By Rick Radis
In May, 1889, George Benners secured two young Ravens from a nest in a gum tree, between West Creek and Tuckerton, which he reared in captivity and named them, appropriately, “Never” and “More.” Unfortunately they lost any love they may have had for one another and, as they grew older, engaged in several conflicts and eventually “Never” killed “More” and partly devoured him. “Never” is now in the collection of the Academy of Natural Sciences at Philadelphia. (Witmer Stone. 1937. Bird Studies at Old Cape May, p. 720)
The Common Raven, Corvus corax, has the widest distribution of any of the Corvidae, the family that also includes crows, jays, nutcrackers, magpies, and related birds such as the rooks, jackdaws, and choughs. It is also the largest and heaviest of the passerines, or perching birds – and the smartest.
This species of raven (there are eight others) is found throughout most of the Northern Hemisphere, including much of North America, Europe, and Asia south to Central America, northern Africa, northern India, Greenland, and Iceland. It occurs in deserts, the high Arctic, and the Himalayas above 18,000 feet (Boarman and Heinrich 1999; J.M. Marzluff and T. Angell 2005). In the early 1980s I saw a Common Raven on an ice floe in a heavy thunderstorm far from land north of the Strait of Belle Isle off Labrador. In the spring of 2011, I watched one as it perched on a mast at the South Street Seaport in New York City. It croaked at passersby.
In New Jersey, Common Raven has been mostly absent for a very long time. There is no historical data about where ravens actually did occur in the state before the forests were cut and re-cut repeatedly, the land was settled and farmed and industrialized, and even the wilder ridges converted to summer pastures. But ravens were part of the colonial and post-colonial landscape, where they were usually considered pests, along with wolves and cougars (Hall 1965; Forbush 1929). The earliest New Jersey records of ravens in the literature date from the 1800s and early 1900s, and by then these birds were considered rare in any season and extirpated from most of the state. By the 1920s at the latest Common Raven, that totem of wild places, had disappeared as a nesting bird in New Jersey and in most of the East.
Ravens had occurred in Cape May County up until the 1850s according to Witmer Stone (1894; 1908). Further north, he wrote, “N.J. ravens are restricted mainly to the wilderness known as the pine barrens and the seashore. In winter and early spring I used frequently to see a pair crossing the salt meadows below Atlantic City from the pine lands, apparently to feed along the beach.” He listed specimens shot at West Creek north of Tuckerton in January, 1879, and further north in Morristown in January, 1881, and surmised that a few still nested in the “dense cedar swamps of southern New Jersey” near Tuckerton in the early part of the twentieth century.
Shriner (1896) also thought that some were “. . . still found breeding in the cedar swamps in the lower part of the state and solitary specimens observed occasionally along the sea coast.” Ludlow Griscom (1923) agreed that the last stronghold of the raven was the southern New Jersey coast, but also mentioned a possible breeding pair that was seen near Culvers Gap, Sussex County, in 1918.
Common Raven numbers in Pennsylvania, New York, and even Maine also saw steep declines or local extinction in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Griscom (1923) thought they were gone from Long Island by 1850. Upstate New York held on to a small population in the Adirondacks (Bull 1974), as did some of the wilder expanses of the Pennsylvania Alleghenies (Stone 1894). But they were extirpated in Massachusetts (Griscom 1949; Hill 1965), New Hampshire, Vermont, and Connecticut (Laughlen and Kibbe 1985; Forbush 1929).
In October, 1932, Stone, with Fletcher Street and Arthur Emlen, saw a raven just south of Manahawkin, and he listed 1927, 1928, and 1935 sightings in the same general area by Charles Urner and Ernest Choate (Stone 1937).
Once, on a long and fortunate drive from Old Lyme to Cape May, Roger Peterson told me that he’d seen ravens in West Creek, Manahawkin, and Tuckerton while on Barnegat Christmas Counts with Ludlow Griscom and Urner Club members in the late 1920s and early 1930s (Peterson 1993); the highest total of Common Ravens on the Barnegat count was three birds in 1931 (Bailey 2012). Unpublished records and early issues of the Urner Field Observer in the 1940s did note that pioneering fall hawkwatchers were seeing the occasional migrant raven along the ridge west of Blairstown, at a cryptically named spot they called Raccoon Ridge.
By the mid-1930s then, Common Raven was present in New Jersey only as a rare fall migrant along the ridges of northwestern New Jersey. From the 1930s through the 1980s, hawkwatchers on Raccoon Ridge considered themselves lucky if, braving the cold and wind of late October and November, they saw one or two ravens in a season. Of the 39 mid-October to late-November trips I took to Raccoon Ridge between 1973 and 1989, I saw exactly three Common Ravens, one each in 1975, 1979, and 1985. They were vastly more memorable than the mere Golden Eagles, Northern Goshawks, and Rough-legged Hawks that I had hiked up hoping to see. And every few years strays were seen in odd places at odd times: Two friends and I saw a pair of northbound Common Ravens at Bearfort Mountain on April 7, 1982,; and ravens were seen in the 1950s, 60s 70s, and 80s at Sandy Hook, Princeton, Morristown, New Lisbon, Hammonton, Trenton, Norwood, and Red Bank (Leck 1975, 1984; Fables 1955; Radis 2012).
The Common Ravens that were seen in fall along the New Jersey ridges were coming from populations further north and west, from New York and Pennsylvania, Maine, and Canada (and wintering where?). The Appalachians in western Maryland and in West Virginia, Virginia, and Tennessee had always retained a few ravens (and, sometimes, crossbills), and further south even North and South Carolina and Georgia (NAS 2012) had always held a few. But all these birds were essentially non-migratory and – unlike ravens in the West – were very, very wary of human beings.
Then, in the early 1980s, the population (and perhaps behavioral) dynamics of eastern Common Ravens began to change.
In 1980 in New York, only two Common Ravens were found, on two northern Christmas Counts. In 1990, 59 were seen on eight counts, and by 2010 a total of 357 were counted statewide (NAS 2012).
In Connecticut in 1980, six ravens were seen on a few counts – in 2010, 357. Massachusetts had one Christmas Count raven in 1984 and 108 in 2010. During the same period in New Hampshire, ravens increased from 39 to 210; in Vermont from 9 to 394. Interestingly, ravens declined during that period in Maine, from 894 to 582, and eastern Canadian counts remained relatively unchanged (NAS 2012).
In 1981, 12 ravens were seen on four Pennsylvania Christmas Bird Counts. In 1990, 89 were found on twelve counts; in 2010, 334 ravens were tallied (NAS 2012). Several observers in the state noted that ravens seemed to have become less shy around humans (Braining 1992; McWilliams and Brauning 2000). I saw a pair going though a dumpster at Indiantown Gap in 1983, and three were dining on popcorn and hotdog rolls at a carnival outside of Harrisburg in 1984. A continuing, decades-long eastward movement on Blue Mountain (the Pennsylvania continuation of what is called the Kittatinny Ridge in N.J.) was also observed over the years, from Harrisburg to Fort Indiantown Gap east to Jim Thorpe to Penn Lake and East Stroudsburg. Ravens were confirmed as nesters in the Poconos in 1993. (Brauning 1992; McWilliams and Brauning 2000; Radis 2012).
In 1991, a Common Raven was seen carrying nest material on the New Jersey side of the Delaware Water Gap, though this nesting was later confirmed as being from Mount Minsi, across the river on the Pennsylvania side of the Gap – the Blue Mountain ridge. But ravens had also returned in force to the New Jersey Kittatinnies. In the same year and a little more than five miles north of the Gap, watchers at the Raccoon Ridge Hawkwatch began to see or hear ravens “in groups of up to six on 66 of 91 days beginning August 20.” At least two were present at the adjacent Yards Creek pumped storage facility throughout the winter, and the birds probably nested there in the spring of 1992 (RNJB 1992). This was the first nesting of Common Raven in New Jersey in at least 70 years, and perhaps in more than a century on the Kittatinnies.
The most famous N.J. raven nest site was found in 1994, 26 miles to the northeast of Raccoon Ridge on a microwave tower in High Point State Park, where two young birds were found with their parents (RNJB 1994). This instantly became an obligatory stop for World Series of Birding teams and for birders unwilling or unable to make the hour-long hike up to Raccoon Ridge. The same year, ravens were seen further east in Passaic County at Waywayanda State Park, and the birds continued to become more frequent at the Water Gap and at Sunrise Mountain, where a record 15 individuals were counted on October 15, 1998 (RNJB 1998).
From 1992 to the present, Common Ravens have remained a common – and now rarely missed – sight around the Yards Creek pumped storage facility and Raccoon Ridge, west of Blairstown. On September 18, 2010, 33 ravens were seen at one time from Raccoon Ridge, a state record (Bagen, 2012). They also became a regular sight along the entire 72 miles of the Appalachian Trail in New Jersey, from the Water Gap to Hewitt State Forest in Passaic County.
In 1995 there were raven sightings in Sussex and Warren Counties from Colesville, Branchville, Culvers Lake, Crater Lake, Blue Mountain Lake, Stillwater, Poxono Island, Donkeys Corner, Blairstown, Dingman’s Ferry, Rosencranz Ferry, Columbia, Sunfish Pond, the Van Campen Inn, Hemlock Pond, Wallpack Center, Millbrook Village, Peters Valley, and the Wallkill National Wildlife Refuge (RNJB 1995, 1996; Radis 2012). Also in 1995, a pair began to frequent the lovely Silurian cliffs of Green Pond Mountain near Craigmuer ski area in Morris County; this was the same site where the now-extinct-in-the-East anatum subspecies of Peregrine Falcon last nested in New Jersey, in the 1950s. Ravens nested on the cliffs beginning in 1996, and once mildly dove on me when I went to check on some rare ferns on nearby ledges.
By the late 1990s, ravens had become a regular year-round sight (and sound) in the Pequannock Watershed in Passaic County, particularly at Clinton Road and Cedar Pond, at Terrace Pond, and from the old hawkwatches and fire tower on Bearfort Mountain. The Montclair Hawkwatch in Essex County had its first raven ever on May 3, 1998 (RNJB 1998), and that fall ravens were observed from the State Line Lookout Hawkwatch in Bergen County and at the Chimney Rock Hawkwatch in Bridgewater, Somerset County (RNJB 1998). One was seen at the Tenafly Nature Center, Bergen County, “acting like a raptor,” and a cooperative raven spent several weeks around the Sandy Hook lighthouse in Monmouth County, providing a new Hook bird for many observers. Another was found patrolling a busy highway in Toms River, Ocean County, a big jump (RNJB 1999). By the end of 2000, Common Raven was confirmed or probable as a nester or was being seen in Warren, Sussex, Morris, Passaic, Bergen, Essex, Somerset, Monmouth, and Ocean Counties. Ravens had probably not been present at some of these sites for centuries.
In the last 12 years, ravens have continued their expansion south into areas where they were never reported. They have preferred cliffs and ledges for nests, but also have made use of cellphone and high-tension towers, trees, and large buildings. By 2002 I was seeing one or more of them in Ringwood State Park and Monktown Reservoir, Passaic County. In Somerset County they picked at garbage at the Bridgewater Mall and soared with Red-tailed Hawks and vultures over the Somerville traffic circle. Unaccountably, as there’s never been evidence of a nest, I’ve seen them frequently around Chatsworth in Burlington County. Ravens have become regular, or have nested, in Hunterdon County in Lambertville, Milford, Frenchtown, Tewksbury, Flemington, and at Round Valley Reservoir and the Sourlands (RNJB 2005, 2006). They have become a familiar sight – to those who look – along the Watchungs from the Great Falls and Garret Mountain in Paterson and Woodland Park to Chimney Rock in Bridgewater. They’re fond of shopping centers in West Orange and of the campus of Montclair University, where, mostly unnoticed, they eat food discarded by students.
In perhaps the wackiest and most visible site to date, in 2006, ravens nested and raised two young on the depleted, paint-splashed, diabase ledges of Snake Hill in Secaucus, Hudson County (RNJB 2006), also known as Laurel Hill County Park. The nests (which have produced 25-plus young to date) were within sight of thousands of urbanites: baseball and Frisbee and soccer players, boaters, bikers, kite-fliers, runners, partiers, picnickers, and casual gawkers to the park. Remarkably, the birds are not shy, though perhaps they’re now hearing-impaired – the New Jersey Turnpike is an auditory and visible and olfactory force just a few yards over the hill. Here the ravens are sometimes and entertainingly (to birders) harassed by the local pair of Peregrine Falcons, who may have prevented their nesting in 2012 (Duffy 2012).
To date, additional nestings and sightings have come from the bluffs at Johnsonburg Swamp, Sandy Hook, Merrill Creek Reservoir, Garret Mountain, Disposal Road in Lyndhurst (Duffy 2012), Hatfield Swamp and Troy Meadows, the Pine Barrens outliers of Spotswood and Helmetta, and Watchung Reservation,; and in Princeton, Trenton, New Brunswick, and the old Lakehurst Naval Base, where for two years starting in 2009, they often roosted on the huge old Hindenburg hangar (Shaw 2012). This year Common Ravens nested next to the Lowe’s home center in Hillsborough. Ravens have been seen in Edison, Newark, Metuchen, Duke Farms, Hopewell, Perth Amboy, and the Linden landfill. This brings Union, Essex, Middlesex, and Mercer Counties into raven country – in varying degrees they have now re-colonized much of northern and central New Jersey (eBird 2012).
In 2012, there were a few ravens seen in South Jersey around the Garden State Parkway mile markers 51 and 56, and ravens were observed several times at the Brigantine division of Forsythe NWR. Common Raven remains rare or absent in Atlantic, Burlington, Gloucester, Camden, Salem, and Cumberland Counties. And surprisingly, considering all the talented eyes and level of coverage, Cape May has only had a few sightings, in 1984, 1993, and 1997 (eBird 2012; Sutton 2012).
Since the early 1990s, I have spent a lot of time watching ravens in New Jersey, first on the Kittatinnies around Raccoon Ridge, at the Delaware Water Gap and High Point, and later – as the species spread amazingly across the state – in many places in Sussex and Warren Counties, at Garret Mountain, on the Palisades, the Watchungs, Snake Hill, and near the shopping centers near Interstate 280 in West Orange. Unlike the ravens of old in the East, these will, within limits, let you watch them close up.
Some foods I have seen Common Ravens eating in New Jersey since 1992: worms; beetles; cicadas; grubs; tadpoles and frogs; songbird nestlings; Blue Crabs (on the Arthur Kill); snakes; rotting Bluegills and Muskellunge along the Delaware; Yellow Perch, catfish, and trout; sardines from an open can; chunk light tuna from a mostly closed can; Swedish Fish®; Goldfish®; goldfish; killifish; carp; hardboiled eggs; Painted and Snapping Turtle eggs; Cadbury Eggs®; road-killed Gray Squirrels, dogs, cats, Cottontail Rabbits, Chipmunks, White-tailed Deer, Opossums, Woodchucks, Raccoons, mice, voles, and rats; cheeseburgers and hot dogs; jelly and Boston cream doughnuts; bear claws, cherry Danish, croissants, and Kaiser rolls; Yoplait; sliced bread of all kinds; chicken nuggets; bacon; tacos; lo mien; spareribs; cold cuts; a wide variety of salads; watermelon, apples, oranges, cantaloupe ,bananas; cotton candy; pizza, French fries, French bread; fish and chips; potato chips, tortilla chips, and popcorn.
Ravens often visit a parking lot in West Orange where there is a Whole Foods store, and the pickings are organic and formerly pricey. There they’ve dined on several kinds of hard and soft cheeses, sushi, avocados, mangoes, tofu, pistachios, and roast chicken cooked with lemon, rosemary, and Kalamata olives. Common Ravens are the perfect omnivores in a perfect place for omnivory: New Jersey.
Flight and Voice
Common Ravens are now frequent enough in my area – north-central Morris County – that I can sit out on my back deck and watch them soaring overhead. Over the decades I’ve learned that the call of the raven is usually a precursor to seeing one, often soaring high overhead. (“…Its commonest note seemed to be a loud croak, deep toned, and audible at a great distance, croake-croake” (Bent 1946).
I often hear ravens croaking long before they appear, sort of a “Look up now!” The other day I watched what must have been a family group of five overhead in downtown Rockaway. They dove at each other, did acrobatic turns, chased and were chased by Fish Crows and Common Crows, and made a variety of croaks and squawks. Then they headed for the dumpsters in back of a local restaurant. Bored? Amusing themselves? Teaching the young? Possibly all of the above, or none. Who knows the mind of a raven? And they emphatically do have minds.
Turkey and Black Vultures in my area are ravens’ most frequent soaring companions, but I’ve also seen them in the air with Bald Eagles, Red-tailed Hawks, Red-shouldered Hawks, Broad-wings, Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks, and Peregrines.
Although Common Ravens resemble crows – but with more bulk, longer wings, and noticeably longer tails – they don’t fly like them. The advice I got from old-time birders and naturalists when I was a pre-teen birdwatcher was accurate: Ravens like to soar, and they fly more like a hawk. “Ravens often soar, crows never do” (Sibley 2000). “More hawklike in flight, it alternates flapping and sailing, gliding on flat, somewhat sweptback wings (crow glides much less and with a slight upward dihedral) [Peterson et al. 2008].”
“Its sailing and soaring is however often diagnostic, the tail is wedge-shaped and the feathers of the throat are lengthened, lanceolate, and often project slightly, giving a puffy appearance…Above all the note is a loud, hoarse c-r-r–ruck, totally different from the caw of the crow” (Griscom 1923).
Some Questions About Behavior
Why did eastern Common Ravens lose their shyness? Or did they? From the time I saw my first raven at age twelve in West Virginia until the mid-1980s in Pennsylvania, every Common Raven I came across in the East was shy, usually distant, and a little magical. This included birds in Virginia and West Virginia, western Maryland, Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, New York, northern New Hampshire and Vermont, and Maine.*
When I was young, Common Crows were often shot on sight in the Appalachians; and still are, legally. And it was the rare shooter that knew the difference between a crow and a raven. It is still my impression that Common Ravens in the Appalachians, from central Pennsylvania to North Carolina, are spooky, stay-at-a-distance birds–even if you are not carrying a rifle. In New Jersey, southern New York, and eastern Pennsylvania, where I’ve seen ravens most often in the last 15 years, they are bold and seemingly unimpressed with humans–who in this area rarely carry rifles. Whatever the reasons for the changes in behavior, they have resulted in a big increase in the numbers of Common Ravens in New Jersey and the East. In other words, this is a highly successful adaptation.
And how do ravens interact with the other two species of Corvids in this area, Fish Crow and Common Crow? One fact is clear: mixed flocks of Common and Fish Crows are a frequent sight here, but Common Ravens never mix with them. There is actually a relatively small area on the planet where all three species now interact–New Jersey, southern New York, eastern Pennsylvania, and Connecticut, where the range of Fish Crow overlaps with its larger congeners. And from my limited observations, I think Fish Crows–at much less than half the bulk–are not happy around ravens. In Hillsborough, Laurel Hill in Secaucus, and in West Orange, ravens aggressively chase solitary Fish Crows, and are in turn angrily mobbed by larger groups of them, often without a single Common Crow in attendance to referee.
(*But Ravens I saw in the 1970s and 1980s in Newfoundland, Labrador, and northern Quebec and Ontario were decidedly un-shy, brazen, and as fond of dumps and garbage near humans as their Western counterparts.)
A Circular Digression
One of the reasons I love natural history so much is the sense of continuity it gives me, particularly when I’m in some of the singular areas of the state. The East Plains is an expanse of pygmy pitch pine forest south of Warren Grove in the heart of the Pine Barrens. It’s been botanically famous for more than two centuries because of the rare plants that grow there and because there are very few pygmy forests in the world. I go there a lot, in all seasons. When I walk the Plains, I like to think of all the early botanists and naturalists and ornithologists who were there before me and saw pretty much the same things: John Torrey and Asa Gray, Thomas Nuttall, Andre? Michaux, John Krider, N.L Britton, Bayard Long, K.K. Mackenzie, and M.L Fernald; perhaps even the Bartrams and J.J. Audubon. Witmer Stone went there many times, and sometimes referred to this unique area as “the Grouse Plains.” Here was the last stand in New Jersey for Heath Hen, the eastern subspecies of the Greater Prairie Chicken, which was shot out from the Plains and extirpated from New Jersey by the 1860s. (It became extinct for all time on Martha’s Vineyard in 1932.)
The Heath Hen’s habitat on the Plains – open sandy barrens with stunted vegetation – is intact, exactly the same as 200 years ago (even though the place has burned down countless times), and I think of the bird every time I stop by. One gray October day in 2008 I was noodling around a stand of broom crowberry, bearberry, heather, and lichens, moping and mourning the dying season and a lost chicken, when I heard a faint croak and looked up. High overhead were two Common Ravens, heading east. (“Look up!)
West Creek, that old haunt of ravens, Witmer Stone, Charles Urner, Ludlow Griscom, and Roger Tory Peterson, is exactly 7.2 miles southeast of the East Plains.
Three months later, on Sunday, January 4, 2009, Tim Vogel and I were birding our usual territory on the Barnegat Christmas Count, which is south of Manahawkin and north of Tuckerton, mostly along Barnegat Bay east of Route 9. We were, in fact, in West Creek, on Bay Avenue, which heads east to the bay and is often prime territory for Northern Harriers, Rough-legged Hawks, Short-eared Owls, salt sparrows, and the very-occasional Sedge Wren. We’d stopped and gotten out to look at a couple of buteos flying over the road when Tim promptly shouted, “Raven!” In the approximate company of a couple of red-tails, the raven headed south past West Creek and toward Tuckerton. And back into the present-day. Common Raven had returned to its last New Jersey home.
Many thanks to the birders who sent me their records and recollections of Common Raven sightings in New Jersey: Michael Allen, Stephen Bagen, Tom Bailey, Mike Britt, Diane Brown, Jeff Climpson, Evan Cutler, Robert Eliasen, Bill Elrick, Rob Fanning, Todd Franz, Tom Halliwell, William Keim, Jonathan Klizas, Laurie Larson, Mike Newlon, Michael Pollock, Bruce Ruppel, Stephanie Seymour, Clay Sutton, Christopher Vogel, Tim Vogel, David Wheeler, Jim Wright.
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Brauning, D.W. (ed.). 1992. Atlas of Birds in Pennsylvania. University of Pittsburg Press, Pittsburg.
Bull, J. 1964. Birds of the New York Area. Harper & Row, New York.
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Duffy, R. 2012. E-mail communication on subject of Common Raven at Laurel Hill County Park, Secaucus. May 11 and August 2, 2012.
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Radis, R.P. 2012. Database searches for records of Common Raven 1972-2012. TNH, Rockaway, NJ. Retrieved April 12, 2012.
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Shaw, L. 2012. Personal communication on the subject of Common Ravens at Lakehurst Naval Base. July 20, 2012.
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White, Clayton M., Nancy J. Clum, Tom J. Cade and W. Grainger Hunt. 2002. Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus), in The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/660 doi:10.2173/bna.660.