The Raven

The raven, Corvus corax, is the emblem of the Icelandic Institute of Natural History.

The raven is a prominent bird in Icelandic nature and traditional beliefs. By far this country’s largest passerine, it is a resident bird, common throughout Iceland. Ravens are often found in urban areas in winter. The number of nesting pairs is said to be around 2,500, while the autumn population is estimated at 12-15,000 individuals. Ravens nest all over the northern hemisphere.

A monogamous bird, the raven remains loyal to its mate for the whole of its life, using the same nesting site year after year. Although usually found in cliffs, nests also occur in man-made structures and trees. Nesting begins in mid-April, and four to six eggs are the norm. The young develop slowly, but can fly properly by about five weeks of age, normally in the latter half of June, and abandon their parents in July. The oldest known wild raven reached the age of 20.

The raven is omnivorous and pernicious, robbing eggs and hatchlings, and can cause disturbance and sometimes losses at eider nesting grounds. Some people therefore shoot ravens or tear down their nests, even without cause. In certain places this has led to a drop in raven numbers, and they now rank as a vulnerable (VU) species on the Icelandic Red List of Birds.

Many folktales and reports exist about ravens, as well as numerous verses and poems. However, the attitude of Icelanders towards ravens is mixed. Whereas the original heathen settlers looked up to the raven as a symbol of wisdom and prophecy, their Christian descendents often saw the raven as a sign of evil: a harbinger of death or an associate of magicians and wrongdoers. On the other hand, Icelandic folktales also speak of the kindness of the raven and the sagas of how it helped the first settlers.