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There'll be ravens over the White Cliffs of Dover

PUBLISHED: 11:59 19 July 2010 | UPDATED: 17:33 20 February 2013

There’ll be ravens over the White Cliffs of Dover

There’ll be ravens over the White Cliffs of Dover

Ask most people about ravens and they'll mention the Tower of London or Edgar Allan Poe, as these birds of 'ill omen' are better known in literature and legend. But this summer in Kent, you'll be seeing ravens much closer to home

Therell be ravens over the White Cliffs of Dover

Ask most people about ravens and theyll mention the Tower of London or Edgar Allan Poe, as these birds of ill omen are better known in literature and legend. But this summer in Kent, youll be seeing ravens much closer to home

Britains most legendary bird has returned to the south and east of England, spreading from Wiltshire to the Dorset coast and West Sussex and settling in Kent where, for the first time in more than a century, a pair of ravens has nested in the White Cliffs of Dover and raised two young.

Their migration has been mapped in the New Atlas of Breeding Birds in Britain and Ireland: 2007-2011, and marks one of the most remarkable British wildlife phenomena of the last 20 years.

Until 200 years, ago ravens were widespread across the British Isles, but persecution by Victorian gamekeepers decimated the raven population and drove the remainder to the celtic fringes. Following the Second World War, gamekeeping declined, and the birds started returning to their rightful habitats.

Ravens are Corvids, members of the crow family, a uniquely intelligent group that includes carrion crows, choughs, hooded crows, jays magpies and rooks. In fact, ravens and carrion crows are birds of a feather: sharing the same high avian intelligence, and complex behaviour patterns.

Part of the conservation work that Peter Smith, chief executive of the Wild Woods Trust in Herne Bay, is responsible for is taking care of ravens confiscated by police or the RSPCA. It is illegal to keep ravens as pets.

Ravens are ludicrously intelligent they have long memories and problem solving intelligence. Theyre also incredibly mischievous, he tells me, and while being interviewed, the raven sitting on a perch behind his shoulder flew off with his hat.

Ravens are ludicrously intelligent they have long memories and problem-solving intelligence

Ravens love interacting with people, and At Wild Wood the keepers have developed games: they will sit down and rattle a set of keys, or five-pence pieces and let the ravens pinch the keys and relocate them, or take the coins and bury them, to retrieve later.

This is food-based behaviour: ravens have a habit of slipping away to hide food, and other objects of interest, when their companions are not watching, and will deliberately seek places out of sight and not normally visited by them to hide their stash.

Ravens are predators, hunting insects, carrion, other birds eggs, and occasionally livestock, and they hunt by sight. They are therefore watching intently our settlements and our movements.

Tony Morris of the Kent Orthinological Society says that if you are watching birds from a hide, ordinarily you need just two people, one to watch and one to stay. However, you need three or four people for a ravens nest, because they count the humans, and if they see one see stay and one go, they will fly away.

Theyre also watching our faces: ravens and crows recognise and remember individual faces. We may think they are just bystanders minding their own business but we are their business, Doug Levey of the University of Florida notes in a study reported in New Scientist magazine January 2010.

As part of the study, members of the team donned a rubber caveman mask and then captured wild American crows. They found the birds reacted very strongly scolding and flapping when anyone wore that same mask, and continued to react for more than three years.

Corvids remember kindness as well as threats, and in the right circumstances, will form strong bonds. Kyle Wallace, performance magician, remembers Crippin, a crow he rescued, with affection and awe

Crippin was the coolest bird. One trick involved leading a member of the audience up to the stage, while surreptitiously removing their wristwatch, and holding it up for Crippin to fly down, take, and return to his perch, he recalls. Crippin loved performing, and would puff out his chest and proudly strut up and down his perch.

Ravens are expert mimics, able to copy human and animal sounds perfectly. One of the ravens at Wild Wood, specialises in imitating the cuckoos call, while another imitates the call of the keeper when shes feeding the otters. So the raven is able to summon the otters.

Anecdotes from orthinologists and bird lovers abound, and its this evidence that gives the clearest picture of their complex and fascinating characters. As the ravens return to Kent, increased observations will add to the growing body of knowledge, and hopefully diminish the fear and superstition that contributed to their persecution.

Richard Taylor Wood, photographer and cameraman who filmed The Ravens of Kent segment on BBCs Springwatch, has had a passion for ravens for as long as he can remember, and for him, ravens have been harbingers of happiness.

While filming an intelligence test on the ravens at the Tower of London, he first met the press officer, who later became his wife. The ravens unfortunately did not perform as well.

Kent born and bred, Richard had been living in Bristol and was hankering to return to home. With the fall in the housing market in 2008, he had great difficulty trying to sell his house while the properties in Kent he and his wife were interested in kept falling through.

Until one day in 2009. He noticed ravens nesting outside his house in Bristol, for the first time. By the spring the house was sold, and hed bought found his dream house in Deal, where he had grew up. Last spring marked the first sighting of the ravens returning to Dover.

So, this summer, the sight of a raven soaring overhead will be a good omen. We need to celebrate the return of these iconic birds. They are birds of the wilderness returning to an urban environment, and that shows conservation working. Take the time to sit and watch. They have a personality. If you enjoy watching these birds, youll see something slightly different every day, says Richard.


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