Very few mammals have mutual 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 to wolves. Where there are wolves, there are often ravens that follow wolves; to grab their leftovers from a hunt, or 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 compliance to almost any environment, their fascination with colorful toys and glittery objects, their use of natural tools, and their diverse range 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 sharp beaks to pierce. Ravens not only scavenge wolf kills, but steal up to one third of a carcass by continually carrying away chunks of meat 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 reciprocal relationship with ravens, idle wolves and ravens have been observed playing together, with ravens pulling on wolf tails, and wolf cubs chasing after the 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.
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."