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Living with Wildlife: 06/15/2015

The Henno-Dunbar ravens: wild neighbors

Henno Dunbar Raven
This raven uses the bird bath as a place to soften up scraps of food for young nestlings nearby.
Ravens have always fascinated me. One of my early favorite poems was The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe. I think I liked it because it had a raven in it, not because, at the time, I understood the poem at all. While visiting the Tower of London, I was far more fascinated with the ravens that guard the Tower, than I was with some of the other points of interest. Legend has it that the ravens, who have their own Raven Master, are the guardians of the Tower, and if they leave, the kingdom will fall.

Many years ago, my hubby and I were delighted to learn that a pair of Common Ravens were nesting in a nearby neighbor’s tree. According to our neighbor, the nest was first occupied by Red Tail Hawks who were chased out by Great Horned Owls. The ravens gave the owls the boot, and it has been their nest for many years now. Ravens are not as social as their crow cousins, who we often see in flocks. Ravens form a lifelong pair bond, and are together year round. They are magnificent flyers, and huge birds with a height of 24 to 26 inches, and a wingspan of 3.5 to almost 5 feet.

Ravens are part of the corvid family, a family of very smart birds including crows and jays. I think it is partially because of their intelligence that I find them so fascinating. The male and female participate in nest building, with the female doing most of the work. They return to the same nest year after year, doing a little refurbishing every spring. Generally three to seven eggs are laid and the female does the brooding, while the male feeds her. Eighteen to 21 days later, the young ravens hatch. They are completely helpless when born – but not for long!

When the eggs hatch – this year there were three – the activity level at our place goes up several notches. Over the years, we have learned to slow down and observe the animals around us to make us more in tune with our wild neighbors. The first thing we do every morning when we get up, is take a long walk down our road, with our dog Mimi. We call it our “nature walk” as a walk never ends without our lives being enriched in some way or another by nature. For the past couple of months, our nature walk often starts with a view of the ravens in their nest.

We know when the ravens have hatched, as the parents use our driveway as a flight path to our bird bath. They are such large birds, that they look comical standing in our small bird bath. When on the ground, they are as tall as the bird bath. We are very close to Dunbar School, and from our house, the ravens fly to the school dumpsters and find some tasty treats for themselves and their youngsters. We have a pretty good idea of what’s on the menu as it usually winds up soaking in our bird bath. During this time of year I feel very sorry for the little songbirds who normally like to come and drink and bathe there. Instead of sparkling clear water, they are likely to find a soaking sandwich, bagel or a piece of pizza.

The primary food of ravens is carrion, but they also eat small invertebrates, bird eggs, nestlings, seeds, fruit – and garbage! After the food soaks a bit in our bird bath, the ravens come back, put it in their mouths, fly back to their nests and feed their nestlings.

I’m hoping they are finding food other than in the Dunbar dumpsters, because somehow a diet of pizza, hot dog buns, and Cheetos doesn’t seem like a healthy diet to me. Among other things the ravens have left soaking are mice, the hind leg of a jackrabbit, and other things just too awful to mention.

For weeks, this feeding ritual continues, hour by hour, dawn to dusk. There are no days off for the busy parents. The young are ready to leave the nest between 38 and 44 days old. We have reached the point where they are ready to fledge. For several days now we have seen them flapping their huge wings while still in the nest. We are now observing flight school and hearing the calls back and forth between the anxious parents as the newbies test their wings. The young ones are walking around on the ground, as well as peering down at us from the trees. Having observed this process from the early stages, we feel we know them already, and welcome them to the neighborhood.

Did I say these birds are highly intelligent? Our wild neighbors are very smart. Their youngsters fledged just a couple of days before Dunbar closed for the summer. No more dumpster diving for the raven family for now. Somehow, they figured out just when to have their family, and their timing was perfect. Talk about family planning!

Sharon Ponsford is a a longtime volunteer with Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue and a former board member of the California Council of Wildlife Rehabilitators. She lives in Glen Ellen. If you have questions or would like to ask her about our local wildlife, please email her at

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