Tell Crows & Ravens Apart — Corvid Clarity

 

Raven and Crow photographs in head and shoulders profile for comparison

How can you tell if it’s a crow or a raven?

This question often comes up in my email and social media so I thought I’d re-post this blog from a few years ago.

I was partly inspired by having coincidentally photographed both a crow and a raven in very similar poses and both against a red background just recently.

I thought it was fun to see the two images together.

Crow against a red garage wall in an East Vancouver alleyway

Raven against a red roof at a ski hill in North Vancouver

The two pictures highlight a couple of the most obvious differences between crows and ravens. You can see that the raven’s beak is a lot heftier than that of the crow. The raven also has that rather opulent display of throat feathers

There are a lot of excellent resources to help out with learning to tell ravens from crows (more on these later) — but in this post I’m working mostly from my own observations, made from over a decade of daily corvid-watching.

TAIL SHAPE

First of all, if you just catch a glimpse of a crow/raven mystery bird flying over you — check out the tail shape.

The raven’s tail feathers form a diamond shape, while the crow’s tail is in more of a flat-edged fan arrangement.

Crow and Raven Flying Silhouettes

Raven in Flight

Photograph of a crow taking off from a branch

While you’re watching them in flight, note if they’re doing more soaring or flapping.

Raven are more prone to  using the air currents for long, effortless glides, while crows tend to rely  more on flapping.

That being said — I have seen crows having a lot of fun on windy days, just riding the gusts of wind like a roller coaster.

THROAT FEATHERS

As I mentioned earlier, the raven is distinguished by a rather magnificent arrangement of throat feathers — something like an very luxurious cravat.

Photograph of raven showing off throat feathers

Crows, while also (of course) magnificent in their own way, are less generously endowed in the cravat department. Sometimes, when they fluff up as part of grooming, or to look fierce, their throat feathers can look a bit “raven-y” — but generally they’re smoother.

Fluffed-up crow in “fierce” mode.

Normal chest feathers on a relaxed crow (Bongo)

RELATIVE SIZE

Having been unable to persuade either species to remain still while I measure them, I’ve had to rely on information gleaned from the internet here.

Ravens, I’ve read,  measure up to 67 cm (26 inches) long with a wingspan of up to 130 (51 inches).  Their smaller relatives, the crow are about 46 cm (18 inches) long and have a wingspan of around 95 cm (36 inches).

Unless you happen to see them sitting side by side at an equal distance from you, it’s difficult to make an identification based on size alone.

Crow Raven Size Comparison

In this case the two birds were more or less the same distance away, although the crow was a bit higher up in the tree, probably making him look a little smaller.

Raven and Two Crows on Wires

Raven and two crows — here the crows are considerably further away, making the scale deceptive.

 

BEHAVIOUR

If you see a large black corvid being mobbed by one or more smaller ones, you can pretty much guarantee that the big one is a raven and s/he is being harassed by the crow Neighbourhood Watch committee.

Crows Mob Raven

In spite of their family connections, ravens will blithely raid crow nests for a tasty egg snack — putting them firmly on the crows’ “naughty list” along with eagles, hawks, racoons, squirrels, coyotes, cats and etc.

Crow Raven Pursuit

SOCIETY

Both crows and ravens normally mate for life.

photograph of a raven pair standing head to head

A raven couple

Crow couple, Echo and Earl

In the city, crow pairs tend to claim half a block or so as their territory. They spend most of their daylight hours there and will usually chase off other crows who cross the invisible crow boundaries.

Crows flying and sitting on wires at dusk at Still Creek

At night, however, the Vancouver crows turn to safety in numbers as protection against dangers that lurk in the dark. Just before dusk the crows gather in larger and larger groups as they all fly, sometimes looking like a river of crows, to the roost at Still Creek. It’s “the more the merrier” as they congregate around the roosting area , with lots of loud crow calling before they all settle in for the night in tree branches or on Hydro wires or buildings.

Many crows on wires at dusk at Still Creek Roost

Ravens don’t form roosts, but they do seem to gather in larger groups when there’s a good food source to be shared. Not always, but occasionally, the area around the local ski hill parking lots have lots of ravens hanging around together.

It’s not the size of the crow roost by any means, but it does seem to be a social occasion.

It’s on days like these I’ve witnessed the ravens playing with snowballs and engaging in other playful activities. It always seems to be that they gather when there are a lot of humans up at the ski hill, dropping food and leaving sandwiches unattended. A sunny Spring Break ski day seems to draw a lot of ravens to the parking lot as it did the day of the Raven Soap Opera in Two Acts.

SOUNDS

By far the easiest way to tell a crow from a raven is by the sound they make.

Crows caw and ravens have more of a croaking sound. But that’s a great simplification of their complicated call sets.

Here are just few examples to help you tell them apart:

CROW ALARM CALL

This is probably the most common corvid you’ll hear in a city. This example is Marvin and Mavis expressing their displeasure at our cat being out on the deck.

CROW “RATTLE” CALL

This is another crow call, less often heard because it’s a softer, more intimate form of crow-munication.

RAVEN CALL

This seems to be the most common raven call I hear, both in the city and in the mountains.

RAVEN KNOCKING CALL

This beautiful sound is more like the crow’s rattle call – more subtle and melodic – almost like water dripping or a hollow bamboo tube being tapped.

See also: When The Raven Knocks

RAVEN RECITATION

In this clip a raven seems to be performing a jazz concert of different subtle sounds — an example of how complex corvid language is.

ATTITUDE

When it comes to confidence and attitude, ravens and crows have so much in common.

Both are highly intelligent birds — you can almost hear the cogs of their brains whirring as they work out myriad “risk/benefit” calculations when they come close to humans.

Raven and Crow photographs in head and shoulders profile for comparison

It’s really not surprising that both crows and ravens are often characterized as tricksters in stories and legends.

Crow Raven Dancers

 

OTHER RESOURCES

Kaeli Swift – Corvid Research

One of the best places to find out all about corvids is on Kaeli Swift’s awesome blog Corvid Research.  Kaeli covers every corvid related topic you can think of in her posts. You can also follow her on social media and participate in her skill-building weekly Crow or No? contests.

John Marzluff

His books In The Company of Crows and Ravens and Gifts of the Crows, are just full of interesting information on both of these amazing birds.

 Bernd Heinrich

For lots of information and studies on raven behaviour, check out Heinrich’s Ravens in Winter and Mind of the Raven.

LINKS

Audubon: How to Tell a Raven From a Crow

Cornell University Birdlab : Crows and Ravens by Kevin McGowan

See also:

Vancouver’s Urban Ravens

Crow Gifts of All Kinds

The Colour of Crows

Edgar Allen Poe and the Raven Mix-up

Learning to Speak Raven

 

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Feather Focus

I’ve been trying to write this post about feathers for weeks now, but my brain seems reluctant to string words together.

The world news makes almost everything else seem feather-light and trivial.

But sometimes, I can’t sustain the wide-eyed, wide-angle focus on the state of things. I just have to zoom in on something small and close by … something that has a pattern and seems to make sense of the world for a moment or two.

“Hope” is the the thing with feathers ” by Emily Dickinson is the first thing to float into my mind when thinking of feathers.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

The line that stands out to me the most in this beautiful poem at the current time of reading is “And sings the tune without the words -”

I often wish we could just stop and listen to the wordless tune that nature belts out every day, whether we’re paying attention or not.

Lately, it seems as if words, used so rarely as a means of getting to real understanding, are only getting us into more trouble.

It gets hard to hear the “thing with feathers” amid the Gale of unfiltered information thundering around us.

To avoid adding too many more of my own words to the storm, here are a few feathers to consider in quietness.

A tiny, fingernail-sized mystery feather I found in the garden recently

Greatly magnified Anna’s Hummingbird feathers

Feathers always look best on the bird …

Female Wood Duck feather detail

Male Wood Duck feather detail

Below is a Sooty Grouse tail feather that I found, inexplicably, in our 100% grouse-free urban neighbourhood.

Fabulously blue Steller’s Jay feathers

Proud owner of the electric blue feathers

Red-winged blackbird epaulettes

Crow feathers, newly grown in after the moulting season — just in time for the winter rains

The miracle of Starling feathers

I was actually on the point of abandoning this blog post altogether when I had a visit from Sparky, “the thing with feathers” personified. He gave me a fizzy starling pep talk.

A new print — “Hope is the thing.

 

 

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© junehunterimages, 2023. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to junehunterimages with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Earl and Echo’s Very Busy Summer

While some crow couples in the neighbourhood are now seeing glimpses of light at the end of the parenting tunnel, Earl and Echo are still in the thick of it.

They were about three weeks behind the Wings and the Bongos in the fledging launching stakes this year. I was beginning to wonder if they’d have any success at all but, near the end of June, Earl and Echo’s territory was suddenly full of noisy babies (I counted four) with the parents racing between them and trying to keep them fed, quiet and generally under the radar of local predators.

Two of the new fledglings, one napping, June 24 2023

Fierce Earl on guard

Earl is identifiable, even when flying, by his one bent leg

Earl — incoming!


Echo is identifiable by her one blind eye and constant head bobbing movement

Vision problems notwithstanding, little gets past Echo

In spite of their various physical obstacles, Earl and Echo are fierce and competent parents. Through the long dry summer, fraught with the usual fledgling-perils, they’ve managed to shepherd three of the original four to crow teen-dom. An impressive feat for any crow couple.

Earl with two of the youngsters in mid-July

Earl and one of the kids last week — you can see how badly bent his poor leg is

Most of the other crow parents have now weaned their fledglings from begging for food (via a combination of studious ignoring and the occasional well-aimed peck.) Because Earl and Echo were late starters this year, they’re still having to put up with a certain amount of teen angst.

Earl seems to be almost blown off his feet by the sheer volume of whinging

The combination of ceaseless parenting  and moulting season have both Earl and Echo looking distinctly the worse for wear at the moment.

Earl this morning, sporting the classic “reverse-mullet” typical of this stage in moulting

Note the scratch marks on Earl’s well-worn beak, as well as the tiny new pin feathers coming in on his face

When not following the small details of individual crows’ lives around the neighbourhood, I’ve continued to think of them from a more “zoomed out” perspective, with all of their potential as messengers, if only we will take a moment to try and listen to what they have to say.

Whenever I’m in this frame of mind, I go back to the more abstract thinking that led to the crow typewriter idea. Lately, among other things, I’ve been working on a more stylized “sans-serif” version of the Crowphabet.

Here’s a little preview, spelling out the names of today’s crows.

 

For more on Earl and Echo:

 

 

 

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© junehunterimages, 2023. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to junehunterimages with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.