Ravens at Wellesley

Pauline the raven

It is with sad hearts that we must report Henry the raven died after colliding with a window on campus. The Ravencam has been turned off to allow Pauline time to mourn her partner's absence. The College is taking action to prevent future bird collisions with windows. For more information, see Professor Rodenhouse's answers to some of the frequently asked questions.


“Ours is the first opportunity to closely observe this most creative of birds in close contact with people,” noted Professor of Biological Sciences Nicholas Rodenhouse when the birds established themselves at Wellesley in 2014. A 24/7 video recording of the nest made over the course of the spring nesting has provided a unique cache of data for researchers.

Lauren Johnson ’16 coauthored an article with Rodenhouse for the journal Bird Observer, based on the data from 2014.
Why Wellesley?

The ravens chose Wellesley College most likely for its cliff-like buildings in a productive landscape. The Science Center, surrounded by shrubs and trees, sits alongside an open, sometimes damp meadow. From where "Pauline" and "Henry" made their nest high in a partially glass-enclosed fire escape on the sunny side of the building, their view included Galen Stone Tower, Houghton Chapel, more trees and open spaces, and Lake Waban.

Wellesley College founders Henry and Pauline Durant located their college for women in a clean, beautiful, inspiring landscape and emphasized science in this environment: astronomy, botany, psychology, zoology, and so on. That was trailblazing in the 1800s. “We still do exceptional science here in the lab and in the field,” says Rodenhouse. “The ravens nesting at Wellesley offer a unique opportunity to add to scientific knowledge."

The ravens’ coming to Wellesley is emblematic of the re-wilding that has taken place in New England over the past century. Other resilient wild animal species now living with us (and sometimes spotted on Wellesley’s campus) include American turkey, beaver, pileated woodpecker, red fox, and white-tailed deer. These returning species indicate a positive change in our local environment. Our ravens, very large black birds that may seem formidable, present no threat to people.


The Science

Through a network camera, Wellesley live streamed the birds’ behavior at the nest 24 hours per day, starting after the egg laying and ending when the families left the nest each year. The video feeds were also recorded for scientific purposes. The ravens’ choice of a nesting spot near existing lighting made the nest visible to the camera even at night. Student researchers will help analyze and interpret the data, with Rodenhouse as their advisor. A repeat of the recorded livestream will add significantly to the data already under study, and we hope the ravens make returning to Wellesley a habit!

Rodenhouse's own research focuses on the effects of climate change on migratory songbirds. With fellow researchers, he has been intensively monitoring a population of black-throated blue warblers (Setophaga caerulescens) that breed across a 600-m elevation gradient within the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest of north central New Hampshire.

In the Northeast, ravens have been birds of the remote wilds until fairly recently; they have been increasing in abundance in this area since the mid 1970s. Rodenhouse has seen them frequently during his field work, but before last year never so close to urban settings.

We cannot be sure how old the raven pair is, but a couple of factors suggest they may be young, explains Rodenhouse: The population of ravens is growing and expanding, so the proportion of young in the population is growing. Ravens seem to be monogamous and have large territories. Older birds nest on the same territory, often in the same location, so it is the younger birds that expand into new areas. Last, younger birds typically lay fewer eggs than experienced adults. The typical clutch size is five; Pauline laid two eggs in 2014 and only one was viable.


What Did We See?

As 2016's video suggests, those who tuned in to the Ravencam saw up close the single-minded care the parents gave the eggs and hatchlings. We saw the rapid growth of four small creatures that could not hold their heads up into ones that tested their wings and flew away. 

The nest is not accessible, but folks on campus can sometimes hear the ravens in and around their nest, and some have observed them around campus since the nestling fledged last year.

Ravens are territorial and monogamous omnivores and predators. They will dive in a dumpster, kill a small mammal, raid another bird species' nest, or catch grasshoppers in a meadow while foraging cooperatively.

“I have observed their antics in the wilds of New Hampshire,” says Rodenhouse, adding, “Ravens are highly social, creative, and love to have fun.” We did not see as much of that as we might have on camera last year, as only one of the two eggs hatched. We did see the youngster increasingly explore the confines of the nest and tussle with the twigs as it prepared to head off into the world.


Can't get enough about ravens? Here are some recommended sources for more.

Bird Research at Wellesley