American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) and common ravens (Corvus corax) are two birds that are surprisingly distant from one another in the family tree. As a result, they can be difficult to distinguish, especially if you don’t see them together very often. However, with the right tools and a little practice, you will almost certainly be able to master the technique.
Fortunately, there are many different types of clues you can use to distinguish one from the other, so feel free to use the links to jump around to whatever you are interested in learning about.
Although crows and ravens appear to be quite similar on the surface, there are a number of distinguishing characteristics that can be used to distinguish one from the other. The overall size of a building can be a good starting point. Even if you do not live in an area where they overlap, I have found that people who are accustomed to seeing crows take notice when they see a raven in person because the raven appears to be aggressively large. This is due to the fact that ravens are approximately twice the size of an American crow when measured in mass.
A common raven specimen (on the left) and an American crow specimen (on the right) (bottom). Generally speaking, ravens are about twice as large as crows, but there are some very large crows and some very small ravens in the same flock.
Looking at their faces, you can see the most obvious difference in size between them. Crows are much more difficult for crows to consume carrion than squirrels, and their bills give the distinct impression that they could easily pluck your eyes from your face with little effort. So if your perception of the situation is that you’re looking at a bill with a bird attached, you’re most likely looking at a raven, not a crow, as the case may be.
Although judging relative size becomes easier and more reliable with practice, it may not be useful for a beginner due to the subjective nature of the process. Instead, it is simpler to examine the field marks (birder jargon for distinguishing characteristics), which provide more objective clues about the bird’s identity.
When examining perched birds, the most useful characteristic to note is the shape of the throat. Ravens have elongated throat feathers, known as hackles, that they can move in a variety of ways to communicate with their surroundings. Crows, on the other hand, have smooth, almost hair-like throat feathers that are characteristic of other songbirds.
Even when the feathers are relaxed, the textural differences between the throat feathers of the two species are visible due to their different textures. It is important to note that the crow’s crown feathers are erect in this photograph, whereas the raven’s are not. As a result, the difference in crown shape should not be considered when making this comparison.
When the raven is vocalizing or displaying, the hackles of the bird become particularly visible.
Additionally, ravens can articulate some of their other facial feathers in a way that crows cannot, in addition to their hackles. A raven will fluff out both the throat hackles and the “ear” tufts when they are displaying danger, for example.
When birds are in flight, however, it’s often difficult, if not impossible, to see the throat feathers in their entirety. In this instance, the tail serves as a reliable field mark, which is fortunate. Unlike crows, which have a tail that is either squared or rounded depending on how much they have fanned the feathers, ravens have a tail that is wedge-shaped, as shown below.
Additionally, there are some differences in the primary wing feathers, albeit they are a little more subtle in appearance. Despite the fact that both birds have ten primary feathers, ravens appear to have four main “finger” feathers while crows appear to have five when they are flying in the air. In addition, compared to crows, ravens have more slender and pointed primaries.
Differences in vocal tone
With a little practice, the calls of American crows and common ravens can be easily distinguished from one another. The call of a raven is best described as a deep, hollow croak, which can be heard in the distance. Crows, on the other hand, make a cawling sound. Of course, they are both capable of producing a wide range of other sounds, including rattles, knocks, coos, clicks, and imitations, among others. Even these can be distinguished by species with enough practice, but that level of detail is not required for the majority of identification purposes.
- The call of the common raven (recorded by Davyd Betchkal-Denali National Preserve, Alaska)
- The yell of a juvenile common raven was captured by Chippewa County, Michigan’s Antonio Xeira.
- The common raven makes a water sound. (Recording by Niels Krabbe-Galley Bay, British Columbia)
- Call of the crow in the United States (Recording by David Vander Pluym-King County, Wasington)
- The juvenile begging call of the American crow (Jonathon Jongsma recorded the audio.) Minneapolis, Minnesota is a city in the state of Minnesota.
- The rattle of the American crow (recording by Thomas Magarian-Portland, Oregon)
- The crow wow call is an American expression. The recording was made in King County, Washington by Loma Pendergraft.
- Scolding by an American crow (Recording by Kaeli Swift-King County, Washington)
Dissimilarities in geography and habitat
The distributions of both American crows and common ravens are similar across North America, but there are some significant differences in the areas where you are most likely to encounter them. The most noticeable difference is that ravens are absent from much of the midwest and the southeast, which is a rarity. Crows, on the other hand, can be found in nearly every state in the United States, with the exception of the southwestern region of the country.
The maps provided below, courtesy of Cornell University’s All About Birds website, provide more specific breakdowns (hover over the images to see the caption). Notably, the American crow’s west coast range appears to be shrinking from the Puget Sound northward, not because there aren’t enough birds in the area, but rather because the crow species that occupies the upper half of North America’s west coast is not the American crow, but the northwestern crow (Corvus caurinus). The continued distinction between these two “species,” on the other hand, is most likely coming to an end. Check out this article for more information on our current understanding of the differences (or lack thereof) between those two species.
Both birds are considered generalists when it comes to their preferred habitat, with ravens leaning more towards what one might describe as an “extreme generalist.” As well as along the coast, in grasslands, mountains (including high-altitude mountains), forests, deserts, Arctic ice floes, and human settlement areas such as agricultural areas, small rural towns, urban cities (particularly in California), and near campgrounds, roads, highways, and transfer stations.
Ravens can be found in all seasons and can be found in all habitat types. Crows, on the other hand, are adamant about their need for a combination of open feeding areas, scattered trees, and forest edges to survive. It is preferable for them to avoid continuous forest and instead stay close to human settlements such as rural and agricultural lands, cities and suburbs, transfer stations, and golf courses, among other things. In cases where roads or rivers provide access, they can be found at high elevation campgrounds, but they are more difficult to come by.
Distinctions in behavioral patterns
Due to the large number of books that could be (and have been) written on this subject alone, we will limit ourselves to what is most likely to be essential for identification purposes in this article.
While common ravens are a permanent fixture wherever they are found, American crows are classified as a “partially migratory species” because some populations migrate while others remain in their original habitat. One of the most notable examples is the migration of northern crow populations from central Canada to the interior of the United States once the snowpack prevents them from engaging in typical feeding behaviors during the summer breeding season.
Despite the fact that ravens can be found in groups of three or four and that young from previous years have been observed to remain at the nest, ravens are not considered to be cooperative breeding birds. Crows are regarded as cooperative breeders throughout their entire geographic range (though specific rates vary across populations and not much is known about migratory populations). If there are any helpers present, they usually have between 1 and 3 minutes. As a result, if a nest is extremely crowded, with more than two birds contributing to nest construction, feeding nestlings, or nest defense, it is most likely a crow’s nest rather than a raven’s nest in the vicinity.
Despite the fact that both species consume a wide variety of invertebrates, crows consume a greater proportion of invertebrates and garbage than ravens. In contrast, mammalian prey, particularly carrion, constitutes the majority of a raven’s diet in all of the populations that have been studied. On the other hand, access to refuse and the location of a population can have a significant impact on the dietary preferences of both of these omnivores.
Because ravens consume significantly more carrion, which is inherently unpredictable in terms of availability and location, they spend significantly more time soaring than crows in order to keep up with their diet. A raven is the most likely bird to be seen cruising through the sky for more than a few seconds. If you see it for more than a few seconds, Ravens are also distinct from crows in that they barrel roll to announce their presence in a given territory. As a result, if you see a bird rolling around in a barrel, there’s a good chance it’s a raven.
When they do come into contact, interactions between the two species are frequently antagonistic, with crows often acting as the primary aggressors in conflicts between the two species. Given the opportunity, ravens will depredate crow nests and destroy them.
Differences in genetic make-up
For the majority of our evolutionary history, we have relied on external cues such as appearance, voice, and behavior to distinguish one kind of animal from another. But now that we have access to an abundance of genetic tools, we can take the question “what’s the difference between an American crow and a common raven?” to a whole new level.
To put it another way, American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) and common ravens (Corvus corax) are different species within the same genus, just as lions (Panthera leo) and tigers (Panthera tigris) are different species within the same genus (Panthera tigris). Species and genus are terms that refer to different levels of the taxonomic tree, with species representing the smallest whole unit of organisms that we categorize and organize.
If you’re interested in learning more about how complicated the issue of species can become, you can go here for more information. For the time being, the most important thing to remember is that if you want a quick, back-of-the-envelope way to determine whether two animals are closely related, look at the first part of their latin binomial (scientific) names. If they share that characteristic, they are members of the same genus (ex: crows and ravens belong to the genus Corvus). They are more distantly related if they do not share the same scientific name (for example, the Corvus brachyrhynchos and the Steller’s jay are both Cyanocitta stelleri).
The American Crow is not known for the beauty of its song, which is a series of loud caws that are repeated over and over. Additionally, crows may produce a “subsong,” which is a combination of hoarse or grating coos, caw-rattles, and click-clicks. These are delivered quietly and with a rambling, improvised quality, and are arranged in sequences that can last several minutes or more.
However, there is still a significant amount of evolutionary space available within the Corvus genus. According to some estimates, it would take approximately 7 million years to track down the closest shared relative of common ravens and American crows. Although they are more visually distinct and do not overlap geographically, American crows are more closely related to the collard crows of China and the carrion crows of Europe than they are to common ravens, despite the fact that they are more visually distinct and do not overlap geographically.
Laws in the United States
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 protects both American crows and common ravens in the United States, including the common raven. Consequently, as is true of nearly all native bird species, you are prohibited from killing, possessing, selling, purchasing, bartering, transporting, or exporting these birds, or their parts, eggs, and nests, unless you have obtained a valid Federal permit in the process. It is because of this law that the average person is not permitted to keep these birds as pets, and that rescued crows must be turned over to a licensed wildlife rehabilitation facility. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority also prohibits the hunting of ravens by civilians under any circumstances. States, on the other hand, are granted an exception for crows under 50 CFR 20.133, which allows them to designate regulated hunting seasons with some restrictions.
You can also kill crows without a license and outside of the regulated hunting season under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, 50 CFR 21.43, if they are causing damage to crops, endangered species, or a variety of other problems. You can learn more about the Depredation Order by visiting this page. This type of lethal control must be reported to Fish and Wildlife in order to remain in compliance with the law. For ravens, there are no such depredation exceptions to the rule.
Laws in the country of Canada
In contrast to the United States, there are no federal protections for corvids in Canada. Crows and ravens, on the other hand, may be protected by provincial legislation.
Finally, some final thoughts
Before we wrap things up, I’d like to leave you with one final piece of information that you might find useful. The entire article was devoted to the question of what distinguishes American crows from common ravens and how they differ. Hopefully, you’re walking away with a clear understanding that these animals are in fact distinct from one another in terms of morphology, behavior, and genetics, among other things. In contrast, asking whether or not American crows are distinct from common ravens is a different question than asking whether or not “crows” are distinct from “ravens.”
Because, while the answer to the first question is an unequivocal “yes,” there is no single characteristic that distinguishes a bird as either a type of raven or a type of crow at first glance. However, there are plenty of crow-named birds that could have been named ravens and vice versa. Ravens are generally larger and have those elongated throat feathers. Consequently, proceed with caution and carefully consider the specific types of birds that the question’s author is referring to before providing specific answers.
If you want to continue to hone your skills, I invite you to join me every week in playing #CrowOrNo on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, all under the @corvidresearch handle on each platform. While it won’t go into as much detail as this, I promise that it will help you advance your identification skills and introduce you to even more of the world’s fantastic corvids. Keep this charming and informative guide, illustrated by Rosemary Mosco of Bird and Moon comics, on hand to get a head start on your project!
Crows can make more than 20 different calls. The most common type, the harsh caw, has a variety of qualities and lengths that can be used for a variety of purposes. Young American Crows who are begging for food make a higher-pitched, nasal call that can sound similar to that of a fish crow. A variety of calls and alert calls may also be heard to rally others in the face of a mob predator attack.
A Crow Call is Made and Advanced Applications of Crow Vocal Reproduction are discussed in detail.
Despite the fact that American crow vocalizations are among the most straightforward of all bird sounds to produce, I recently discovered that there are some people out there who are completely unfamiliar with how to make an American crow call.
As a result, I’ve created this page to shed light on this tragic situation and to provide people with all of the information they might require to caw like a crow whenever they so desire.
Then, later on this page, we’ll go over some advanced applications for your human-generated crow call that you can try out.
If you want to have some fun, you can hide in the bushes and then call out when someone walks by to see if they notice anything strange.
It’s usually preferable to do this with people you know and who are also amusing in their own right.
Get outside and start making some crow calls!
I’m sure there are a slew of other reasons why someone might want to learn how to make a crow call, but at the very least you now have everything you need to get started cawing with vigor and excellence.
As soon as you master the art of crow cawing, you can put your newfound knowledge to use in a variety of more advanced applications.
System of Long-Distance Communication
When you’re out in the woods, crow calls can be heard for miles around.
When communicating over long distances, creating your own crow calling system can be a viable alternative to yelling out human words.
You can even decide ahead of time that different meanings will be assigned to the various numbers of crow calls that you will make throughout the day.
As an illustration:
- ‘Where have you gone?’ says the first caw.
- A pair of caws indicate that there is something interesting over here.
- Three caws indicate that it is time to meet at the trail junction.
We used the crow call as a means of bringing everyone together when it was time to meet up in the programs I ran for Wilderness Awareness School.
It was an excellent way to assist people in tuning their ears while also bringing everyone together at the same time.
Learning Activities in Groups
Getting together with a group of people and spending some time vocally simulating the different types of behaviors that can be observed in groups of crows can be a really fun and instructive exercise.
Practice exchanging companion calls down a long line of people or practicing accurately mimicking the various alarm calls made in various situations are both good ideas for improving your communication skills.
This is a fantastic way to assist people in beginning to understand bird language as it pertains to crows in a very simple and intuitive manner, which is ideal for beginners.
When it comes to reproducing the acoustic effects displayed by crows when mobbing an owl, you can be certain that you will be able to recognize the sound when you hear it for real out in the field because the sound is guaranteed to be accurate.
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