The Corvids

Corvids assume characteristics that were once ascribed only to humans, including self-recognition, insight, revenge, tool use, mental time travel, deceipt, murder, language, play, calculated risk taking, social learning, and traditions. We are different, but by degree. (1) – Marzluff & Angell

The Family Corvidae include crows, ravens, rooks, jackdaws, jays, magpies, treepies, choughs, and nutcrackers.

The Genus Corvus are a group within the family including the medium to larger birds – crows, ravens, rooks and jackdaws. Eye of the Corvus has specifically focused on ravens (and crows), as Australia and Iceland both have ravens.

They’re more often simply known as the crow family, or, more technically, corvids.

In Iceland, it is Corvus corax – the emblem of the Icelandic Institute of Natural History. Prominent in Icelandic nature and traditional beliefs, it is Iceland’s largest passerine (perching birds). Common throughout Iceland, it often nests in towns in the winter. The number of nesting pairs is said to be around 2,500, while the autumn population is estimated at 12-15,000 individuals. Organised control over decades (2), hunting (2a) and the destruction of raven nests in some places, has led to a drop in raven numbers, and they now rank as a vulnerable species on the Icelandic Red List of Birds.

Australia has three native types of raven and two types of crow (not including the Columbo Crow). (3)(4) There is very little difference between them. (5)

Characteristics of Australian ravens and crows

Australian Raven – Corvus coronoides, along with Little Crow, is the most widespread across eastern Australia and southern Western Australia.
Forest Raven – Corvus tasmanicus is the only corvid in Tasmania but also found on far north coast of NSW and the south coast of Victoria (which isn’t home to the Little Raven).
Little Raven – Corvus mellori can be found from the Central Tablelands of NSW to Eyre Peninsula of South Australia. It’s the common corvid in urban Adelaide and Melbourne.
Little Crow – Corvus bennetti covers vast areas of arid and semi-arid Australia. It’s considerably smaller (48cm) than the Australian Raven (52cm), whose territory it shares in eastern Australia.
Torresian Crow – Corvus orru is found from the coast of the Hunter region of NSW going north, covering much of northern Australia. It has adapted well to urban environments.
House (Columbo) Crow – Corvus splendens is a ship-assisted colonist from southern Asia that has settled in some city pockets.

In contrast to the Icelandic status of ravens, it’s interesting to note the Torresian Crow has been observed making significant adaptations to its urban environment in Brisbane, Queensland. (6)

There are 112 species of ravens and crows globally (3). It’s believed the Corvidae family originated from the Australian fragment of Gondwana (7).

A 2004 study based on previous studies, co-authored by Nathan Emery and Nicola Clayton, from Cambridge University (UK), concluded while having very different brain structures, both crows and primates use a combination of mental tools, including imagination and the anticipation of possible future events, to solve similar problems.

“These studies have found that some corvids are not only superior in intelligence to birds of other avian species (perhaps with the exception of some parrots), but also rival many nonhuman primates.” (8)

(1) Gifts of the Crow, Marzluff & Angell, 2013, p198
(2) Breeding biology, movements & persecution of ravens in Iceland, Icelandic Museum of Natural History, 1990
(2a) Reports of ravens being hunted in Iceland
(3) Field Guide to the Birds of Australia, Simpson & Day, 1996
(4) Field Guide to the Birds of Australia, Pizzey & Knight, 1997
(5) Birds in Backyards website
(6) Urbanisation of crows a “significant moment”, Australian Geographic, 2016
(7) Stone the crows! Could corvids by Australia’s smartest export?, The Conversation, 2012
(8) Crow as Clever as Great Apes, Study Says, National Geographic, 2004