The Chihuahuan Raven (Corvus cryptoleucus), previously known as the “White-necked Raven", is a member of the widely storied corvidae family (White-necked Raven is now correctly applied only to Corvus albicollis in Africa [American Ornithologists' Union 1998]). Corvids occupy large areas of every continent except Antarctica and feature regularly in the fables of native peoples throughout North America, and much of the world. Among the corvids, two raven species occur in North America: the Chihuahuan Raven described herein is the only North American corvid that is a desert-specialist.
Despite ongoing population and range contraction, and despite potential value as an insect predator, the Chihuahuan Raven is by far the least-studied corvid in North America. The intriguing behaviors exhibited by this species include a highly social life history involving communal roosting, seasonal flocking, and cooperative nest defense. Research questions involving avian sociality have been investigated in depth in other North American corvids but have been almost completely neglected in the Chihuahuan Raven, and opportunities for innovative research abound with this species.
The Chihuahuan Raven is distinguished from the Common Raven by white at the base of its neck feathers (hence the Latin name cryptoleucus, meaning “hidden white;" these feather are seen only when the wind ruffles plumage or when an individual intentionally erects its feathers during social interactions). In addition, although the two species do share portions of ranges, Chihuahuan Ravens tend to occupy distinct habitats -- grasslands and deserts extending from Mexico into southern Colorado and sw. Kansas. Chihuahuan Ravens are not migratory in a traditional sense, but do form large winter flocks which generally drift south through the winter, and often roam beyond nesting habitats. During breeding seasons, Chihuahuan Ravens defend relatively small areas around nests, and often nest communally. Whether such clumping of nests is a function of nest substrate availability or is integral to the breeding ecology of this species remains unknown.
The Chihuahuan Raven is intermediate in almost all overt characteristics between the American Crow (C. brachyrhynchos) and the Common Raven, and can be confused with these two species where ranges overlap. This raven occupies a limited range in desert regions of southwestern North America, its black color striking a stark contrast to the scorched, sun-baked and seemingly barren habitat that supports it. Indeed, the Chihuahuan Raven represents the epitome of a counterintuitive adaptation—dark plumage in a desert-dwelling bird.