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In many fantasy worlds people send messages using ravens, they're often portrayed as being intelligent birds.

To the best of my knowledge, on earth only homing pigeons have been used to carry messages backwards and forwards (they're also restricted to a single destination).

How realistic would it be to have specially trained earthly ravens (or indeed any other bird species) to do the job or is this simply a common trope used in fantasy works? Would they need to be super-intelligent Ravens?

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  • $\begingroup$ Do you want to know if its theoretically possible (and what the requirements would be) or if there are any examples of other birds (specifically ravens) being used for a similar purpose? $\endgroup$ – Wesley Obenshain Sep 16 '14 at 20:52
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    $\begingroup$ "Intelligence" does not mean "cooperative". For example, wolves are slightly smarter than dogs, but we generally only work with dogs, because they are about 1000 times more cooperative. $\endgroup$ – RBarryYoung Jun 9 '15 at 16:38
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Plenty of birds are very intelligent, with crows and ravens getting a special mention in the inventiveness department. In real life, you can train them for many things, including repeating spoken phrases (similar to how you would train a parrot). I imagine that theoretically, with enough time and patience, you could train a raven to fly regularly between two predetermined locations, or to always fly back to the same location.

It would probably take several years of one on one training per bird, and you'd be likely to lose a lot of birds along the way, since the odds that your captive raven will come back to you are pretty low, even if you've been working with that bird since the day it hatched. After all, modern falconers experience similar problems; even if you've done everything right, there's still about a good chance that the first time you let your falcon of the tether, it isn't coming back.

So let's look at this question from a different perspective. Why, in the real world, are Homing Pigeons the only kind of bird typically used for this purpose?

Because the behavior of always returning to the same place is instinctual, they require much less training, and can be trained as a flock. Further, you're far, far less likely to lose them in the process. They're also incredibly reliable. In WWI, for example, they were known to be able to get the message through to the intended location 95% of the time--not bad for the middle of a war zone. I imagine ravens, being more intelligent, would probably be less reliable, as they'd be more likely to seek shelter somewhere that wasn't getting shot at, treats be damned.

So, possible? Probably. Practical? Not really, at least not if there are other, better ways of doing things already available.

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    $\begingroup$ Of course, in a fantasy world it's possible that ravens are more amenable to this sort of task than they are here. $\endgroup$ – WhatRoughBeast Oct 7 '15 at 19:49
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To the best of my knowledge, pigeons and sparrows have been the only birds used for sending messages.

Many other types of birds are trainable, for example many birds of prey are used in hunting (falconry).

Ravens are considered very intelligent birds, they may be trainable but that doesn't mean they're a viable candidate. Here's a really neat research paper on how smart they can be.

They are large birds which are often hunted, making their journey more difficult. Also, it's not easy to get a lot of them. You would need to have a large number of them in order to have backups and not all of them will have "the right stuff."

The advantage of the carrier pigeons is that they are small, easy to acquire and breed and no one really cares about them. You can send out several and chances are that one will get through.

Most importantly, I think that ravens are held in high regard or have a mythology based around them in human culture. (Also true of other big birds.) I don't think they would be used in that way, maybe for the same reason you won't see "Raven Florentine" in a restaurant.

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  • $\begingroup$ I think a large factor in the choice of pigeons (and generally which animals are suitable for which tasks) is that they have instinctive ability which can help with the task, and which can also be enhanced by choice breeding. Otherwise, if it was just an issue of general intelligence, then I think crows have the advantage. $\endgroup$ – Neil Slater Sep 16 '14 at 20:30
  • $\begingroup$ The homing pigeon is a derivative of the rock pigeon, chosen for its tendency to return to the nest and bred with this ability in mind. "Raven" refers to a number of species in the genus Corvus. I'm not certain if any of them have the same tendency but homing pigeons certainly aren't the only species with an instinct for returning to its breeding ground. $\endgroup$ – Wesley Obenshain Sep 16 '14 at 20:51
  • $\begingroup$ Excellent points, I couldn't find any evidence that anyone has tried to use ravens or crows as messenger birds. Actually, I couldn't find anything that said ANY other birds have been used as a messenger. So I'm not sure if it is because they tried and failed. I tend to think that pigeons are cheap birds that work, and there just isn't much of a reason to go shopping around for another. $\endgroup$ – MadPink Sep 16 '14 at 21:03
  • $\begingroup$ While I agree with most of this post, I would question that ".. it's not easy to get a lot of them." Ravens/crows are extremely common, so I doubt it would be very hard to get a lot of them. $\endgroup$ – RBarryYoung Jun 9 '15 at 16:44
  • $\begingroup$ "pigeons and sparrows have been the only birds used for sending messages" You're joking right? sparrows have never been used to carry messages, can't believe no one else has called you on that in all this time. $\endgroup$ – Pelinore Feb 12 at 4:26

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