Oh black bird, what omen doth ye bring? Since ancient times, ravens and crows have been perceived as harbingers of darkness. In Greek and Roman mythology, ravens are associated with Apollo—the god of prophecy, or Phoebus, as the Romans would say.
Crows are prominent symbols in Nordic mythology, with two crows serving as messengers to the Norse god, Odin. Both ravens and crows often represent death in folklore and popular culture, giving rise to the collective noun “murder of crows.” In Native American culture, crows are viewed in a more positive light. While some tribes depict them as mischievous tricksters, others focus on their intelligence, seeing them as symbols of wisdom.
Reputation aside, it seems that these two members of the Corvidae family have long had their symbolism—and identity—intertwined. Crows and ravens share many similar features. Spotting them can be confusing to the untrained eye. But there are several characteristics and traits to look out for that can help birders tell them apart.
How to Distinguish a Raven from a Crow
The first indicator is the size of the bird. While ravens are fairly large birds (about the size of the red-tailed hawk), crows are much smaller, comparable with doves and pigeons.
The next telltale is the bill. The crow has a smaller, straighter, and narrower bill, whereas the raven’s bill is larger and heavier, with a more pronounced curve of the upper mandible. The raven’s larger bill is adapted to breaking apart frozen food in colder climates and picking meat off carcasses. It also has longer bristles at the base of the bill.
Even the feature that likens them has subtle differences. Ravens have glossy-black plumage with iridescent blue, green, and purple hues, whereas the plumage of crows is less lustrous.
Ravens also have shaggier throat feathering and a distinctive profile. They have rounded crowns giving them a peculiar, almost gorilla-shaped head. Crows, on the other hand, have flatter heads that gently curve from the bill, creating a smoother, more aerodynamic shape.
These are identifiable features in a close range of a perched bird. But what about flying birds?
One of the easiest ways to distinguish a raven from a crow in flight is to look at the tail. Birds spread their tails for balance and stability, and to create lift. The splayed tail feathers are often a good way to tell a raven from a crow.
The raven has a wedge-shaped tail due to the longer feathers at the center of the tail. The crow’s tail feathers are the same length creating a fan shape when spread. They also have different flight patterns. Ravens soar more than crows, gliding on thermals, and frequently rolling and tumbling. Crows are less acrobatic flyers and tend to flap more, with steady, rowing wing beats.
Apart from physical features, differences in behavior can also help birders with species identification. For instance, crows are more social than ravens, occurring in small flocks and roosting communally, while ravens are solitary birds, typically spotted alone or in pairs, only feeding collectively on occasion—such as around a carcass or garbage.
Ravens and crows are known for their scavenging ways, and while both feed on carrion, food scraps, and the occasional pilfered lunch, ravens have a higher penchant for carrion, and crows are more commonly found around refuse and in populated urban areas.
Aside from carrion and food waste, both birds are opportunistic feeders with a wide and varied diet, which includes small animals, eggs, arthropods, fish, and some plant foods such as grains, nuts, buds, and berries.
Corvids are typically monogamous and form strong, lifelong pair bonds. Both ravens and crows can build their nests in a broad range of sites, from trees and cliffs to skyscrapers and other tall buildings and structures. Crows, however, favor nesting in the concealed forks of evergreen trees. They are cooperative breeders, meaning the whole family pitches in to raise the young. Ravens, being the solitary creatures they are, typically form breeding pairs.
The crow’s signature high-pitched caw is well-known and often attributed to ravens as well. However, the raven’s common call is a deep, guttural, croaking. They also make harsh grating sounds and give shrill alarm calls.
Range and Habitat
There are nine extant species of ravens and more than thirty species of crows. Both birds have a cosmopolitan distribution, with the common raven having the widest species range among the corvids.
Ravens and crows are both highly adaptable birds found in a wide range of habitats, needing only trees for perching, roosting, and nesting and a reliable food source. They generally thrive around human habitations. Rivalry tends to occur in areas of range overlap, with ravens usually driven out by crows.
Ravens VS Crows Who Is Smarter?
Historically, birds have not been associated with intelligence. In fact, they were not believed to be smart at all (likely owing to their small brains), hence the term “bird-brain” was coined as a playground taunt. Until the 21st century, the remarkable cognitive abilities of the Corvidae family were yet to be discovered.
Ravens and crows are highly intelligent birds, capable of mimicking sounds, solving puzzles, and tool use. But of the two, ravens take avian intelligence to the next level. Their ability to tackle complex problems and plan tasks—abilities believed to be unique to humans—are what sets them apart, making ravens the smartest of all birds and most mammals. Crows, on the other hand, have the edge when it comes to memory and facial recognition. Not only do they have an uncanny ability to recognize and differentiate human faces, but they are also cognizant of the individuality between people, knowing to alter their approach when interacting with different individuals.
What About Blackbirds?
There is a clever adage that goes something like: “Not all black birds are blackbirds, and not all blackbirds are black.” Most blackbirds belong to the Icteridae family of New World Blackbirds, with others, including the common blackbird, belonging to the thrush family, Turdidae.
Blackbirds are significantly smaller than ravens and crows. Still, there are species that may sometimes be mistaken as corvids.
The male Brewer’s blackbird has an all-black plumage with an iridescent purple sheen on the head and a greenish tinge to the body plumage. It is a plump bird with a very short, black bill and pale yellow irises.
Brewer’s blackbirds are found across central, western, and southern North America, where they inhabit semi-open areas near water. They can also be found in urban and suburban areas and readily acclimatize around humans. They feed mainly on seeds and insects, foraging in fields or wading in shallow waters around marshes.
The red-winged blackbird, as the name suggests has bright red shoulder patches which one would think would be unmissable. However, these are sometimes concealed and almost completely disappear in winter, with only a hint of rusty edges that remain.
The species is found in North and Central America and lives in open grassy areas, wetlands, and marshes. Much like crows and ravens, red-winged blackbirds are also known to feed on carrion in addition to their wide-ranging omnivorous diet of seeds, grains, insects, spiders, worms, snails, eggs, and frogs.
On the Caribbean Island of Jamaica, there is only one species of crow. The Jamaican crow can be found in gardens, woodlands, and forests, where its range may overlap with the endangered Jamaican blackbird – the latter favoring wet montane forests. Although relatively small, the Jamaican crow is still larger than the blackbird.
The Jamaican blackbird is an arboreal species that feeds in the forest canopy, where it forages moss and epiphyte-covered trees for insects and spiders. It has glossy, blue-black plumage. Distinctive features include its long, slender bill and short tail.
Rusty blackbirds are named for their reddish-brown winter plumage. The male becomes glossy black in the breeding season and may resemble a small crow with its longish, slightly curved bill.
But the rusty is only eight to ten inches long and has pale yellow irises. Rusty blackbirds inhabit coniferous forests, nesting around wetlands where they forage the wet grounds and shallow waters for small fish, insects, and seeds.
Among the New World Blackbirds are six extant species of grackles. The common grackle is found across North America. Its glossy black plumage has iridescent shades of blue, green, purple, and bronze. This species has a relatively heavy bill with a slight curve but is still much smaller than that of a crow’s, and it has yellow irises and a long tail.
It inhabits semi-open areas east of the Rockies and often nests in large colonies. Common grackles are omnivorous and feed on the ground or in shallow waters. They can also be found scavenging food scraps around parks and picnic areas.
The boat-tailed grackle is named for its excessively long, keel-shaped tail. The male has a rounded crown, similar to that of a raven. It is a slender bird with iridescent, glossy-black plumage, brown or pale-yellow irises, and a long, slender bill. Boat-tailed grackles inhabit saltwater marshes along the coast.
In Florida, they can also be found inland around freshwater. Their diet is similar to the common grackle, and like the corvids, boat-tailed grackles also frequent garbage sites and steal food from other birds.
The great-tailed grackle is a large species that can reach eighteen inches in size. The male has glossy black plumage with a bluish-purple sheen on the upper body and head. Named for its exceptionally long tail, it is very similar to the boat-tailed grackle, but the great-tailed grackle has a flatter head and slightly thicker bill. It can also be found in a wider range of habitats.
Its natural range was originally limited to Central and South America and now spans from west and central North America to the northwestern edge of South America. The great-tailed grackle is often mistaken for a raven or crow, but the tail is a distinctive feature, as well as its yellow eyes. Great-tailed grackles have a wide and varied omnivorous diet and can be found foraging in a range of habitats.
Central and South American species include the Nicaraguan grackle, the Carib grackle, and the Greater Antillean grackle.
Other than size, eyes, and tails, the most telling difference between blackbirds and corvids are the blackbirds’ small, pointed bills. They also lack the bristling at the base of the bill.
Ravens and crows are fascinating birds to observe. Once novice birders become familiar with their differences, it’s easy to tell them apart and distinguish them from blackbirds. And while blackbirds may not be as intelligent, research shows that some species, such as the great-tailed grackle, may be smarter than we give them credit for. Also, many blackbird species are endangered due to the destruction of wetland habitats. So a blackbird sighting can be pretty special too.
Ravens and crows are resilient birds on account of their impressive adaptability. Not all species are as lucky, though. The Hawaiian crow, for instance, is one of the rarest birds in the world, in part due to its insular range.
Crows and ravens are also subject to indiscriminate persecution in some regions where they are seen as pests. Conservation authorities are looking into non-lethal measures to control their impacts. Hopefully, we can find ways to live harmoniously alongside them and continue to develop our understanding of these magnificent birds.