An unkindness of ravens? Oh, I don’t think so! An unkindness of ravens? Oh, I don’t think so! Whoever thought up that term of venery was none too well acquainted with these fabulous black birds. Watch them mob a passing red-tailed hawk and “unkindness” is hardly the word to describe their behavior. A free-for-all of ravens is more like it. That would be especially apt to describe the amazing aerobatic skills they display when courting in spring.
Poe wrote his most famous poem using the raven more for the sonic value of the name than for any ornithological exactitude. Yet, I would not put it past a raven to say, “Nevermore.” They are superb mimics, and some have been trained to pronounce words, even, according to an old friend, with an appearance of comprehension. There is no doubt that, as humans measure such things, ravens are one of the most intelligent of all birds.
Certainly, they have adapted well to the presence of human landscapes in southern California, their numbers increasing dramatically over the last few decades as suburban sprawl has replaced natural habitats less useful to ravens. When I began birding forty years ago, there were perhaps ten pairs within ten miles of where I live. Now, ten times that would be conservative. They still nest on the cliff faces here, as they have always done, but today they have our trees and structures, as well. Plus all the food we provide. I still recall one pair’s fight over a discarded slice of pizza.
According to legends of the peoples of the Northwest, Raven stole light from the one who would keep the world in darkness. He carried it in his beak and brought it to illuminate the Earth. Many totems and carvings symbolize this with a round object held in the bill. While this may seem a stretch to those who do not know ravens, it becomes quite understandable when one sees a raven scintillate in sunlight, despite wearing jet black feathers.
Maybe a resplendence of ravens would be the best name of all.