We now know that Crows and Ravens are smart. Now, let us assume that you are confronted with a large black bird. It looks smart. It can identify you, can you identify it? How do you figure out whether it is a Crow or a Raven? Just follow the steps we list here and you’ll identify it successfully. (This post is based on the discussion in an excellent book, Identify Yourself: The 50 Most Common Birding Identification Challenges, by Bill Thompson, III and the editors of Bird Watchers Digest. We’ll be adding it to the book section soon but don’t wait for us. Buy yourself a copy. Where, you ask? Well, we do sell it but it is also at your local independent book seller’s.)
Step One: Where are you?
Range maps are the first clue. American Crows are found from the tree line in Northern Canada all the way south to Mexico. They are; however, absent from the high Sierra Nevada, West Texas and the lowlands of the Southwest.
Fish crows are found only in the American Southeast. Northwestern crows are confined to the Pacific Coast from Northern Washington to Southern Alaska.
Common Ravens are found just about everywhere American Crows are found except for the north central U.S. and the Great Plains. (So, if you are in the Great Plains, that large black bird is almost certainly an American Crow.)
Chihuahuan ravens are found only in the desert southwest and, occasionally in southeast Colorado to southwest Nebraska.
Step Two: Decide if it is a crow or a raven.
A. If the bird is flying:
1. Ravens soar; crows, hardly ever.
2. Ravens have distinct wedge shaped tails. Crows’ tails are squared off at the rear.
3. Ravens flap more slowly and less often. They glide and soar. Crows flap constantly and steadily.
B. If the bird is sitting:
1. Ravens are – usually – larger, as much as twice.
2. Ravens have thicker bills.
3. Ravens have shaggy throat feathers, crows don’t.
C. If the bird is talking:
1. Crows have clear voices and give loud, clear “caw” notes, often in a series. Listen here.
2. Ravens have deep, hoarse voices and “kraaack” or “croak” or “gronk”. Think Edgar Allan Poe or Grip in Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge. Listen here.
Step Three: If it is a raven, decide which kind.
This is a problem only in the desert southwest since it is the only place Chihuahuan and Common Ravens overlap.
Have the bird sit absolutely still so you can walk up to it and examine the base of its neck feathers. If the base of the feathers is white, it is a Chihuahuan Raven. If it is dirty gray, it is a common raven. Speak Spanish to the former, English to the latter.
There is no other way to tell for sure which is which. You can guess though. Chihuahuan’s prefer open grassland and scrub desert lowlands and commons prefer higher elevations and wooded habitats. Chihuahuans hang out together more than Commons, at least in the winter.
Step Four: If it is a Crow, decide which kind.
This will be a problem only if you are in the Southeast United States or the Pacific Coast. If you are in one of those two places you now must decide what kind of crow it is.
Forget it. It’s impossible. Just stay away from those places and you will never have to deal with it. But, if you do find yourself on a beach in British Colombia, assume it is a Northwestern Crow and add it to your life list. But. if you are more than 500 yards inland, assume it is an American Crow.
Step Five: If you really can’t decide.
If you still don’t know and there are people waiting for you to tell them, announce loudly and confidently that it is whichever one you want it to be. No one will ever be able to prove you wrong. Only that big black bird will know.
Update: We’ve added a category for “Crows and Ravens.” You can find other posts in the series by clicking on that category on the right side of the home page or you can follow these links which will open in a new window.
Crows and Ravens:
Part I – Here.
Part II – Here.
Part III – Here.
Part V – Here.
Part VI - Here.
Crows and Ravens – New Caledonian Crows -Breaking News – Here.
New Caledonian Crows Again – Here.
The Nature of Intelligence – Here.