Sunday, April 26, 2020

Ravens and Crows: Telling them apart

Part 1 of 2


Ravens, crows and jays make up the corvid family, arguably the most intelligent of birds. We may honor the bald eagle as our national symbol, but compared to any corvid, the eagle is definitely a bird brain. Ravens in particular, based on their omnivorous adaptability to almost any environment, their fascination with colorful toys and glittery objects, their use of natural tools, and their remarkably diverse repertoire of sounds and vocalizations, appear to be exceptionally intelligent. In fact, ravens remind me of us humans, with no formidable anatomical weapons, but large brains to help us figure out how to get whatever we need.  

Passerines make up more than half of all bird species. Ravens are the largest passerine or song birds, averaging two feet in length, two and a half pounds, with a wing spread of about four and a half feet. We often confuse ravens with crows, which are about half the size of ravens and have noticeable differences in structure and behavior. 

Ravens. Photo by Julie Clark, courtesy of Adirondack Wildlife Refuge

Crows are more likely to flock together in gangs when they’re not feeding, especially at dawn and dusk, in groups often referred to as a “murder of crows”. They prefer being closer to the feeding opportunities presented where people live or gather in large numbers, and careless disposal or placement of consumables means dinner for the crows. In fact, crows not only occasionally attack and murder other individual crows, but have been seen gathered around the body of a dead crow in what appears to be mourning. Crows are more urban birds, while ravens are more territorial, more likely to break out as monogamous breeding pairs, and seem to prefer rural areas. 

Young, unattached ravens may group up and share feeding opportunities in what is called a “conspiracy” or “unkindness”, but once grown and paired up, ravens defend a territory in order to support a family.  These darkly sinister labels probably reflect the observed history of crows and ravens using gravestones as perches from which to hunt insects and small rodents, and more disturbingly, feeding on dead bodies, particularly those of soldiers and combatants after a battle. Crows and ravens are probably the most opportunistically common scavengers of human flesh. No wonder they are often viewed as omens or portends of death. 

Crows usually build their nests in deciduous trees, and the nests are smaller but easier to spot, particularly in early Spring, before the leaves grow. Ravens build larger nests, which may be built higher in conifers, and harder to spot, but they will also build nests on rocky ledges, or just about any flat surface, natural or man made, out of reach of all predators except owls and eagles.

Crows are noisier and more likely to caw in groups. If they’re on the ground or perching, crows dip and raise their heads while engaging in repetitive high pitched cawing. Ravens make an astonishing variety of sounds, working out of a croaking and  gurgling like call, interspersed with loud clock pendulum like noises, but while doing so, they stand or perch more upright, like an orator, their jagged feathery hackles or beard, fanning out from their throats, a feature crows lack. Crows caw frequently when flying, and more often than not, they’re flapping their smaller wings while flying. Ravens soar and glide with their wings out in a straight plain, more the way hawks and eagles do.

Ravens are better vocal mimics than parrots, as they can express sounds with both deeper and higher tones. One of our ravens, Rikki Raven, not only learned to perfectly mimic my laugh, but when performing menial tasks, I often walk around listening to audible books on the iPhone in my breast pocket, and Rikki managed to mimic the tinny sound of a human reading over the phone.

Crows watch and study peoples faces, demonstrating the ability to recall faces, and alert other crows to avoid people. For example, students in a university study, would don masks, and then mistreat wild crows, chasing them and throwing objects at them, to determine whether the crows would be able to later recognize their faces, instigating  other crows to dive bomb and mob their tormenters. They did. 

Once landed, crows twitch their tails nervously, as well as their wings, without leaving the ground, as though they’re ready to take off at the first disturbance, such as when you continue to stare at them, or photograph them. Ravens land and then perform a series of leap or bounces, three to twelve inches off the branch or ground, using both legs and wings, before settling down, as though to convince themselves it’s really safe to land there.  

Anatomically, the tops of crows’ heads are smaller and more dome like. Their bills are shorter and smaller, the upper and lower bills more symmetrical. Ravens have a blockier shaped head, and much larger, heavier bills, with upper bill longer than lower and curved downwards at its sharp front. The upper raven bill has specialized feathers resembling long black hairs, covering the nostrils and more than half of the bill. I’ve been bitten by ravens, a severe pinch which really hurts. Raven eyes are deep grayish to black, depending on the light, and closer to the bill than a crows eyes are. In flight, the raven shows a wedge shaped tail, while the crows tail is more fan shaped. Male corvids are larger than female corvids, the opposite of what you find in birds of prey. Crow and raven feet resemble thinner, weaker versions of raptor feet, without the powerful, crushing toes and deadly talons.

Top photo: Crow in flight. Photo by Anne Fraser, courtesy of Adirondack Wildlife Refuge

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Steve and Wendy Hall run the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge and Rehab Center in Wilmington. They've been rehabbing and releasing wild animals for over 45 years, specialize in predators, keep wolves as the cornerstone of their educational program, and have lived in the Adirondacks for the past 20 years. The Adirondack Wildlife Refuge became a non-profit about 10 years ago.Visit to learn more.

20 Responses

  1. Chris says:

    Great article. Thank you!

  2. Ronnie Freeman says:

    I really enjoyed your article. I have a family of crows living behind my house in the forest. I find them fascinating and entertaining.

  3. Jim Fox says:

    An article like this is convincing me to change my favorite bird from crow to raven.

  4. Cindy Sprague says:

    Great information – thanks!

  5. John says:

    Ravens have made their home on the cliff behind my house for many years, and we have a close relationship that includes a daily checkup flight overhead and this Stewart’s Shop-style exchange, usually repeated two or three times before my neighbor flies off: Raven (deep voice) “crawk-crawk-crawk”; me (Yogi-bear tone) “Hey-Hey-Hey.” If I spot a raven flying nearby at any time of day, I make the same call and invariably the bird diverts in my direction and responds. They are not so friendly toward territorial competitors and early one spring I watched a raven pursue a home-shopping peregrine falcon through the woods and right to the ground.

  6. Wil Davis says:

    I remember a wonderful program made by the BBC back in the 1980s called “Bird Brain In Your Back Yard” (I think). The program comes to the conclusion that pigeons and corvids are the smartest of all the birds and demonstrate some amazing test to prove that fact.

  7. Kevin says:

    This was a wonderful read, Steve. Markedly different personalities up close though I have a blast with both of them.

  8. Jack B says:

    Great read, I really enjoyed it. Although I respectfully enjoy seeing and hearing the grawl of the Ravin and would really miss them if weren’t around any more, I’m certainly no fan when they raid my remote camp, several times in fact. But, I am in their house and it wouldn’t be the same without them……..
    Thanks for the article!

  9. Boreas says:

    I really enjoy seeing ravens displaying and playing in thermals. They really seem to enjoy it!

  10. Lori says:

    This was fascinating! I always knew both of them were super smart. During the winter months I would make some unsalted air popcorn. My crows would wait for me to come out and throw the corn on my driveway. They come back every year as they remember this! Clever birds! I wish I had more ravens here. Brilliant guys! Smart as a 7 year old or chimpanzee.

  11. Lou says:

    Thank you for a very informative and interesting article.

  12. Sara N Coon says:

    Thank you for this information. I really needed it. Have u seen a raven and crow work together before? Have u ever know either of them to stock or follow a human for years everyday? Do you what it means if the do that? Cause have both that do that to me and they work together and been doing it for over a year now that I’ve been noticing, I got pictures and video of it too. They say they deliver messages but I don’t know what their saying and I’m so baffled by it

    • Cleoh says:

      You probably did something really nice for them to follow you, or something really mean maybe. It could also have happened with one of their relatives, but for them to follow you for a long time, it’s likely to be something personnal

  13. I enjoyed this article on Ravens and Crows, though I did know most of the information. I will add:
    “These darkly sinister labels probably reflect the observed history of crows and ravens …”:
    As associated Goddess Morrigan and with God Odin. Battle Ravens and Crows would circle the battlefield, and the weaker the constitution the more their presence would have on the psyche of combatants. As well, there are the two Ravens of Odin (Hugin and Munin); and Odin is also called by the name Grim (Grim-reaper).

  14. Tim Rowland says:

    If you only have two crows, is it an attempted murder? (There will be no charge for this joke since I stole it from an overly literary birder.)

  15. Suzanne says:

    I grew up at Crow Hill, my grandmother’s house, named for obvious reasons, and have always loved crows. My mother always put out leftover scraps and bones in the field for them. At our Adirondack camp, there is a raven (or probably a pair) and I love hearing their “gronk, gronk” voice. One afternoon as I was sitting on the front porch, a raven appeared. There was a robin’s nest on a low-lying limb of one of our big white pines. The raven approached it, only go be attacked and chased off by the very angry robin. David vs Goliath.

  16. JOANNE MURPHY says:

    thx.. very interesting…

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