This essay about the raven was originally published as part of “The Great Canadian Creature Feature” in the June/July issue of Cottage Life.
Ravens have lived in the North for millennia. That’s far longer than our paltry 150-odd years of nationhood. They were there to welcome the first humans across the Bering Land Bridge 15,000 years ago, and we’ve been interacting with them ever since. Archaeologists have found 10,000-year-old raven skeletons, buried with human artifacts and thought to be the oldest evidence of human ritualistic behaviour in Canada.
“Raven” is an important figure in Indigenous myths and legends, often appearing as a creator or trickster. For instance, Bill Reid’s iconic sculpture, The Raven and the First Men, depicts a Haida story of human creation where Raven coaxes the first men from a clam shell.
Yet somehow, the clever corvid has had a bit of a PR problem over the last couple of thousand years. In some other parts of the world, ravens are considered dark omens (possibly due to their tendency to hover over cadavers). Unfortunately, it’s led to all kinds of problematic labelling. For instance, the group nouns for the species include an “unkindness of ravens” and a “conspiracy of ravens.” In an effort to correct this, I propose we refer to them, in the most Canadian of terms, as a “politeness of ravens,” going forward.
This ebony avian embodies many Canadian values, chief among them, equity and fairness. In one study, a group of ravens were trained to trade bread for a more delectable morsel of cheese. After several transactions, one of the researchers “cheated” by trading with the raven and then gobbling up the cheese himself. Deeply offended, all but one raven refused to do business with the shady researcher even a month later.
A family-oriented bird, ravens mate for life and raise their young together. They’re also good community members, exemplifying the Canadian ideals of empathy and inclusivity. When a raven comes out on the losing side of an altercation, bystander ravens have been observed consoling their pal with beak-to-body touching and preening.
Canada is the most educated country in the world, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, so naturally, our national animal should be equally erudite. Ravens are one of the world’s most intelligent birds along with crows, magpies, parrots, macaws, and cockatoos (you’ll notice that the bald eagle is not on this list). Ravens can plan tasks, problem-solve, use tools, remember faces (such as the dodgy researcher), and have been known to outsmart apes and young children.
Ravens also enjoy Canadian pastimes, including socializing. They have a vast range of vocalizations that convey emotions such as happiness, anger, tenderness, and surprise. They give a sharp “trill” when they’re looking for a fight and make a “haa” sound when confronted with food challenges, not unlike our own sigh of dismay when reaching a hand into an empty box of Timbits.
Unlike the loon, who takes off to Florida or Mexico as soon as the temperature dips, ravens are resourceful, hardy, and stay put for winter. They like winter sports and can be seen sliding down snow-covered roofs and hillsides. They’ve been known to make toys out of sticks and pinecones and are probably not too far from figuring out shinny.
I believe that Canadians are finally ready to pin their national identity on the wings of this spirited and ingenious creature. Let’s all agree that when Robert Stanley Weir penned the lyrics “With glowing hearts we see thee rise, The True North strong and free,” he was talking about our majestic raven.
Facts and figures
ID alert: They are larger and twice as heavy as crows. They have a wedge-shaped tail; a crow’s tail is more fan-shaped.
Puttin’ on the Ritz: They are acrobatic flyers. They swoop, soar, free-fall, and roll through the air.
Yes, they eat that: They will sustain themselves on everything from insects and small rodents to carrion and garbage.
Read more essays from “The Great Canadian Creature Feature” to read more of our favourite writers making the case for their pick for the most Canadian animal in the June/July 2021 issue of Cottage Life.