vocalizations that you never knew were possible. You see barrel rolls and aerobatic displays that can only be interpreted as one thing: fun.

 

You see enough of the fun and games of ravens…and you’re hooked for life.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

 

 

Range Map for Common Raven

North America Range Map for Common Raven, courtesy allaboutbirds.org

Corvus corax map.jpg

World Map, Common Raven Range, courtesy Wikipedia

Jubilee and Munin, two of the London Tower’s ravens in 2016. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

Yellow-billed Magpie

California Oak Woodland

I started birding in the 1990s, and there were always places we could reliably find the yellow-billed magpie. They like the oak trees in California’s Central Valley, and could easily be found in oak woodlands and pastures. As non-migratory birds, they don’t stray far from their communal roosting spots.

 

We have 673 bird species in California. Only two are endemic, i.e. unique to California. This bird is one of the two endemics. It occurs nowhere else in the world. (Island Scrubjay is the other). Range map below.

 

A large bird in the Corvidae  family, Pica nutalli make a splashy appearance with a tail longer than its body, and a bright yellow bill. Their black and white markings exhibit a flashing effect in flight. In addition, when they perch just right in the sunlight, the light changes their black wings to turquoise.

 

Yellow-billed Magpie, Lodi, California

 

The black-billed magpies, their close relative, have this black-to-turquoise feature, too. We saw a flock in Montana a few years ago.

 

Black-billed Magpie, Montana

Black-billed Magpie, Montana

The magpies are raucous, much like their cousins the crows and jays–squawk a lot. They are easy to spot because of their big size, flashy colors, and vocal presence.  Click here to listen to one. 

 

But then in 2003 a mosquito-transmitted disease, the West Nile Virus, struck the North American corvid family and other bird species too. Humans and horses were also victims. (One percent of humans develop severe symptoms.)

 

Many birds suffered a precipitous decline, especially in the years 2004-2006. The yellow-billed magpie population fell by 49%.

Yellow-billed Magpie. Photo courtesy 10000birds.com

After a few years, some bird species made a comeback, built immunity. But others, including the yellow-billed magpie, continued to decline.

 

For years whenever we were in the Central Valley, we repeatedly returned to the same oaks with hopes of finding our old friends the yellow-billed magpies. But there were none.

 

You can imagine the plethora of scientific studies and surveys that were conducted for this unique, endemic bird. There were heightened efforts to understand and turn around the decline of this rapidly disappearing bird; they still continue today. Their conservation status is listed as Vulnerable, some say it should be Endangered.

 

Last month, while birding in the Central Valley, we did our usual cruising around the oaks looking for the yellow-billed magpies where we formerly saw them. We have been doing this every year,  to no avail, since the early 2000s.

 

And guess what?

 

Three flew into the oak tree just as we were driving by. They only stayed for about five minutes, but it was enough time to slam on the brakes, hop out of the car with all our gear, and go wildly running to the oak trees.

 

It was pure joy to see this rowdy bird again. They flew in as if nothing had ever happened.

Yellow-billed Magpie, Lodi, California

A showy bird, found only in California, one that can change colors from black to turquoise merely by standing in the sun. Add to their remarkableness, their declining population is making a recovery.

 

That’s an incredible bird. Now let’s just hope they can continue recovery.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.
Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.

 

Yellow-billed Magpie, Lodi, California

 

Range Map for Yellow-billed Magpie

Range map for Yellow-billed Magpie. Courtesy allaboutbirds.com

 

Steller’s Jay

Steller's Jay, California

Steller’s Jay, California

The only crested jay west of the Rockies, the Steller’s Jay can be found in forested areas, primarily coniferous.  In the same Genus as the Blue Jay, they are strictly found in western North America.

 

Birders associate them, and rightly so, with the mountains.  When you hear that characteristic shuck-shuck-shuck you know the elegant crested jay is nearby.  Cyanocitta stelleri also have many other sounds.  Like other birds in the corvid family, they mimic birds.  I am still sometimes fooled when a very talented steller’s jay does a spot-on impersonation of a red-tailed hawk.

 

Like all jays, their size is quite large.  The steller’s jay is about 11 inches (29 cm) long.  Their omnivore diet is variable with berries, fruit, insects, spiders, bird eggs, and even table scraps.  In the fall, they can be seen doggedly collecting acorns all day long in preparation for the winter.  They cache acorns in the ground or tree for later consumption.  These amazing jays are equipped for opening hard acorns with special modifications of the bones near the base of the jaw, to help brace the lower mandible when pounding.

 

You can read about the steller’s jay here.

 

The adult male and female of the species do not differ, but the juvenile does.  Juveniles generally have paler coloring than their parents.  We have arrived, in the northern hemisphere, at that time of year when the juveniles are now on their own.  Where I live the steller’s jays are now in their teen stage.  There are six or seven around the feeder at one time, squawking and squabbling as jays do, and showing themselves to be quite demanding, like teens (heh-heh) can sometimes be.  It’s all a joy.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Jays Around the World

Turquoise Jay, Ecuador

Turquoise Jay, Ecuador

You can only find the elegant Turquoise Jay in three countries in South America.  They prefer humid montane forests for their omnivorous diet, and live in Ecuador, Colombia, and Peru.  Jays, however, are a successful and prevalent species and can be found all over the world.  There is probably at least one jay with which you are already familiar.

 

Jays are members of the Corvidae family, which also include crows, magpies, ravens, rooks, nutcrackers, jackdaws, and others.  They are everywhere except on the tip of South America and polar ice caps.  Considered the most intelligent bird on earth, Corvids are also one of the most intelligent of all animals due to their self-awareness and tool-making skills.  There are over 120 species of Corvids and these are classified with many sub-species.

 

Magpie Jay, Mexico

Magpie Jay, Mexico

If you have jays regularly around your home, you might have noticed they will bury and later retrieve food.  This incredible skill requires highly accurate spatial knowledge, and equally as astonishing:  they have a recall memory of up to nine months.  Once I watched a jay in my yard exhibiting peculiar behavior, he was looking around for something in particular.  One comical moment later he triumphantly pulled a shelled peanut out of a juniper bush!

 

Scrub Jay, California

Western Scrub-Jay, California

Although we are familiar with blue-colored jays in the New World, jays are many different colors.  The original jay after which all other jays are named is the Eurasian Jay, and it is mostly brown.  Wikipedia lists over 46 species of jays in the world, representing many colors.

 

I am lucky to host two kinds of jays in my California yard, the Western Scrub-Jay and the Steller’s Jay.  When I visit the midwestern or eastern states I am equally as dazzled by the striking Blue Jay.  Flashy, vocal, and vivacious, the jays are a wonderful bird to have widespread on earth:  smart, successful, and beautiful too.

Pinyon Jays, Nevada

Pinyon Jays, Nevada

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

The Magical Pinyon Jay

Pinyon Jays, Nevada

Pinyon Jays, Nevada

I found a stunning but unfamiliar jay recently while visiting Nevada, and enjoyed numerous sightings of this new “lifer.”  As part of the Corvid family, pinyon jays are similar to other North American jays in size, shape, and color.  Though they do not have a crest, the pinyon jay is approximately 10 inches long, with an overall blue color.  But noticeably unlike other jay species, they are highly social, traveling in flocks of hundreds.

 

The distribution of Gymnorhinus cyanocephalus is in the western and southwestern United States, in foothills and lower mountain slopes.  They forage on the seed of the pinyon pine, but will also eat juniper or ponderosa pine seeds as well as berries, fruit, and insects.  With a very strong bill, they open the green pine cone and remove the seed.   In years when seed crops are low, they will relocate outside their home territory to other pine woodland forests.  Like other jays, they cache their seeds and have incredible spatial memories for recovering their hidden treasures.

 

Pinyon Jays, Nevada

Pinyon Jays, Nevada

In earlier eras the pinyon-juniper woodlands of the west were razed for cattle and agriculture production; the pinyon jay population dangerously dwindled.  Since the 1960s, their population has recovered somewhat, but conservation status is still threatened, and listed as vulnerable.

 

The first time I saw them we were driving on a dirt road to our Nevada lodge.  A gregarious flock landed in a nearby pinyon pine, dazzling us with flashes of blue.  As our stay at the lodge continued, we found them flying overhead in huge flocks, often on the ridges of the canyon, scattering into stands of pines.  Soon we came to know their call, a high-pitched mew; a striking sound that stopped us in our tracks as it echoed through the canyon.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander