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Black Beauty

Inside the Tower of London, a man called the Yeoman Raven Master watches over a flock of all-black birds. The same was true back in the 1600s when the tradition started. It arose after a soothsayer predicted that the British monarchy would fall if the ravens disappeared. But even without their caretaker, these birds probably would have survived.

For one thing, ravens are surprisingly adaptable. When winter descends upon northern Alaska and other animals depart, ravens remain to feed, frolic, and breed in the subzero chill. At the opposite extreme, ravens will hunt snakes even in the dizzying summertime heat of a place like Death Valley. Indeed, they're the most widely distributed bird in the entire world.

They're also one of the most opportunistic. In fact, some people call them wolf-birds because of their close association with wolves, bears, coyotes, and killer whales, the hunters ravens depend upon for kills to scavenge. But ravens do more than pick at the remains of dead animals. Scientists believe that ravens work actively to direct predators to potential prey. With appetites as adaptable as their lifestyles, ravens will eat anything from fur seals to french fries and thrive.

And ravens are smart. Researchers such as Bernd Heinrich have tested raven intelligence with astounding results. For example, a raven, given a dozen crackers, will use one as a tray, with other crackers stacked and carried carefully upon it. And when confronted with multiple donuts, a raven will pass its beak through the hole of one and then grab the edge of another a perfect solution to the two-donut one-beak problem.

And did we mention that ravens can mimic human speech as well as parrots? Yet despite their intelligence, ravens have not been able to outwit man. Confused with agriculture pests like crows and wrongly suspected in livestock depredation, ravens have suffered much at the hands of varmint shooters. Once prevalent in New England, ravens were locally exterminated and only recently have begun a return to the upper Northeast.

A discriminating birder, though, should have no trouble distinguishing a raven from a crow. Look for the raven's larger size and heavier bill. The feather tufts at the neck and wedge-shaped tail feathers in flight also differentiate it from a crow. So will its distinctive vocalizations, which include an assortment of low quorks, knocks, and mumbles.