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The 'Great Black Bird'

In the wake of daily news bulletins that make us ask what is happening to our great country I found myself wondering if anyone had checked lately that the Ravens are still residing in the Tower of London?

Ravens (Corvus corax) are the largest and one of the less often seen members of the crow family and as such have many myths and legends attached to them, which vary depending in which part of the country/world you reside. As a result of persecution, for many years one of the few chances of seeing ravens in the UK was at the Tower of London, where legend has it that if less than six ravens remain, the country and the Monarchy is doomed, hence my original thought!

That belief is rather weakened by the fact that shortly after WWll only one raven was left! Is it any wonder that one wing is clipped to prevent them from flying far?

For centuries their reputation for being harbingers of doom and killers of livestock led to near extinction, as gamekeepers killed them off. Towards the end of the nineteenth century the last breeding pairs in Oxfordshire were destroyed. Today they are another conservation success story, being back in Oxfordshire and resident in much of the western upland areas of the UK and Ireland. Research shows an increase of 118% across Europe between 1980 and 2005. This month (July 2009) it was reported that a pair of ravens had bred successfully near Dover, Kent, rearing three youngsters. The last time such an event was recorded in the county was in 1890.

The raven is huge, bigger than a buzzard, with a four foot wingspan, and can be recognised in flight by its diamond shaped tail. It has a deeper call than crows and rooks, the sound having been likened to an old car horn! Their blue black plumage and sheer size make them quite an intimidating sight as they soar and glide or walk somewhat arrogantly around on the ground. They are found in the UK, the rest of Europe, America and Asia.

They tend to nest in fir trees, and a Scots pine is a particular favourite here. They prefer mostly less inhabited areas, unlike their cousin the Carrion crow, which often gravitates towards food-rich human habitation. They seem to prefer a more solitary lifestyle than crows and rooks, mostly living in pairs. Like birds of prey, ravens are much maligned in some areas, but are mainly carrion eaters, cleaning up both nature's losses, and no doubt suffering from the poisonings of prey species which are still carried out illegally. It is possible that 'road kills' would feature in their diet in some areas, too. They are not fussy eaters and are known to eat the afterbirth of mammals such as ewes and other livestock, which has probably led to the idea that they take young livestock. Grains, acorns and buds are also eaten, along with many arthropods.

They breed between the middle of February and the end of May, being governed to some extent by the length and depth of winter in any particular year. Between three and seven eggs are laid, being incubated for some twenty to twenty five days by the female, though both adults feed the young once hatched. The fledglings leave the nest at about six weeks old, and may leave the area very quickly or stay with the family for much longer.

They are sexually mature at about three years of age, which means they are more at risk of population crashes than smaller birds, if conditions are not favourable. However, they are rarely predated, the adults being well able to defend themselves and their young.

In the wild they have been known to live as long as thirteen years. One captive bird was known to have lived for 80 years and those at the Tower of London have been known to live as long as 44 years.

One reason for the raven striking fear in to the hearts of humans around the world is their unique intelligence and ability to solve problems, their propensity for mimicry and a devious nature. Many myths have grown up over the years, some quite disturbing. Some cultures believe they are able to see the future, others think they are the 'messenger of death' or sickness. It is not surprising that they have such a connection with death, since, as carrion eaters, they were often seen on the battlefields of old.

In Scotland, if heard croaking before a hunt, the hunters expected to have a good day! In Wales and the West Country it is believed that King Arthur turned into a raven on his deathbed. In Yorkshire, children were told that unless their behaviour improved, the 'Great Black Bird' would carry them off. Poor children! As weather forecasters, if seen preening themselves, then rain was on the way, while a raven flying towards the sun indicated hot weather would soon arrive.

The raven turns up in much old literature; too, and there are also references to ravens in the Bible (New Testament). Poet Edgar Allen Poe wrote The Raven, published in 1845, about a man and his lost love; the raven telling him he would see her 'Nevermore'. There are some good spoken video versions on the Internet which are easier to follow, but I was most amused to find another poem 'The End of the Raven' which is an antidote to the dark sadness of the original poem.

There is much to read about the raven, both fact, fiction and myth, and I trust I have whetted your appetite for more information.

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