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No doubt many casual observers among us have been dismissing a lot of large black birds as crows. A closer look, however, might reveal that a lot of those birds are ravens. I am not so sure I haven’t been seeing more ravens than crows here in Turtle Mountain recently. Not so many years ago the sighting of a raven would have been rather unusual, but things have changed.

Apparently, North Dakota used to support breeding populations of the birds, but they were subsequently extirpated. According to Bob Stewart’s Breeding Birds of North Dakota (1975) ravens were apparently observed along and southwest of the Missouri River and in Pembina County during the 1800’s. He goes on to note that breeding populations were eliminated during settlement, probably as an unintended consequence of predator and other animal poisonings. Today ravens may be observed, at least seasonally, over much of the state.

The casual observer often has difficulty differentiating ravens from crows. But there are some characteristics to key in on. Ravens are larger than crows. My Peterson Field Guide to the Birds East of the Rockies lists the raven as being 22-27 inches long compared to 17-21 inches for the common crow. And unlike a crow’s rounded tail, ravens have a wedge-shaped tail. Ravens also have rather noticeable shaggy looking throat feathers, sometimes inaccurately referred to as a “goiter.” The bill is also noticeably larger and more prominent on ravens compared to crows. Ravens are the “Jimmy Durante of the crow family.” Their call has been referred to as a hoarse resonant croak, but to me it resembles that of a crow with a sore throat.

So the next time you dismiss that crow off in the distance, take a closer look. It may well be a raven. If you were an Alaskan Inuit, seeing a raven might make you think of the Milky Way, or Raven’s snowshoe tracks. If you are a fan of Edgar Allan Poe you may start reciting something about “once upon a midnight dreary.” Whatever your ethnicity and propensities, seeing this jet-black bird and hearing that coarse croak is becoming a more common and enjoyable experience. And of course to experience it, you need to be outdoors.

~Chuck Lura

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