Thursday, April 05, 2007

how to tell a damn raven from a crow

I am a birdwatcher. Not a rabid one, but enough so that I have two pairs of binocs-one for the car-and have laminated the cover on my Pedersons' Guide.

Living in a rural- suburban setting I don't see a terribly wide variety of birds on a daily basis, but I do see more than your average bear because I know what to look for. Most of the time, though, since I have a life, I am perfectly content to watch the usual suspects...robins, sparrows, seagulls, starlings and crows. And here where I live, ravens.

Every time you mention the word 'raven' you get a kind of a half-second reaction from people like 'Geeze, read Elfquest much?' because people think that 'raven' and 'crow' are synonymous; 'raven' being the more 'Goth' of the two, which means that you are making a lame attempt to try and sound all cool.


Don't even get me started on 'blackbird.'

Yes, they are black. Yes, they are corvids. Yes, they inhabit overlapping ecological areas and play similar roles therein. Yes, they make 'caw, caw' sounds. Yes, they are right around the same size, within a certain range, and yes, that overlaps too.
So no, it's not something that you can nail at a glance. At least, not in the Pacific Northwest.

But because I love you, here is the secret to telling a crow from a raven:
(This is a fantastic picture, by the way.) You see the size and shape of that beak? THAT is the surest way to tell. A raven has a distinct 'Roman nose'...what's known as a 'cornute' beak. It is longer and bigger than a crows'. In contrast to the size of the beak, the dome of the ravens' skull looks disproportionately small.

The second diagnostic point is the shape of the tail in flight.
But see, that wouldn't work with the raven in the picture above there. That photo was taken late in the season. The end of his tailfeathers are all raggedy and worn away by using them as props against rough stones and bark.*
In fresh plumage, his tail will look like this, in flight:
Note- his head is facing towards your right, viewer.
That distinctive tail shape is ABSOLUTELY SPECIFIC to the raven. Notice that the tail is not cut straight across at the end of the fan but meets up at a point in the middle, a point which sticks out further than the sides.

Unless you see the bird in flight, though, it's difficult to make that observation. In rest he holds his tail folded up, so unless you're very close, or he decides to fan his tail and have a scratch, you're out of luck.

And now, in contrast, the common American Crow:

See the beak? More conical, and shorter...more in proportion to the size of the skull dome.
See the end of the tail fan? Straight across in a smooth semicircle. No peak in the middle at all.

There are other things that differentiate ravens from crows, but only around 75% of the time... and only on adult birds.

An adult raven runs slightly bigger than a crow, but only just. It is also stockier. If the crow were a track and field man, the raven would be a weightlifter.

A raven does not appear as sleek as a crow. Crows at rest hold their feathers close to their bodies, and they shine like polished obsidian. At rest the raven looks kind of scroungy; uncombed and rough, as though it's just had a good shake and hasn't bothered to rearrange it's feathers nicely. The raven picture above illustrates this quite nicely.

When a raven has somewhere to go across an open space he will flap slowly and steadily in a straight line to get there. Otherwise he spends a lot of time gliding. In a glide the ravens' wing primaries spread wide like fingers, and flip up a little at the ends. The tertiaries come down in a fat semicircle to the body. This is a characteristic of forest canopy birds who make lots of short gliding flights between limbs....more surface plane. Like the shape of a jaybird (forest) wing, as compared to a seagull(soaring, open sea) wing. Crows tend to flap more than glide, and the wing feathers stay closer together. A crow will also play in flight, doing flips and dives and loops and making side trips. Ravens are generally more businesslike.

The feathers on the neck and around the crop area of the raven are raggedy looking, kind of like the bird used gel on them.

Anywhere you will see a crow, you can see a raven. But the further up a mountain you go, the more ravens you will see.
Not much help, huh.

A raven is sneaky, and comically so. They cannot resist spying on people in the woods, and you do feel distinctly spied upon, too. They lurk around bent over like Groucho Marks, peering around corners and over limbs. They will gradually become bolder, but not so friendly that they'll strut back and forth unconcernedly for you out in the open like a crow will...if you get too close a raven will crouch and hop away, fluttering off a few paces, and then giving you a kind of reproachful look.

Unless you are dead, a newly born animal, a placenta or a dying salmon, a raven is not aggressive in the least (unless they have a nest nearby but that's like any bird.)

They will methodically go through your shit as soon as your back is turned, or they think it is. And I really mean the 'methodically' part, too. No fear or looking around now...their attention is entirely devoted to the task at hand. If you leave your backpack unattended, they will eventually figure out how to undo the zipper and dump it out. Anything pretty-sparkly that's portable enough for the raven to tug away or fly off with is gone, then. But weirdly enough, they'll fly back later and leave you a rock, or a stick, or a chicken leg or a pine cone or some other thing they've picked up, like a trade. I got a kid's hair barrette once in exchange for the foil from my pack of cigarettes.

They're smart, too. They can open simple latches. I watched one open the door and go right into the back of a camper and have a look around. They can unscrew the shiny button on your cars' door locks if they're on loosely. I've heard stories of them turning on faucets, and flicking the flame on old Ronson-style lever lighters too.

They'll go into your vehicle if the window is down. Right into your tent, too. They'll stick their heads inside your gloves and shoes, check out your sleeping bag and play with the zipper. If you ride a motorcycle and have a spirit bell on it, they love to ding those. Anything shiny and chrome on your vehicle attracts them. They will gaze into the shine, nuzzling and picking gently at the trim or what have you with their beaks and feet.

Now they don't do any of this in a pesty intrusive way; it's not alike a bunch of Gypsy kids selling flowers or monkeys mugging a tourist in Wild Kingdom park. It's more like they're conducting research. They're very serious about the whole thing. It's comical as hell.
All the while, the raven is commenting on everything in an undertone. "Mraw? Pop," he'll say as he picks your cigarettes out of the pack one by one, in a conversational way. If you've ever had a 'talking' cat or dog you know the kind of speaking-type noises I mean. They also vocalize soft clacks and rattles and clatters too, with a hollow sound like tapping on the bottom of a pop cup makes.
Which is not to say that they don't also emit all the usual loud and obnoxious corvid sounds, because they do, but only once they're out of throwing distance and at a much greater volume.

You can hear a raven flying overhead if it's flapping it's wings. This is the coolest thing. It makes a very distinctive, loud WHISH! WHISH! WHISH! sound. Often the bird will be flying quite low, to get a look at you as it makes its leisurely way past, and will comment softly as he goes over. The pair I had nesting next door last year always used to give me a howdy in the evening like this. Of course they left me a strip of dried possum hide on the roof of my pickup truck too, but I think it was just them being neighborly.

*That is a clue to his preferred habitat, too, which is northern and boreal pine forests, riverbanks, gravel bars and mountainous regions. Unless you live in the Pacific Northwest, where they forget all that simple forest shit and hang around downtown, robbing dumpsters, picking up sailors and eating bums.


  1. We don't see many ravens round here. I quite like crows, with their sinister beady eyes and that.

  2. oh! Apparently we've got a lotta ravens around here. I'm not even sophisticated enough to think "crow", I'm just all, "Hey, lookit that big loud bird!"

  3. I'm going to come back for a "proper" read after lunch.But thanks for telling us all the difference.Much more informative than the English crows/rooks distinction -"If you see a lot of crows, they are rooks.If you see one rook, it's a crow!" (For those who don't know,rooks hang out in noisy gangs,whereas crows are solitary, except when breeding.)

  4. :::looks all smug::: I knew the difference!

  5. When we were kids , we were adopted by a baby jackdaw , that lived in our shed. Jackdaws can learn to talk (along the lines of a minor bird or a parrot).
    The Jackdaws name was Busby.
    If you didnt rememeber to lock the little featherd freak in the shed at night it would be up at first light , tapping on all the bedroom windows , bawling out 'Bugger off Busby' in its very penetrating punch and Judy was a hoot , Ma Beasty used to go BALISTIC(Ooooh the social embarrasment) , and since she had decided Pa Beasty was the obvious culprit in teaching the bird the phrase , (It wasnt it was my little brother) and compounding his crime by not locking the shed , poor pa beasty used to get a dreadful tongue lashing at 4 am every fine summers morning , I dont think he ever worked out that the Beast offspring had a rota going for sneaking out and unlocking the shed in the dead of night.

  6. v. interesting & Informative, but I'm with dinahmow - don't you have rooks? I think they have a different colour patch on top their heads. We can tell how bad the winter will be by how high they build their nests in the tree (Higher - warmer winter, lower - colder winter).

  7. I love the part about how ravens give you something in a trade. But why are they seen as a bad omen? Is it the blackness? The smartness? Or simply the large honker?

  8. Wow! You just got me interested on ravens and crows. I would like to read more about ravens now. I saw Dinahmow's invitation to read you at HE's.

  9. FS: FYI, I awarded you a Thinking Blogger award. I know, I know, you can't contain your excitement. Now I have to finish 2006 on this blog and get into the current year. Congratulations. Sorry there's no money with the award. Consider it a cash-free MacArthur grant.

  10. You're makin' me 'Orni' with this Ornithological treat.

    There is a 'Ravenmaster' who takes care of the Ravens in Residence at the Tower of London. (apparently they even have their own pens)

    Their wings are clipped because of a superstition which claims that if the Ravens 'LEAVE' the Kingdom will 'FALL'.
    I saw these prisoners back in '77 and I could hear them singin' on the lawn...

    "When the shadows of this life 'ave gone,
    Oy'll fly away.
    Like a bird from prison bars has flown,
    Oy'll fly away.

    Oy'll fly away, it's boring!
    Oy'll fly away,
    When I die 'allelujah bye and bye,
    Oy'll fly away."

  11. billy: i love crows too. aside from the whole eating garbage thing, it would be great to come back as a crow, i think.
    w2: tell them hi from me! i kind of envy you in cali; you have tons of cool birds there.
    dinamow: yeah, that's less than helpful, isnt it? we don't have rooks here in the PNW, but for all i know new york could be heaving with them. which would be totally cool like a horror movie if it really were, like, all covered in freaky birds and stuff. yeah.
    fatty: GOOD FOR YOU. thank god someone does. which is a dumb thing to feel militant about, but there you go.
    beast: that's so cool! it stayed a wild bird but you were able to teach it how to talk? thats cool!now i want one to be buddies with me!
    ratattouille: not here in the pacific northwest we don't. now i'm beginning to think we need them, though.'s the 'hanging around battlefields eating the dead' thing. handmaidens of the Morrigan, or so i'm given to understand. i wasn't there.
    ces: welcome welcome! wow,you hang with a fast crowd, don't you?/ all the birds in the corvidae family are interesting and smart...jays, crows, ravens, whiskeyjacks and the rest.
    foilwoman: well howdy! and thank you. dang. i - dang.
    homoE: i thought they kept them to eat all the dead hippies and crap floating around in the moat. color me wow!

  12. Wonderful stuff. All of the members of the crow family are pretty intelligent, resourceful birds (streetwise, even). They get a lot of bad press.

    Can remember what must've been about forty or fifty crows gathering in one of the large trees behind our house. It seems that they sometimes do that as a form of speed dating, with them all pairing off (fortunately they didn't get up to any funny business there and then ... not the sort of thing I want to see when I'm eating breakfast).

  13. Anonymous2:24 PM

    You are all wrong - Rooks have white beaks, Ravens have a different call and live up mountains...

  14. what's a rook then?

  15. sorry! I'll read the comments first next time!

  16. Kristy2:08 PM

    I know another difference!
    "Quoth the Crow, 'Nevermore!'" just doesn't sound right.

  17. Fantastic post on crows and ravens. Love your writing, as always, and now ravens grow in my esteem, as they are gathering data. How cool!

  18. Well -- everythang has got to eat.

  19. thank you. i've been wondering about this forever and have never been able to see the 'ravens are bigger' thing. if they're not side by side, i'm not going to be able to tell.

    and now a story: [i had thought it was a crow at the time, but now i wonder] - I was sitting in traffic on afternoon and i was watching [some large black bird] pick french fries one-by-one out of a McDonalds bag on the side of the road. Only after 2 or 3 fries did the bird decide to just pick up the entire brown bag and fly away with it. I thought it was so incredible that it was smart enough to figure that out, rather than picking them out one at a time. Smart birds.

  20. roger tory peiterson has met his match! step aside, david attenborough! take your hat off, marty stouffer -- First Nations is in town!

    ps. i want a raven.