I observed some strange behaviour from a pair of Ravens today. I was out checking historical breeding territories around the Lleyn coast. My approach towards one particular sea cliff nest took me along the top of the mountain which juts out into the bay overlooking the site. On arrival at this vantage point, which is c.130 m above sea level, I noticed way down below me a Raven apparently eating the corpse of another. I checked my watch (1440 GMT) as I was carefully recording everything using the BirdTrack app. I decided to pull out my sit-mat and snacks, get comfortable and watch the proceedings.
With no telescope I was limited by 8x30 binoculars but was amazed at what I saw. The bird was busy ‘feeding’, pecking diligently around the body and to the rear of the ‘dead’ bird, which looked to be slumped on its side. During this process it moved several tail feathers quite vigorously. I was already mentally drafting a note for ‘British Birds’ magazine as I’d never heard of cannibalism in the species before. At 1447 I decided to head down to collect and/or check the corpse for rings, aware of the sustained historical ringing activity locally (eg at nearby Bardsey Bird Observatory) and the species’ known longevity. To be honest I wasn’t looking forward to the 100 m descent as the sporadic drizzle had turned to rain and it is a steep and frankly dangerous area to traverse in the best of weather, although worth reaching by a safer route in summer for the good rock fishing with large bags of Mackerel and decent-sized Pollock.
Just as I stuffed my things back in the rucksack and got up the ‘dead’ bird flipped up on to its feet and started strutting around with the other! I was gobsmacked. It seems like some pair bonding and allopreening was taking place after all. I was busy making notes when I glanced down again and the birds had disappeared. What amazed me the most was the length of time. They were preening when I arrived and at least seven minutes had elapsed since my first sighting. Derek Ratcliffe mentions this as an aspect of pair-bonding behaviour (and presumably parasite control) in his fine Poyser monograph and I’ve seen it before, but never heard of birds actually lying on the ground during this activity. I saw another bird briefly preen another while both were sat at another nest site some 1km away later on in the afternoon.