It's intelligence, more so than the famous quote, that sets the raven apart.
Quoth the raven, “I’m not a crow.”
The two birds, nevertheless, are easily confused. The common raven and the American crow are both large and black (though the raven is larger, weighing up to four pounds with a wingspan of nearly four feet) and known for their raucous calls. They are clever problem-solvers. They are adaptable omnivores. And they are related, both members of the corvid family, which also includes other intelligent birds like jays and magpies.
Corvids in general draw the attention of researchers because they are among the most intelligent of birds, and ravens have a particular reputation for smarts. In a variety of experimental and natural settings, ravens have demonstrated the ability to distinguish between individual human beings, and between a gunshot—as an indicator of the possibility of a fresh kill and food—and other sudden, loud noises. They have learned, in the wild, how to call the attention of coyotes to a newly fallen animal, allowing the sharp-toothed carnivores to tear open the carcass so the birds can get at the meat. They can apply logic to solving a multi-step puzzle involving food. Instead of using trial and error to obtain the food, the raven assesses the puzzle before acting, figures out what needs to be done to solve it, then executes the solution. Ravens will cache food, hiding it and then, though they have no sense of smell, successfully return to find the food where they left it. They also know enough to hide their treasures out of eyeshot of other ravens who might be inclined to help themselves to the just-stashed snacks, and will even fake-cache food as a bluff for any watchers.
Other examples of raven intelligence abound, both anecdotal and video-documented. One raven learned to open the latch on a perimeter-fence gate to let the dogs out of the yard at feeding time so the raven could steal their food. Ravens have been documented using “referential gestures” to call another bird’s attention to a non-edible object such as a twig. While it’s a behavior we find unremarkable in humans (babies begin pointing between nine and 12 months), it is rarely observed in animal species. Considered a precursor to linguistic communication, it is presumed to indicate intentionality (“Hey, look at this!”), and inference (“He wants me to look at that!”). And ravens are known to work together to rob other birds’ nests or to harass potentially dangerous predators, like eagles, in order to distract them and steal their food. Perhaps this is how these corvids earned their collective noun: an “unkindness” of ravens. Yet ravens also are believed to mate for life, establishing a territory as a pair and returning to the same nest year after year.
Ravens have a playful side, too. There is a charming PBS Nature video clip of a raven rolling over and over down a snow-covered slope, apparently for the sheer fun of it. Graceful and acrobatic flyers, they will execute rolls and loops in the air, and one was even observed flying upside down for a considerable distance. Ravens also are one of a number of bird species that engage in a mysterious behavior known as “anting.” In the way a human might indulge in a spa bath, birds “ant” by sitting on an ant mound and letting the ants swarm over their bodies, by gobbling up ants and rubbing their feathers with the smooshed insects, or by plucking and placing ants one by one upon their bodies. Why the birds do this is unclear. Scientists have proposed that the formic acid secreted by the ants serves as a natural insecticide against bird parasites. It has also been theorized that anting provides a soothing or stimulating benefit that might even be mildly addictive; in other words, after a hard day chivvying eagles and setting free the neighborhood dogs, it’s good to kick back and chillax at the local ant mound.
The world’s most famous raven is, of course, a fictional one. Why Poe chose a raven to co-star in the eponymous poem is a matter for literary scholars to debate. Perhaps it was the bird’s funereal habiliment that suggested it for the role. Perhaps it was the raven’s reputation as a talky bird. In addition to its signature, full-throated croak, which can be audible for more than a mile, the raven has a range of some 30 or more vocalizations. And like fellow corvids such as the magpie, it is a keen imitator. Given that latter talent, it was inevitable that someone would try to teach a raven to croak “nevermore” and duly document the results on YouTube. Admittedly, the raven in question sounds like it was dubbed by Stephen Hawking, fomenting a fair amount of skepticism in the comment-stream, but other talking ravens populating the Empire of YouTubistan sound much the same.
If you watch the video, you may be amused, as I was, to find that the onscreen raven also seems to be a fan of Fozzie Bear of the Muppets. Leading one to imagine all the potential of a zanier, more madcap Poe: Quoth the raven? “Waka waka waka.”