The Nature Nut

Common Raven. (R. Altencamp/Wikimedia Commons)Common Raven. (R. Altencamp/Wikimedia Commons)
American crow. (Benoit Brummer/Wikimedia Commons)American crow. (Benoit Brummer/Wikimedia Commons)

It is black, it has wings and is big. It can make an awful racket vocally, but which one is it – an American crow or a common raven?

Most people know to wait until the bird flies so they can see the shape of the tail. On an American crow the tail is fan-shaped and more rounded or squared off at the end. The common raven’s tail is wedge-shaped when seen in flight.

How to tell them apart if they are sitting is a little more difficult. Generally, ravens are much bigger than crows which is easier to tell if they are close by each other. The beak is a more reliable clue. In a raven it is large, often longer than the head and heavy, or bulky. The crow’s beak on the other hand is smaller, thinner, and slightly shorter than the head. If you are close, also look for the shaggy thick throat feathers of the raven.

There is a joke going around online that the difference between the two “is a matter of a pinion.” While it is a good pun, the facts used in the joke are inaccurate. Pinion is another name for the primary or flight feathers and the joke claims that a raven has 17 i.e., one more pinion than the crow (16). However, neither bird has more than 10 pinions.

But if you can get a clear view of the bird’s wings in flight look at the “fingers” – the feathers that stick out at the end of the wing. In a crow there are five conspicuous fingers, whereas the raven’s wing has only four clear fingers.

A good way to tell them apart is by sound. The crow has a harsh, but clear, raspy ‘caw’, whereas the raven makes a similar sound except it starts out as a throaty gurgle and is more like a ‘croak’. Both species are very vocal, and the raven especially has an amazing vocabulary. At times we have tried imitating them and they will respond, but I always get the feeling that their response is mocking our feeble attempts.

To hear the comparison of the sound of both the crow and raven go to The Cornell Lab, Bird Academy online.