Ravens Among the Newest Breeding Birds on Cape Cod

Mar 22, 2017

When I was a weird little birder kid growing up in the wilds of Brockton, the Common Raven was an almost mythical bird to me. They lived in wilderness areas, like the big woods of northern Maine, where I assumed they soared around over densely forested hills looking for deer carcasses or whatever it was they ate. Or maybe they only hung around haunted houses and dark castles where they kept company with murderous madmen.

A lot has changed since then, as ravens have recently adopted suburban and even urban Massachusetts into their breeding range. They even nest on an old Verizon tower in my hometown of Brockton. And as of about five years ago, we can claim them as one of the newest breeding birds here on Cape Cod.

Around 2012, local birder Mary Keleher noticed a couple of ravens hanging around the power plant at the Sandwich end of the Cape Cod Canal. It turned out they were nesting on the actual power plant, using some metal catwalk as a pseudo cliff. The birds have been present ever since, representing the first modern record of ravens nesting on Cape Cod. Multiple authors writing in the 1600s noted that ravens were numerous on Cape Cod when the pilgrims landed, but were quickly hunted out. The dense, pre-colonial forests were replaced with an agricultural moonscape, and only recently have the forests recovered enough to support ravens again.

Ravens are corvids, which is a family that include jays, magpies, nutcrackers, and crows, as well as some European relatives you may not have heard of with great names like jackdaws, rooks and, choughs. All corvids are smart and adaptable. While I’m not sure where my wallet is right now, nutcrackers have been shown to remember the locations of thousands of individual caches of pine nuts, which they stock up on to survive the rocky mountain winter. New Caledonian Crows can solve multi-step puzzles that a lot of adults I know would have trouble with.

And ravens may be the smartest of all. An entire book has been written on the subject – it’s called Mind of the Raven by Bernd Heinrich. In one experiment, ravens were able to get a food reward hanging from the end of a long string by pulling it up a little at a time, putting their foot on the string, then pulling it up some more, and so on, until they could reach the food. Many individuals studied the problem for as little as 30 seconds before performing the precise sequence of steps on the first try, indicating that they were using logic.

While sightings of these brainy birds are still uncommon overall, you can spot a raven pretty much anywhere on the Cape if you’re lucky, since they move around over big areas in search of food. Most of the sightings have been in the vicinity of the nesting site in Sandwich and also in Provincetown and Truro, raising the possibility that they may be nesting there as well. But in the last month there have also been sightings in Bourne, Falmouth, Mashpee, Dennis, Orleans, and Eastham, and I saw a pair over Rt. 6 in Yarmouth a week ago. To tell a raven from a crow, look for their long, relatively pointed wings, huge bill, and diamond shaped tail, all of which distinguish them from their smaller crow cousins. They also have a slower, more ponderous flight, and are much more likely to soar than a crow.

There is of course one burning question about ravens that I haven’t addressed. Will it ever be possible to talk about ravens without referencing Edgar Allen Poe? Quoth the bird guy, “nevermore”.