SCORES & OUTDOORS: What’s the difference between crows and ravens?

Crow on the left, raven on the right.

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

A couple of weeks ago I noticed a lot of different birds coming to our feeders, and I compared the situation with the Alfred Hitchcock thriller film, The Birds. Well, I have another chapter in that episode. I have noticed recently the high number of crows, or ravens, that have been hanging around my house. Just the other day, I saw seven of them sitting in my pine trees in the backyard. They are huge birds.

Just to draw a comparison, there was a grey squirrel – either Martha or Stewart, my resident squirrels, are pretty good sized squirrels – on one of the other branches, and these birds made it look like a field mouse. The squirrel was dwarfed by these birds. They were also licking their chops. However, the crows’ stout bill is not strong enough to break through the skin.

Later that day, while driving by the park that is located at the end of my street, there were about two dozen of these birds feeding on the banking that was bare of snow.

Where are they coming from. And are they crows, or ravens like some people are calling them?

Well, to cut to the chase, crows have a fan-shaped tail, while ravens’ tails are wedge-shaped. The birds I’m looking at have a fan-shaped tail. Obviously, there are a few differences between the two species. Most of the differences are noticeable when the two are together. However, crows will assemble in large flocks, while ravens tend to be solitary, until the fall migration.

When you see one of the black birds, identifying it can present a real challenge. But their slight differences in size, anatomy, voice and behavior can help you tell them apart.

Common ravens are noticeably bigger; their wingspans can be 46 inches in total length while the distance between their beak tips and tail tips can reach 27 inches. Compare that with American crows, who’ve got 36-inch wingspans and grow to be just 20 inches long from end to end.

The wings themselves look different, too. At the tips you’ll see the finger-like primary feathers that birds use to propel themselves through the air. Because ravens soar more often than crows do, they’ve got longer primaries. Crow tail feathers are arranged in the shape of a gently-curved, handheld fan. On the other hand, a raven’s tail ends in a point, giving it a diamond-like appearance. Ravens also have shaggy feathers under their throats, which crows lack.

Bill shape is yet another point of difference: Unlike the straight-beaked American crow, the common raven has a curved, somewhat knife-like beak.

When it comes to sociability, the two birds are light years apart. Crows amass themselves in large flocks — or “murders” — and may roost together at night in huge clusters of several hundred birds. Ravens are less gregarious, preferring to fly in pairs or in tight-knit family units. Their habitat preferences vary, as well. American crows generally favor wide open spaces while common ravens tend to hang out in forests.

Both the crows and the ravens are highly intelligent birds. Perhaps the most intelligent. The two can learn to imitate a variety of sounds, including the human voice. Recent research has found crows not only use tools, but also tool construction. Their intelligence quotient is equal to that of many non-human primates.

Also, American crows can learn to recognize the faces of people who’ve tried to attack them while common ravens have shown both impulse control and active planning in lab experiments.

There is a story that indicates crows know how to count. The story has not been substantiated, but it goes like this: Three hunters enter a hunters’ blind. They wait, the crows know they are in there. The crows don’t move. Two hunters leave the blind, and the crows still don’t move. Once the third hunter leaves, the crows know they are gone and resume their normal activity.

Crows also have a good memory, remembering where there is danger, and where their cache of food is for later consumption.

Predators include owls and hawks. Crows will gather together to move an offending or intruding owl or hawk. However, West Nile disease has been taking its toll on crow populations.

A couple of years ago, while fishing on Webber Pond, my wife and I noticed a large flock of crows headed for a tree that sat on a point. Apparently, a bald eagle was intruding on a nest. The crows mobbed the eagle and drove it off. That was interesting to watch.

So, taking all these things into consideration, the large black birds hanging around my house are most likely crows. But the question as to where they come from and why they are hanging around, has not been answered. In the past, I have seen extremely large numbers of crows fly overhead in late fall. They seem to be coming from the river and continue in a northwesterly direction, darkening the sky as they passed. This year, they are making themselves right at home around my house.

Myths and folktales about these birds are almost too numerous to count. The Norse god Odin was said to have talking ravens who’d fly around the world gathering news for their divine master. And a story of Lakota-Sioux origin says that the forefather of all crows was once tossed into a fire as punishment for his misdeeds, hence the dark feathers of his progeny.

I will continue to investigate.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

What do you call it when a player makes three consecutive strikes in bowling?

Answer can be found here.


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