Sunday, 19 March 2017


When we did the Big Garden Birdwatch in January our star bird was the raven (well, join star bird with the goldcrest, perhaps. We had hardly started our hour when there was an immense commotion, which turned out to be a fight between a raven and two carrion crows who clearly believed it to be trespassing on their space. For a moment or two twigs and branches were flying about in all directions in the great oak just behind our garden.

I’ve written before about the crow family - we get them all (apart from the chough, which is found along coastlines, and the hooded crow, the carrion crow’s northern counterpart, which doesn’t stray this far south). Carrion crows and jackdaws are always around our garden, generally in groups of three or four or so, though the other evening at sunset quite a substantial band of jackdaws came across, chattering away.  Magpies are often about, jays much more rarely, though one was standing on our shed roof one morning as I opened our curtains. Rooks are country birds, so not regularly to be found on our estate, but sometimes wandering past.

But we do get ravens, and I’m delighted at that, since they aren’t really town birds, even though you may well associate them with the Tower of London. Despite its reputation as a bird of ill omen, the ravens at the Tower are highly valued; if there are not at least six ravens in residence, the monarchy will fall, or so it’s said. They are pinioned birds, but even so they do occasionally stray off, and one had to be sacked for eating TV aerials.

In reality, wild ravens are birds of wild places, resident in mountainous regions and nesting on cliffs, and in quarries. They rarely stray far from their breeding range. However they were historically much more widespread, and it was human persecution that drove them into the wilder parts of our land. There are signs now that they are spreading. They eat carrion but also take small birds and mammals, and will forage for eggs, insects, small reptiles - they have a varied diet.

Ravens usually nest on ledges, but will sometimes build a large untidy nest high in a tree. They raise one brood, and start early in the year, building in February. There are four to six eggs, incubated by the female while the male keeps her supplied with food. The chicks fledge in about five to six weeks.

Ravens are very black, and very big. They are the largest perching bird species, and are found in many parts of the world. In flight, they are recognised by their large and fingered wings, and their diamond-shaped tail - and by their high flying and love of thermals. I recently saw one high above our garden, soaring with buzzards, who now and again attacked it in a desultory way, a turning of the tables perhaps, as buzzards themselves are often mobbed by smaller crows and jackdaws.

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