How to catch a glimpse of the ravens on show at Newborough

Graham Williams, a member of Natural Resources Wales’ Land Management Team at Newborough National Nature Reserve and Forest writes about ravens and their relationship with the site.

Ravens can be considered birds of ill-omen but they are also revered by some. Their black plumage, loud guttural croaking and calls often echo off the steep forbidding cliffs and mountainsides of Eryri.

In Welsh they are called cigfran or deryn corff due to their habit of visiting battle fields in the Middle Ages. It was thought they visited dead and dying soldiers to take up their souls.

Ravens are in fact one of our most intelligent and enigmatic birds, with brains said to be among the largest of any bird. Their repertoire of calls includes more than 30 distinct sounds and they have been known to imitate wolves or foxes.

Ravens are omnivorous, having a very varied diet. On quiet days at Newborough they can often be seen on the beaches rummaging in the flotsam and seaweed for food or flying and calling over the warren or forest.

Whilst feeding takes up quite a lot of their time, having to search and sometimes travel long distances to food sources, they can also be seen at play. One of their favourite haunts is Twyni Penrhos, particularly when there is a good onshore wind which allows them to glide, tumble and swoop above the frontal dune ridge. There can be dozens of birds in favourable conditions, which is quite a spectacle.

Ravens live up to 30 years. They mate for life and when mature live in pairs in a territory. When young ravens reach adolescence, they leave home and join gangs of other young ravens. These flocks live and eat together until they mate and pair off and establish a territory.

The birds at Newborough are these very same adolescent non-breeders and do not hold established territories. It is kind of a youth club for homeless ravens. At its peak in 1999, Newborough forest hosted one of the largest raven roosts in the world, numbering around 2,000 birds. Research undertaken by Bangor University at the time found birds at Newborough were using the roost as an information sharing hub and the strength in numbers to increase their chances of competing for and sourcing food.

Researchers used sheep carcasses baited with different colour-coded, digestible beads, to show how the birds, operating in small groups, fed together. Analysis of regurgitated pellets found under the roost proved the birds roosted in discrete small groups, only sharing the location of food sources amongst members of their own group.

The total number of birds has steadily declined over the past 20 years. Today we estimate there are around 300 to 400 birds that roost in the forest during the winter months, with smaller numbers during the remainder of the year. Whilst this is seemingly a significant decline, we believe many complex factors are at work.

Firstly, it appears there is a decline in non-breeding ravens across North Wales in general with a shift to several numerous but smaller roosts such as those at Mynydd Bodafon and Llanddona. Roosts across Britain and mainland Europe have also been found to be transient in time and place as a result of access to food, often linked to human factors such as farming policy and practices and waste disposal.

Ravens, being intelligent birds have the ability in such circumstances to adapt to alternative food sources; and there is evidence adolescent birds are now dispersing more widely as breeding territories here become saturated and are now expanding territories in the border counties of England.

So next time you have a winter walk at Newborough, listen out for the calls and watch the acrobatics of one of our most enigmatic and intelligent birds.

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