Very few mammals have symbiotic relationships with other animals. One of the few exceptions is the raven and the wolf. Ravens are sometimes known as "wolf-birds" because they form social attachments with wolves. Where there are wolves, there are often ravens that follow wolves to grab leftovers from the hunt, and to tease the wolves. They play with the wolves by diving at them and then speeding away or pecking their tails to try to get the wolves to chase them.
The wolf and the raven have a complex relationship that is many thousands of years old. Although the wolf had been missing from Yellowstone since the 1940's, the raven had not forgotten the wolf and what their relationship meant for both of them. With the reintroduction of the wolf into Yellowstone National Park, the old ways are once again practiced by both.
Wolves and ravens have long been connected in folklore and fact. The Nordic God Odin is often represented sitting on his throne, flanked by his two wolves Geri and Freki and two ravens Huggin and Munin. Tales of hunting interaction involving wolves, ravens and humans figure prominently in the storytelling of Tlingit and Inuit, Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, with the ravens appearing as form-changing wise guys and tricksters, taking advantage of both humans and wolves.
Ravens are possibly the most intelligent birds, based on their omnivorous adaptability to almost any environment, their fascination with colorful toys and glittery objects, their use of natural tools, and their diverse repertoire of sounds and vocalizations. Wherever wolves hunt, ravens are usually present, scavenging prey and sometimes leading wolves to potential prey or to carcasses too tough for even the ravens' heavy, pick-like beaks to penetrate.
Ravens not only scavenge wolf kills, but steal up to one third of a carcass by continually carrying away chunks of meat, caching and hiding them both from the wolves and their fellow ravens. A fascinating new study suggests that since an adult wolf can by itself kill any prey smaller than a large moose, the real reason wolves hunt in packs, is to minimize the portion of a carcass lost to ravens! And while it may seem that wolves have the short end of this symbiotic relationship with ravens, idle wolves and ravens have been observed playing together, with ravens pulling on wolf tails, and wolf cubs chasing after teasing ravens.
In several studies conducted at Yellowstone National Park where carcasses were randomly left for ravens, it showed them to be initially cautious, waiting for other ravens or other scavengers to approach first. However, when following a wolf pack they usually began feeding immediately after and sometimes alongside the wolves.
In "Wolves and Men", Barry Lopez wrote: "The wolf seems to have few relationships with other animals that could be termed purely social, though he apparently takes pleasure in the company of ravens. The raven, with a range almost as extensive as the wolf's, one that even includes the tundra, commonly follows hunting wolves to feed on the remains of a kill."
Some zoologists speculate that the raven's relationship with wolves may be because of their psychological make-up. Dr. L. David Mech wrote in "The Wolf: The Ecology and Behaviour of an Endangered Species": "It appears that the wolf and the raven have reached an adjustment in their relationships such that each creature is rewarded in some way by the presence of the other and that each is fully aware of the other's capabilities. Both species are extremely social, so they must possess the psychological mechanisms necessary for forming social attachments. Perhaps in some way individuals of each species have included members of the other in their social group and have formed bonds with them."
In "Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds," zoologist Bernd Heinrich has suggested a basis for this association. Ravens lead wolves to their prey, alert them to dangers, and are rewarded by sharing the spoils.
This unusual partnership also finds expression in Scripture. The only person in Scripture named after the wolf, the Midianite chieftain Ze'ev, had a partner named Orev, which means Raven in Hebrew. "And they captured the two chieftains of Midian, Orev and Ze'ev; and they executed Orev in the Rock of Orev, and they executed Ze'ev at the Winepress of Ze'ev, and they pursued Midian; and they brought the heads of Orev and Ze'ev to Gideon, across the Jordan." (Judges 7:25)
It could be that since wolves and ravens have a well-known association, the Midianites called their two chieftains by these names. Or perhaps they had different names, but Scripture calls them by these names in order to tell us something about them.
Aside from the social and symbiotic relationship between wolves and ravens, there is another connection between them. The Hebrew name for raven, orev, is comprised of the same letters as the word erev, dusk. Dusk is the time so epitomized by wolves that they are repeatedly referred to as "the wolves of dusk". According to some they are referred to solely by the name "dusky" in the Egyptian plague, the same word used as the name of the raven. The Midrash, a commentary on part of the Hebrew scriptures, also records a view that that the Egyptian plague of arov was comprised of ravens and other such birds, but another view maintains that it was both wolves and ravens.
The etymology of the name orev for raven is simple to explain in terms of the raven's black plumage, reminiscent of the onset of night. But one can also see other ways in which the raven is related to this word. Erev, or dusk, is the time when day mixes with night. In fact, the word for mixture in Hebrew is ervuv. Ravens are a mixture in that they are the only bird to possess two of the signs of kosher birds as well as two of the signs of non-kosher birds – a true mixture. The Midrash notes that the raven also has a tendency to mix even when mixing is forbidden: "There were three that engaged in sexual relations while in the Ark: Ham, the raven, and the dog." (Talmud, Sanhedrin 108b)
Males and females of all species were to remain separate for the duration of their stay on the Ark, but the ravens negated this, mingling together and mating. Perhaps it is for this reason that the chieftains of Midian are called Ze'ev and Orev by the Torah. The crime of Midian was to send their girls to mix and intermingle with the Jewish People. Ravens and wolves are both creatures that represent dusk, the mixture of light and dark, and also mixing in general. Furthermore they mix with each other, mammal with bird. The dusky ravens and wolves of dusk are both symbols of the mixing of two distinct realms. In a commentary to Exodus 8:17, Rabbi Yosef Schonhak in "Toldos Ha-Aretz" claims that the wolves that plagued Egypt, along with the "wolves of dusk" referred to in Scripture, are hyenas.
Bernd Heinrich in "Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds" wrote: "Ravens can be attracted to wolf howls. The wolves' howls before they go on a hunt, and it is a signal that the birds learn to heed. Conversely, wolves may respond to certain raven vocalizations or behavior that indicate prey. The raven-wolf association may be close to a symbiosis that benefits the wolves and ravens alike. At a kill site, the birds are more suspicious and alert than wolves. The birds serve the wolves as extra eyes and ears."
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