Crow or Raven?

One of the questions people invariably ask me is to explain what the differences are (if any) between a crow and a raven. It’s a legitimate question- most people use crow and raven interchangeably when describing a big black bird, similar to how puma, mountain lion, and cougar are all different names for the same large American cat.

It's a new caledonian crow

What am I?

This can be a tricky question since there are multiple species of both crow and raven across the globe, and one region’s crows might be more alike to the local ravens than the crows located elsewhere. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll talk about the two species you are most likely to encounter in the US: American crows and Common ravens.

To begin with, ravens are bigger than crows. A lot bigger. Most people are shocked at how big ravens are up close- they are the largest songbirds in the world!

loma-and-cora

This bird is bigger than my head!

Around their face, a raven has a bigger bill and a shaggier throat than a crow.

raven or crow

Crow on the left, Raven on the right

When flying long distances, a crow usually flaps its wings at a constant, steady pace, while a raven alternates flapping and soaring. In flight, crow’s tail forms a fan while raven’s tail forms a wedge. This difference becomes less noticeable during the late summer months, when the birds are growing new feathers.

raven tail

The two birds sound different when calling: crows caw while ravens croak.  Crows are found everywhere in the United States, but they thrive especially well in human dominated landscapes. Ravens, on the other hand, are shyer than crows and usually stick to rural areas, although there are plenty of exceptions to this rule. For example, Ravens are only found well outside the city limits of Seattle, but can be found mingling with crows in the center of Santa Fe.

There are a few other differences, such as wing shape, but I’ve given you enough information to make a quick identification whenever you see a large black bird cross your path. Again, these identifications are for American crows and Common ravens; if you live outside the US, you are likely seeing different species of corvids.

Image credits: the big black bird at the top of the page is a New Caledonian crow photographed by Vince Musi, the crow/raven bill comparison was photographed by Tom Grey, and the tail graphic was drawn by Jenifer Rees. The photo of the held raven is mine. Click on any image to visit its parent website. 

 

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5 Responses to Crow or Raven?

  1. Kakujo says:

    Nice article! I’ve always wondered this myself.

    Like

  2. Shan goshorn says:

    Excellent distinctions. For your research, are species interchangeable or do you only work with crows?

    Like

    • I’m only working with American crows. I have yet to see or hear a single Raven within the Seattle city limits, although I have seen them in rural areas, such as the Nisqually wildlife refuge or the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.

      Like

  3. Kevin Watson says:

    Is there anywhere on the web that you know of where
    the calls are more broken-down as to type?

    As in “3 basic types of caw (12 subtypes), three percussive sounds (knock, rattle, click), 1 love song, 15 other vocal sounds (4 grunts, 3 mews, 1 “hoik,” 2 warbles…” etc?

    Not even talking about the significance, just grouoed into auditory and/or articulatory
    categories of some kind.

    The article you linked to just seemed to say 33 vocalizations, but didnt break it down.

    Also, I’m really curious—can you, personally, identify individual
    crows by “voiceprint” of any kind? I mean in a blind test, without
    your also hearing that same example yourself.

    Not too easily done in many cases, I imagine, but I’m
    so curious about that. How are you with your ears for crows
    who you personally know?

    (I’m not good–can sometimes distinguish individuals
    but more by demeanor and location, and maybe size.)

    I’m looking forward to reading your site–was pointed here
    from Kaeli Swift’s site.

    I’d very much appreciate anything you might recommend
    as far as material on the subject.

    Thank you very much,
    Kevin Watson

    Like

    • Hi Kevin,

      Unfortunately, I don’t know of any websites that group crow calls into categories, nor was I able to find much with a quick google search. Additionally, most scientists can’t seem to agree on what constitutes a distinct call type- most journal articles that examine crow calls use a different system to group them. We know that crows make a wide variety of sounds (google the Macaulay Library and search American crow for a huge list of examples), but we don’t know what most of them mean.

      While I cannot personally identify individual crows by their calls alone, there’s evidence that their calls are distinct enough that other crows can recognize one another (the article is titled “Acoustic profiling in a complexly social species, the American crow: caws encode information on caller sex, identity and behavioural context” by Mates et al.)

      Thanks for your continued interest in crows and ravens!
      -Loma

      Like

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