A (b)log of learning through the science of nature

A familiar sight that I often see on my drive to and from work, or really anywhere around the Northwoods, is medium to large-sized black birds flying overhead, perched in trees, or hopping along the shoulders of the highway. As a naturalist, I often find myself trying to identify these birds and ask myself, raven or crow? I am forever trying to "quiz" myself on the elements that make up our landscape. Ask any naturalist if they do that too and the answer will be "yes"! It's just how our brains work!   


Ravens and crows are so common to see and hear in our area that many of us probably don't even "notice" them much. Even though they are very common, I wondered if people really know how to tell the difference between them, and do they know how intelligent this family of birds really is?  


The Common Raven and American crow are two species known as Corvids, which comes from the name of the family of which they belong – Corvidae. The Corvid family includes ravens, crows, magpies, and jays. In general, Corvids are medium to large in size with strong feet and bills. Many also have nostrils that are covered in bristle-like feathers.  

Species of the Corvid family

Image taken from - Stock, Some species in the Corvid Family 


They are also some of the most intelligent species of birds. Research shows that the degree of brain encephalization (the ratio of brain size to body size, EQ) may correlate with an animal's intelligence and cognitive skills. Corvids and Psittacids (parrots) have higher EQ than other bird families, similar to that of the apes. While among the Corvidae, ravens possess the largest brain to body size ratio. 


Ravens and crows are among the few animal species that use tools and clever strategies like throwing nuts onto the ground to break them open. They’re also really smart about getting into things, for example, figuring out how to unlatch containers to steal food. And it has been observed that ravens – unlike most other birds – frequently engage in games and play.


Corvids are found worldwide except the tip of South America and the polar ice caps. These birds are omnivores, eating both meat and plant foods. One reason you find ravens and crows hanging out by the highway is because there are so many tasty morsels to be found in the form of road-kill. Yum! 


So, how do you tell if you are seeing a raven or a crow? You probably know that ravens are larger, the size of a Red-tailed Hawk. Ravens often travel in pairs, while crows are seen in larger groups. Fun fact: a group of crows is called a "murder". and a group of ravens is called an "unkindness." Also, watch the bird’s tail as it flies overhead. The crow’s tail feathers are basically the same length, so when the bird spreads its tail, it opens like a fan. Ravens, however, have longer middle feathers in their tails, so their tail appears wedge or diamond-shaped when open. In flight, ravens typically soar, while crows flap. Ravens have bigger, curvier beaks relative to crows. While both species have bristles at the base of the beak, the raven's are noticeably longer. Its throat feathers are also quite shaggy.  


Raven and crow in flight and close-up of beak

Photo Credit: National Audubon Society. Left top and bottom – Common Raven in flight and beak shape. 

Right top and bottom – American Crow in flight and beak shape 


We can't talk about ravens and crows without mentioning the vocalizations of these birds. Their sounds are a common part of nature, but how do we know "who" is making the noise?  Both birds have a repertoire of sounds they use to help it survive and thrive.  The "caw, caw" of the American Crow is well known, but they also have a large range of rattles and clicks and even clear bell-like notes. The Common Raven makes more of a "gronk, gronk" like call. They also use a variety of caws, clicks, and chuckles. The calls by individual crows and ravens are distinct enough that they probably recognize each other certainly within their own family and probably within their own neighborhood too.  Visit this link to a short video from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to learn more about the vocalizations of crows and ravens. Caw vs. Croak 


Although they are very similar, ravens and crows do have some distinct differences. I know now which one is which; hopefully you will also take a little time to notice them and learn more about the interesting lives of corvids! 


     Author: Jenny Sadek, Envrionmental Educator at Trees For Tomorrow.