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September 2010

September: Ravens



  • Behind the Art:
    Ink Washes and Crosshatching
  • Artist Spotlight:
    Interview With Brenda Lyons
  • Wombat Droppings:
    On 23-Book Deals
  • EMG News:
    News for September
  • Ask an Artist:
    Colours Tests


  • Ravens


  • Poem: Asking Lenore How to Write
  • Fiction: Remaking The Raven
  • Fiction: The Messenger
  • Poem: When Raven Alights
  • Poem: Birdtale
  • Fiction: Oskela's Raven

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  • Ravens
    by Jenny Heidewald

    The Common Raven ( Corvus corax ) is one of largest members of the crow family (the Thick-billed Raven, Corvus crassirostris , is the largest), corvidae, and order Passeriformes (perching /songbirds). The Corvidae family also includes birds such as crows, rooks, jackdaws, blue jays, magpies, and many others. Among all birds, ravens are said to be the most intelligent, showing capability for thought and problem solving, as well as tool making and using.

    Ravens are omnivorous scavengers, meaning that they will eat, among other things, grain, bugs, berries, shellfish, small animals, eggs, and carrion. They have been known to act in concert with wolves or coyotes, leading them to prey or carrion. This is a win-win situation, since the raven is unable to penetrate the tough hide of the carrion with its beak, and the wolves don't have to search as hard for food. Because they eat carrion, ravens have long been associated with war and death, thus adding to the bad reputation they have acquired. In reality, these birds are very clever, curious, playful and some can even "talk".

    The Raven in Mythology

    With a reputation as a trickster and thief, harbinger of bad luck or of death, and unwitting giver of gifts, the raven is a part of mythology in almost every culture. This includes, but is not limited to, Native American, Scandinavian, European, Japanese, Chinese, Aborigine and Indian. In many cultures, the raven was originally white, but was turned black by a god who was displeased or from encountering smoke on one of his many escapades.

    In Scandinavian mythology, the Norse god Odin has two ravens, Huginn (thought) and Muninn (memory) whom he would send out at the beginning of the day to gather information for him.

    In much Native American mythology, generally the Pacific Northwest, the raven is a creator. The first humans came from a pea plant that the bird had created, or he found them hiding in clam (male) and chiton (female) shells (Haida tribe) . Messenger and occasional hero, albeit unintentionally, this is a mischievous trickster god, similar to the coyote. The raven is attributed to bringing the stars, moon and sun to the sky, mischievously stolen from a man who had kept them in a box for himself.

    The Celts associated the raven and crow with Morrigan, their goddess of death and war, she was said to be able to take the raven's shape.

    The Tower of London: Ancient legend says that if the ravens that occupy the White Tower depart, the Tower and British Empire will fall. King Charles II almost got rid of the birds because his astronomer had complained about them. After hearing the legend, being superstitious he changed his mind, instead ordering that at least six ravens be kept at the tower at all times. Thus, there is always a regiment of ravens kept there, with their own keeper, the Ravenmaster.

    Thanks to the popularity of the Edgar Allan Poe poem, "The Raven," "Nevermore" is probably the word most associated with ravens.

    Corvus even has its own constellation, in the southern sky near Virgo.

    The Difference Between the Common Raven ( Corvus corax ) and the American/Common Crow ( Corvus brachyrhynchos )

    Though you can technically call ravens crows, belonging to the Corvus (crow) family as they do, you cannot call all crows ravens.

    What are some differences between these two birds? The immediate difference between ravens and crows is size, the crow being approximately 1/3 smaller. The raven around the size of a red-tailed hawk (or a medium size full-grown cat), approximately 22 to 27 inches long, and the crow closer to the size of a pigeon, 17 to 18 inches long.

    Males and females of the species are about the same size and same color, young raven and crow mouths are pink-lined, the color changing from pink to black usually by the second year. Black from beak to feet, ravens and crows can both have iridescent sheens of blue, purple and green on their feathers, ravens more so than crows. Younger ravens can have a brownish-black sheen to their feathers. Rarely, ravens and crows have been born white; they can be either leucistic (less pigment) or true albino (no pigment). White ravens have been reported to live by Qualicum Beach, an island town in Brittish Columbia.

    Ravens are generally seen singly or in pairs, though young ravens stay with their parents for about six months. The more social crow tends to flock, the breeding pairs of crows at times allowing a couple yearlings to stay on and help with the next batch of chicks. Non-breeding birds of both species collect in like flocks, and share communal roosts. When finding food on a breeding pair's territory, a non-mated bird calls to fellow flock members, as the breeding pair is less likely to attempt to drive off a large number of intruders.

    Ravens tend to avoid big cities, while crows can make their home there. Ravens have a deeper, more guttural call, and have a wider vocabulary of calls than crows. They are great at mimicking sounds, and some ravens have picked up human words, even changing the pitch of their call to reflect a human female or male voice.


    Ravens have prominent throat feathers, called hackles, or ruff; ravens also have larger bills, which tend to be slightly curved, "Roman-nosed", as opposed to their crow brethren. Eyes of both species are black with dark brown irises, grey-blue when young. Ravens have prominent feathers on their head that cover of their nostrils and part of their beak; crows have this as well, but to a lesser extent. Depending on the mood of the raven or crow, the shape of the head can vary due to feathers being raised.


    Ravens have wings built for gliding and soaring, with long primaries that spread apart like fingers when in flight. They are aerial acrobats, known to do somersaults, and have even been reported to briefly fly upside down. The crow has shorter, broader wings, and tends not to glide for more than a few seconds. Ravens can have between 45 and 60 inch wingspans, compared to the crow's 30 to 40 inch wingspan. In flight, the raven has a longer neck than the crow.


    The raven has a wedge shaped tail, the central tail feathers being longer than the ones to either side, and the crow a squared tipped tail, slightly rounded like a fan when spread. This difference is easier to see when the birds are in flight. The tail has twelve feathers, though at times there may be less, as some might have been pulled out.


    Raven and crow feet are anisodactyl, which means that three toes face forward, and one back, to enable perching. The back-facing toe has a longer nail. The legs and feet have scales made of keratin only on the tops.

    Following Joumana Medlej's bird drawing technique, I first draw an egg shape for the main bulk of the raven. I guess the center of gravity and draw a line vertically though the egg shape to the "ground". The knee of the bird, which is hidden under feathers, and the middle of the foot both line up along this vertical axis. I then start plotting the head and legs.

    I use various reference photos; photos of white ravens are particularly good for seeing the way the feathers are on the body. As always, there is a lot of adjusting that goes on with tweaking the bird's proportions. In this case it looks like I need to make the head smaller, or the back end bigger.

    Time to start battling the wings, I also start to ink things with my 005 micron pen so that I have a better idea of where I am at. The feathers of the body I treat like hair, using wispy ink lines. I still need to make the head smaller, but I will deal with that after I get the raven totally inked.

    Now I focus on making my lines heavier and adding in the darker shades that equal "raven". The key is to try and plot where you want your whites to stay, and make sure you don't ink them all out! I've switched to a 01 micron pen, and will use the range of pen sizes. I use light cross-hatching over the feathers to darken them.

    In Photoshop Elements I adjust the raven's head size, and clean up my lines. I decided that the picture needed a little more oomph, so I added a layer of grey behind the line layer, which I set to multiply, I then popped in some white highlights.

    In Closing...

    I have only scratched the surface of this subject here. There is so much more to learn about these fascinating and charming birds. They are twined through so many cultures, mythologies and histories; it would be a sad world indeed, if the clever raven and crow were not here to share it with us.

    "If men had wings and bore black feathers, few of them would be clever enough to be crows" -- Rev. Henry Beecher, 1810

    References and Resources:

    Full episode of Ravens on Nature

    About the Common Raven

    About the American Crow

    Excellent Raven and Crow photos by Paul Lantz

    Raven and Crow Drawing guide by Elruu

    Drawing Birds Tutorial by Joumana Medlej

    My reference folder for wings tutorials and things on Deviant Art

    American Crow and Common Raven by Lawrence Kilham
    Crows & Jays by Steve Nadge and Hillary Burn
    Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds by Bernd Heinrich

    Jenny Heidewald is one of those self-taught artists that has been drawing since she was little; she remembers the exact moment she decided that she wanted to be an artist. Interestingly enough, it was while watching her mom draw the hand of God reaching from the clouds to His followers. Jenny was floored, it seemed to be magic, an image appearing out of nowhere. She thought, "I want
    to do THAT!" In addition to writing for EMG-zine, Jenny is a prolific artist who has worked in many mediums. Her current favorite technique is working with colored micron pens, and coloring either with watercolor or Photoshop. Jenny lives in Maryland with her husband. Please check out her Sketchfest, Portrait Adoption, Deviant Art, and Elfwood pages.

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