How To Tell the Difference Between a Crow and a Raven

Crows and ravens appear very similar, so they are commonly mistaken for one another. If you look and listen carefully, though, you’ll be able to spot the differences.

Common Raven (left) and American Crow.

Members of the family Corvidae (which also includes jays and magpies), crows and ravens are the only North American bird species that are completely black in color. Both are common throughout Colorado, although there are fewer ravens in the eastern part of the state. The two biggest differences between crows and ravens are their size and their sounds. Ravens are the larger of the two, with wingspans around 45 inches. Crows have smaller wingspans, with bodies around the size of pigeons. Crows and ravens are both very vocal. Studies have shown that crows have a “vocabulary” of as many as 250 different sounds! To distinguish a crow from a raven, listen to their calls. Crows most often have an even caw, caw sound, while ravens have a deeper, throatier, croaking call.

American crow
American Crow

If you’re able to observe a bird up close, you’ll see that ravens have fluffier feathers around their head and especially at their throat. They also have thicker beaks than crows, with more of a curve to the end. If you’re observing the birds in flight, one of the signs to look for is the tail feathers. Crows’ tail feathers are all fairly even in length, so their tails will have a fan-shaped appearance during flight. Ravens, on the other hand, have differing lengths of tail feathers, so their tails will appear wedge- or diamond-shaped. Another sign to look for is how they fly. Typically, ravens soar, while crows flap. Some differences can be seen when the birds are on the ground, too. Crows usually walk, while ravens will do a combination of walking and hopping.

Common raven
Common Raven

Despite their many differences, crows and ravens have a number of similarities. They are “opportunistic omnivores,” eating everything from insects to carrion to scavenged human food and garbage. Both species are highly sociable birds, with close-knit family structures. (However, ravens will often travel in pairs while crows are more likely to be in larger groups, known as “murders.”) And they are both among the world’s smartest animals. An interesting article in the September/October issue of Colorado Outdoors magazine compares the two birds and describes some of the ways their intelligence has been studied and observed. Both can recognize human faces. They are among the few animal species that use tools, and they use 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. “They have been observed sliding down snowbanks, apparently purely for fun,” says the article, and “are known for spectacular aerobatic displays, such as flying in loops or interlocking talons with each other in flight, simply for the joys associated with doing so.”

Check out the Colorado Outdoors article for more great facts about these two often underappreciated birds. Issues can be checked out from our library or requested through Prospector.

Photo credits: National Park Service, Becky Matsubara, BKleinWiki, David Hofmann