What does the name mean?
‘Corvus’ means ‘raven’ in Latin, and ‘Corax’ means ‘raven’ in Greek. So, this species’ scientific name is basically ‘raven raven’. Corvus corax is a ‘bilingual tautological expression,’ which is an unnecessarily fancy way of saying ‘the same two words, but in different languages’: in this case, Latin and Greek.
How to identify the raven:
Ravens (Fiach dubh) are the largest crow species you will come across in Wales and Ireland: it is of similar size to birds of prey like the Buzzard (Clamhán). Its broad wings and distinctive diamond-shaped tail paints a silhouette high in the air - and is often accompanied by a repetitive guttural croaking: ‘prruk-prruk-prruk!’. The raven’s much larger size and curved dark beak can help to separate it from both the Rook (Rúcach) and Carrion crow (Caróg dubh).
These birds will often show off their impressive aerial capabilities by inverting 180° during its plunging flight displays; a spectacular behaviour to witness in the updrafts created by the wind currents along Pen Llŷn and Iveragh’s spectacular cliff faces and coastlines.
Audio of the raven’s distinctive call – a deep guttural croaking. Provided by knowledge gatherer, Ben Porter.
Ecology, social dynamics and seasonality:
The raven is a master generalist, allowing it to spread across almost the entire Northern Hemisphere from the Canadian Arctic to the deserts of north Africa1. The species’ distribution covers nearly the entire Northern Hemisphere owing, in part, to its immensely opportunistic and omnivorous diet. In Wales and Ireland, they are found from mountainous haunts to exposed coastal cliffs. The raven’s diet varies widely across their range and across seasons: in many areas they behave mainly as scavengers, carrying out a vital ‘clean-up’ service, akin to that of vultures. Ravens feed on a wide range of species such as small mammals, nestlings, eggs and invertebrates; while seeds, berries and refuse from tips can also be eaten 2, 3.
Ravens are very social creatures, like many other crow species. They often gather in communal roosts through the winter months, and studies have revealed that these roosts serve as important ‘information exchange centres’. For example, immature birds at such roosts use specific calls to communicate with other immature birds, recruiting them to forage at a nearby food source, such as a carcass, the next day. In some instances, this allowed these immature birds to displace a more dominant adult pair feeding on the carcass, through a strength in numbers approach. With one of the largest brains of any bird species, the Raven’s ability to complete cognitive tasks and solve problems is almost unparalleled. They are one of the few bird species documented to engage in playful activities, such as sliding down snowbanks and using objects like twigs in social play. 4
Myths, legends and folklore surrounding the raven:
Ravens have been very prominent in the folklore and mythology of many traditions; this is certainly the case with the Celtic cultures of Wales and Ireland. Their role as a successful scavenger and their preference for carrion has certainly influenced the cultural depictions of this species – widely regarded as a bad omen, or harbinger of death. However, they were not always seen in such a negative light; in Norse traditions, they were seen as messengers from the gods and the Vikings used them to navigate back to dry land when they were at sea5.
‘Brân the Blessed’ was a giant and guardian of Britain in Welsh mythology. When he died in battle in Ireland, his head was buried beneath the Tower of London and is said to keep Britain safe from invasion. At least six ravens have been kept at the Tower of London since the 17th Century, also to safeguard Britain from downfall. The burial of Brân’s head beneath the tower is the earliest connection that can be drawn between the tower and ravens (as Brân translates to ‘Raven’ or ‘Crow’ in Welsh) 5, 6, 7, 8.
The Celtic warrior goddess known as the ‘Morrígan’, who’s presence indicated that war or death was near could take the form of a raven. The Morrígan sabotaged the chariot of the famed Irish leader of Ulster, Cú Chulainn, the night before his death, warning him that he would not return if he went to battle the following day. Cú Chulainn did not heed her advice and was indeed killed. It is only when the Morrígan came to perch on his shoulder in the form of a raven that his enemies were sure he was dead. 9
Special note on Iveragh:
Ravens can be spotted in most areas of Iveragh, but some of the best include Cnoc na dTobar, Bray Head on Valentia Island, and along the Bolus Loop Walk. Make sure to listen for their deep guttural croaking as they fly; some may even show off their inverted flying activities seen in the video below.
A raven showing off its aerial capabilities by inverting mid-flight off the tip of Bolus Head. Provided by knowledge gatherer, Fiach Byrne.
Special note on the Llŷn:
Ravens can be found right across Llŷn’s landscape, with birds nesting both inland around wooded areas and along coastal cliffs. Usually they are seen in pairs, but large flocks of 40 or more can occur at certain times of year, especially in autumn. Listen out for their distinctive call when walking around the hills of Mynydd Rhiw, Garn Fadryn and Yr Eifl, where birds will often use thermal currents to fly high above with ease.
A raven’s call fills the silence at Tyn y Parc Wood. Provided by knowledge gatherer, Ben Porter. References: