Raven: The mystery bird moves east, finds a home in Quincy

Lane Lambert

Visitors to the Crown Colony office park can hear a fresh sound these days – the croaking squawk of ravens.

Once unknown in Greater Boston, the black bird made famous by Edgar Allan Poe’s poem is nesting increasingly farther east and south – from the Blue Hills Reservation to Foxboro, West Roxbury and now the cliff wall of an old Quincy rock quarry.

Why has the raven moved into our area? Ornithologists have no idea.

“It’s one of those mysteries,” said Norman Smith, director of the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s Trailside Museum in Milton. 

Whippoorwills, Northern bobwhites and other common species are disappearing from familiar habitats in New England and elsewhere, partly due to suburban development and perhaps from climate change. At the same time, global warming is sending species like the purple finch farther north for the winter. Yet Smith said neither factor appears to be altering the raven’s local range.

Quincy and other local towns haven’t dramatically changed due to development in recent years, he said. And ravens are still nesting year-round in the same locations they lived in before the spread, including Alaska and northern New England.

Food supply can affect bird populations, too, as this winter’s proliferation of snowy owls shows. Food was abundant in the owls’ Arctic breeding ground, so larger flocks migrated south. But the ravens’ diet – which includes just about anything – hasn’t changed, either.

As recently as a decade ago, ravens weren’t reported any closer to the South Shore than the Quabbin Reservoir. In 2000, birders spotted a single bird in the Blue Hills, then a nest with two chicks in 2002, and three pairs in 2005. Now there are as many as 10 pairs.

Smith only half-jokingly calls the raven “an elevated crow” – a bigger, more intelligent version of its cousin in the corvidae family. He noted that the often-elusive ravens can soar like a hawk and attack their prey with equal ferocity.

Those qualities probably give the raven its mystique as a symbol of medieval witchcraft and a trickster animal in Native American mythology. Crows don’t inspire such foreboding. Neither does the eagle.

Where will ravens be found next? Scituate Harbor? Marshfield Hills? Plymouth Rock? With the latest moves, Smith doesn’t think birders will be surprised no matter where ravens turn up.

“No one knows for sure,” Smith said of the ravens’ next destination.

Lane Lambert may be reached at llambert@ledger.com.

For more on ravens, check out these links:

VIDEO: Vincent Price recites “The Raven”

AUDIO: Cornell Ornithology Lab, including audio of raven calls

American Bird Conservancy Birdwatcher’s Guide to Global Warming

Massachusetts Audubon Society

Collective nouns: Terms for different groups of birds, animals