The answer to this question is surprisingly difficult to answer, but it’s one that we’re going to try to tackle this week. The easy answer is yes, they are able to mimic sounds well enough that they sound like human words, which is why they feature in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”. And I’ll just say that a raven’s mimicking ability is outstanding. Unlike parrots, the vocals that can come from a raven often sound exactly like whatever they’re trying to mimic. The mimicking is the easy part, though. To figure out whether or not ravens can talk we have to establish what “talking” entails. Then we have to figure out the intelligence of ravens to conclude if they’re capable of understanding what they’re saying.
The first thing we’re going to establish is what we’re considering talking for the purpose of this question. Ravens can speak, in that like many other species of birds they are able to replicate sounds, including human vocalizations, but are they able to talk? We’re going to consider talking a separate act from speaking, in that talking requires the ability to understand that a language is being used. So, a raven can speak, but can they talk? The answer might lie in their intelligence, something that the family ravens belong to, corvidae, are renowned for worldwide.
The intelligence of ravens and their corvid counterparts is unquestioned, ranking amongst chimpanzees and dolphins when it comes to the smarts. They’re capable of not only using tools to solve problems but also making those tools by bending sticks and utilizing nearby stones. Ravens, and many corvids have large brains compared to other birds, specifically, they have a large hyperpallium, which grants them a number of advantages such as higher intelligence and the ability to imitate well.
Like many and, indeed, most bird species, ravens have a vast and expansive language of their own that they use to communicate with other ravens. As ravens are such social creatures, almost all of these various communications are meant to express various messages and intentions, such as interest in mating or warning of predators. Obviously this capability to communicate amongst themselves with their own language leads us to wonder if it’s possible that they could learn another language: our language. We know they can mimic thanks to our friend Poe, but are they able to hold a conversation with us?
The answer is sadly disappointing but somewhat expected: no, ravens cannot talk in the way we might hope, or at least not with us. While ravens are highly intelligent and are clearly able to use that intelligence to make tools and mimic sounds, they don’t have the capability to hold an actual conversation with a human using the vocals they’ve mimicked. This is somewhat expected, though, in that only the great apes have shown the ability to have a (limited) conversation with humans, and even that claim is contested. This response isn’t surprising, however, and it should in no way diminish the idea of ravens’ intelligence. After all, humans are (supposedly) the smartest out there and I haven’t figured out how to talk to my dog yet, have you?