When is a crow not a crow?
When it is a raven, among other things. While they might look very similar from a distance, there are many traits that separate these two members of the larger family of corvids.
My father and grandfather first explained to me, when I was growing up and curious about the world around me, the two kinds of “crows” we often saw in our corner of Newfoundland and Labrador: the small crows, usually seen around settlements and often annoying people by cawing loudly while begging for scraps outside the local Mary Brown’s; and the big crows seen in the country perched atop dead trees and issuing loud croaks that echoed through the forested areas where our log cabin once stood. As I got older and took a much keener interest in all things furred and feathered, I learned that these birds are, in fact, different species. The smaller of the two is the American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos); its bigger cousin, the Northern raven (Corvus corax), is the famous muse of poet Edgar Allen Poe and a source of many First Nations stories, traditions and beliefs.
Earlier this year, these birds made national headlines for their strange behaviours on opposite ends of Canada. Canuck the crow, a well-known (and beloved by most) inhabitant of Vancouver on the Pacific coast, attacked the local mail carrier and Canada Post refused to deliver mail to Canuck’s neighbourhood until it was deemed safe. Across the country on the East coast, a pair of ravens repeatedly attacked the exterior of a Harbour Breton, NL man’s home to the point where the owner considered calling in a priest to exorcise them after all other attempts to deter them failed.
Both bird species are dark and devilish, commonly seen and famously smart, so it can be hard to distinguish between them on sight. Here’s a side-by-side comparison of these fascinating birds. May you, like me, confuse them nevermore.
All in the Family
Crows and ravens belong to the family corvidae, which contains over 120 species - including jays, magpies, rooks, jackdaws, treepies, choughs and nutcrackers - many of which show unbelievable intellect.
Crow: The American crow is a large, long-legged perching bird with a thick neck; a heavy, straight bill; and a short tail that is rounded or squared at the end. Adults generally reach lengths of 40-50 cm and have a wingspan of one metre; males are usually larger than females. Crows’ feathers are iridescent black all over, but may appear deep purple in bright sunlight. Sometimes older feathers appear brownish or scaly prior to molting. Rarely, some individuals show white wing patches.
Raven: The most widely distributed corvid, the Northern raven, is a much larger bird, reaching lengths of up to 67 cm and a wingspan of 1.15-1.3 metres. Their relatively short and slightly curved bill is larger and heavier than a crow’s, their tail is wedge-shaped and, unlike the smooth contours of the crow, ravens have long, pale brownish-grey feathers on the neck and above the bill base that give them a shaggy appearance. Ravens are completely iridescent black, although extremely rare white ravens have been found in the wild.
Crow: The most usual call of the crow is a loud “Caw!-Caw!-Caw!” but they can make a variety of other sounds including rattles, coos and clear notes.
Raven: The distinctive voice of the raven is a deep, resonant “prruk-prruk-prruk.” Its vocabulary can be quite complex, including a high knocking “toc-toc-toc,” a grating “kraa,” a low, guttural rattle and some almost musical notes.
Crow: Crows have a unique flight style; patient, methodical flapping that is rarely broken up with glides. They are acrobatic at times, completing half-turns, partial slips, rolls and “walking” in the air.
Raven: Ravens can be distinguished in flight by their wedge-shaped tail, larger wing span and more stable soaring flight, involving much less flapping. Their feathers also make a sound like the rustling of silk. They are more graceful, agile and acrobatic than crows, often performing sudden rolls, loops, summersaults, dives, playing with objects by dropping and catching them in mid-air, and locking talons with each other. One raven has been observed flying upside down continuously for just under a kilometre.
The diet of these birds is very similar as they are both omnivorous and opportunistic. Their usual food is earthworms, insects, seeds, grains, nuts, berries, fruit, chicks and eggs robbed from other bird’s nests, fish, young turtles, crayfish, mussels, clams, frogs, squirrels, mice, undigested portions of animal feces, human food waste and smaller adult birds.
Both species tend to scavenge on carrion and roadkill animals, though carrion makes up a very small part of their diet. Though their bills are large, they do not pack the punch required to break open carcasses. They depend on larger animals to break the tough skin or wait for the carcass to decompose and become soft.
Both species will store surplus food and remember where it is for future use.
Crow: Crows have adapted to take advantage of free food sources offered up by people, often raiding fruit and vegetable crops, pet dishes left outside, bird feeders, garbage cans and picnic and BBQ sites. Crows are crafty foragers, sometimes following adult birds to find their nests, and stealing food from other birds and mammals. Crows sometimes catch songbirds that have just arrived from long distance migration and are exhausted.
Raven: Ravens are smart, making them dangerous predators that brazenly pick off eggs, nestlings and adult birds at nest sites. They often work in pairs to raid seabird colonies, which I have witnessed firsthand at the kittiwake nesting cliffs at Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve, with one bird distracting the adults and the other swooping in to grab the egg or chick.
Habitat and Range
Crow: Crows are very adaptable and are a common sight in a wide variety of natural and human created habitats. They thrive around people and often congregate in agricultural fields, parks, golf courses, cemeteries, highway turnarounds, feedlots, lawns, parking lots, athletic fields, roadsides, towns and city dumps. They tend to avoid dense woodlands, where they are more vulnerable to predators.
Raven: Ravens generally prefer deciduous and evergreen forests, with large expanses of open land nearby, and coastal regions, which provide easy access to water and a varied food supply, when selecting feeding and nesting sites. They can also be found in deserts, beaches, islands, chaparral (shrub land), mountains, ice floes, sagebrush, tundra and grasslands. They generally do well around people, particularly in rural settlements, but also sometimes in cities.
Crow: Crows typically hide their nests on branches of evergreen trees. They lay three to nine pale bluish-green to olive-green eggs with brown or grey blotches.
Raven: Ravens prefer to nest on cliffs, in trees and on structures such as power and telephone poles, billboards and bridges. They lay three to seven green, olive or blue eggs mottled with dark green, olive or purplish-brown.
Crow: Crows are very social birds, sometimes forming flocks in the thousands. In winter they form communal roosts that may contain up to 2 million birds, often in the same general area for well over 100 years. They may also be aggressive, chasing away much larger birds including owls and hawks.
Raven: Ravens aren’t as social as crows; however, young birds travel in flocks prior to forming a mated pair.
Both species: Crows’ and ravens’ brains are considered among the best developed of all birds. They display abilities in problem solving, as well as other cognitive processes such as imitation and insight; they are inquisitive, mischievous and fast learners.
Crows and ravens are capable of using tools. They can use cups to carry water, use sticks to probe into holes to search for food, and break off pine cones and drop them defensively on tree climbers approaching their nests.
They store excess food, often burying it or hiding it in trees, rain gutters or other areas and returning later to retrieve it during periods of scarcity. They often raid food caches of other animals, including other ravens and crows, and follow wolves and polar bears to scavenge on their kill; they often watch other birds bury their food, remember the location and return later to steal it. They have been observed calling larger predators to dead animals; once they open the carcass, the corvids can feed on the scraps. They are even drawn to the sound of gunshots to investigate for a presumed carcass.
Their intelligence is apparent in their ability to communicate warnings, threats, taunts and cheers to other individuals by varying their calls. Their cries of warning are specific enough that other animals recognize them as signals of nearby predators or threats. Crows and ravens have a wide range of vocalizations - 15 to 30 categories have been recorded, most used for social interaction. They can mimic the sounds in their environment, including other animals and even human speech. When feeding in daytime, one or more birds will act as lookout and warn of approaching danger.
They drop hard-shelled nuts and shellfish on rocks, or on roads and wait nearby for cars to run over them and crack the shells, so they can get the meat.
Juveniles, especially ravens, are among the most playful of bird species, often observed sliding down snowbanks and teasing cats, dogs, otters and wolves. Juvenile birds are deeply curious about all new things, sometimes stealing shiny objects; one theory suggests they do this to impress other flock members.
Crows and ravens often cause trouble for people. They have caused power outages by contaminating insulators on power lines, fouled satellite dishes, peeled material off buildings, pecked holes in airplane wings, stolen golf balls, raided crops, opened tents and raided cars left in parking lots. - By Todd Hollett
Did you know that people have been known to keep crows as pets? To read about one pet crow, Omar (pictured left), click here.