The "real" Ravens

Conquer and Rise perch comfortably on the field before the Ravens played the Cincinnati Bengals during the regular season. (Christopher T. Assaf, Baltimore Sun / October 10, 2009)

Harford County may be the natural habitat for Ravens fans, but it isn't necessarily the best place in Maryland to get a look at the bird for which the Super Bowl-bound team is named.

Ravens, described by the Cornell University's Lab of Ornithology as, "Not just large but massive, with a thick neck, shaggy throat feathers, and a Bowie knife of a beak," are not at home in the Baltimore area. They are, however, found in Maryland in the western counties - Frederick, Washington, Allegany and Garrett - according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

Their range relates to their preference for tall pine trees for nesting.

So large are ravens, that, with their four-foot wingspans, they're regarded by ornithologists as the largest songbirds, according to the Maryland DNR.


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Being black with purple highlights, common ravens look a lot like another related bird, common crows, which are readily found in Harford County. Crows are a good deal smaller than ravens. Ravens and crows have another near relative of similar build, but different coloration, the blue jay.

Ravens are most readily distinguished from crows by their long, shaggy throat feathers, which crows don't have.

Ravens are found east of the Mississippi in the United States mainly along the Appalachian mountains, but not along the Piedmont, the Atlantic Coast or the Prairie. The largest portion of their U.S. range is along the Rocky Mountains from the Canadian border south to Mexico, west to the Pacific and east to Colorado, according to the Cornell Ornithology web site. Cornell maintains nationally-renowned catalogs of biological information about a variety of animals, notably birds and fishes.

"Ravens are among the smartest of all birds, gaining a reputation for solving ever more complicated problems invented by ever more creative scientists," the Cornell site says of the football team's namesake. Crows are similarly known for their cunning.

A key difference between ravens and crows, beyond that ravens are on average about a third larger, is that while crows are typically found in gatherings of about a dozen or more, known as murders, Ravens travel in pairs or are solitary.

Like crows, ravens are, according to the Maryland DNR, inclined to eat just about anything they can catch or find, ranging from small animals to found carrion. They're also known, according to the Maryland DNR, for hiding uneaten food under rocks or in small holes and further concealing it with leaves and twigs.

The Cornell web site makes note of the way people relate to ravens: "People the world over sense a certain kind of personality in ravens. Edgar Allan Poe clearly found them a little creepy. The captive ravens at the Tower of London are beloved and perhaps a little feared: legend has it that if they ever leave the tower, the British Empire will crumble. Native people of the Pacific Northwest regard the raven as an incurable trickster, bringing fire to people by stealing it from the sun, and stealing salmon only to drop them in rivers all over the world."

Edgar Allan Poe's poem, "The Raven," is, of course, the Baltimore link that is notable for why the city's football team is named for the cunning black bird. The foreboding verses are characteristic of Poe's generally haunting work. While Poe spent relatively little time in Baltimore, it is Baltimore that was chosen for the final repository of his earthly remains. He is interred at Westminster Hall at Fayette and Greene streets in Baltimore.

For decades, a shadowy figure known only as the "Poe Toaster" would visit the Poe grave site and leave three roses and an unfinished bottle of Martell cognac on Jan. 19, the tortured writer's birthday. That tradition ceased a few years back when the toaster met his end.

Curiously, Poe's end in Baltimore, according to research by Ron Browning, the Havre de Grace community columnist for The Record newspaper and a retired teacher, came about in part because the author of "The Raven" was sent back to Baltimore when he was discovered to be on a wrong train after it had stopped in Havre de Grace.

The Baltimore and Harford connection to ravens in the wild may be tenuous, and the poet who penned "The Raven" may not have spent much time in the hometown of the 2012-13 AFC champion football team. But when it comes to Poe's themes and literary legacy, having his final resting place is about as good a connection as one could ask for.