An obscure population of Cape Codders has tripled in recent years, and they may be coming to a neighborhood near you. With a history of persecution, these gruff but intelligent residents have been finding Cape Cod hospitable for the first time in centuries. They are Common Ravens.
For several years now, Common Ravens have nested on a catwalk at the canal power plant in Sandwich, but in the last few weeks I’ve learned of two new Cape Cod nests, one in Harwich and another in Truro. This confirms the suspicions of many in the birding community that ravens must be nesting in more places than just Sandwich. The Truro nest is on a cell phone tower, consistent with the new urban aesthetic the species has adopted. The Harwich nest is in a tree, but rather than nest in the large Punkhorn woodlands nearby, they chose an industrial area busy with truck and car traffic.
When I was a kid, the raven was a bird of northern wilderness, of craggy mountains and remote forests that seemed appropriate backdrops for their supernatural, croaking calls. I could never have imagined that they would one day be nesting on a Verizon tower in the wilds of downtown Brockton, my hometown, along with Peregrine Falcons. How did these birds of wild places come to call cities and suburbs their home?
Once common throughout Massachusetts, ravens were deemed killers of young livestock and exterminated from the state during colonial times. Conversion of forest to farmland kept them from rebounding in subsequent years, and it wasn’t until the 21st century that ravens had begun to stage a comeback, first in the rural, hilly west, then gradually further east.
As ravens moved into more developed areas, they first turned up in urban quarries, places reminiscent of the cliff-side aeries of their wilderness past. But increasingly, these smart and adaptable birds became comfortable with humans and our infrastructure. Since 2014, one pair has nested on a fire escape at the Wellesley College Science Center, home to ornithologist Nick Rodenhouse- it’s like they were asking to be studied. A webcam was quickly installed, and Nick and his students set about making observations. The birds have been seen dumpster diving around campus, but the pair also brought frogs, mice, and the eggs and nestlings of smaller birds to feed their chicks. These birds that coevolved with wolves that followed the bison herds have hitched their wagon to a new top predator: us.
Bigger and more hawk-like than their smaller crow cousins, ravens sport a bigger bill, a diamond-shaped tail, and long pointed wings. I see most of my Cape Cod ravens when I’m driving on Rt. 6, typically while craning my neck to make sure my birder brain isn’t turning a crow into a raven via the potent cognitive phenomenon known as wishful thinking. But more often these days, the raven is, in fact, a raven.
The Common Raven is one of those species rapidly redrawing their own range maps on a seemingly daily basis, and I expect more and more nests will be discovered in the coming years, so keep an eye out for these largest of the world’s perching birds. And don’t forget to tune in next week, when I’ll no doubt be “raven” about some other species.