Common Raven — “Unprecedented” Behavior

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Today I’m posting an image of a Common Raven engaging in what I only half facetiously describe as “unprecedented” behavior.

What is this raven doing that is so unusual? It’s sitting still long enough for me to photograph it!

I’m not joking at all when I say this: during one of my drives through southern Arizona’s farmlands I often encounter dozens of ravens. They are an extremely common sight. But, I almost never photograph them. My failure to make images of these birds stems not from any lack of interest on my part — ravens are among my favorite subjects — but entirely from the ravens’ wariness.

I’ve had the same experience more times than I can count. I’ll spot ravens, perhaps in a field or on an elevated perch. I’ll approach them slowly. The ravens don’t fly, but they immediately begin watching me. I’ll very carefully brake my vehicle to a stop. The ravens continue to watch me. Then, I’ll begin to raise my camera to eye level. The ravens fly at the slightest movement of my arms and shoulders, long before I can train my lens on them. And as they fly, they emit their harsh warning cries, causing other ravens — even ravens perched a hundred meters away — to take flight as well.

I’ve had this experience so often that I sometimes wonder if the ravens recognize my vehicle.

What accounts for these birds’ incredible wariness? I believe that there’s an answer. To a raven, my camera’s long telephoto lens probably doesn’t look different from the barrel of a rifle or a shotgun. Some of these ravens my have been shot at by farm workers in order to drive them away from crops in a field. They’ve learned from that experience not to trust anyone thrusting a long object in their direction.

But it’s more than that. Probably only a handful of the ravens that I encounter have actually been shot at. However, those birds have somehow communicated their experience to other ravens. Ravens are highly social and remarkably adept at communicating with other ravens. If one raven sounds a warning the entire flock responds. And ravens undoubtedly learn by association that the presence of a particular vehicle in their territory means danger. So yes, I believe that the ravens in southern Arizona’s farmlands know who I am. Their assessment of me may not be accurate or fair, but they’ve decided that I pose a threat.

Image made with a Canon R5, Canon EF 400mm f4 DO II lens+Canon EF 1.4x telextender, M setting (auto ISO), ISO 1600, f5.6 @ 1/4000, +1 2/3 stops exposure compensation.

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