This article lists simple steps to help you tell apart and safely identify a common raven and an American crow.
Steps are listed in descending order, from general differences between the two species, such as geographic distribution, to fine-grain details of their appearance.
Both ravens and crows are recognized as “crows” by most people. But besides the black coloration of their plumage, both birds are quite different and relatively easy to identify using the following steps.
1.- Determine whether a common raven or an American crow is expected to occur in the region.
Ravens and crows belong to the taxonomic family “Corvidae” and are often referred to as Corvids throughout this article.
The common raven (Corvus corax) and American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchus) are widely distributed in North America, but their ranges overlap only in parts of each species’ ranges.
It is in the regions 0f overlap that the identification of these two Corvids becomes a challenge.
Ranges for the common raven and American crow shown on this map were adapted from each species’ account on All About Birds.
Determining whether the Corvid you see is a raven or a crow can be as easy as checking the map above and see which species is expected to occur in that particular region.
In most of the U.S., the common raven’s range does not overlap with that of the American crow.
The ranges of the Common raven and American crow do overlap and are found in the region in the Appalachian Mountains of the eastern US and the northern portions of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, New York, Vermont, and Maine, where both the raven and the crow can be found in the same region.
These two corvids’ ranges widely overlap in most of Canada and the Western US (see map).
Overlap with other species of ravens and crows.
The Common raven overlaps with the smaller Chihuahuan raven (Corvus cryptococcus) on the western half of Texas, adjacent to Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, southern New Mexico, and Arizona.
The American crow overlaps only with the even smaller fish crow (Corvus ossifragus) in the southeastern and coastal northeastern states.
Comparisons with Chihuahuan ravens and fish crows are not discussed in this post.
2.- Establish differences in habitat use by ravens and crows.
The overall consensus is that ravens occur in the mountains and generally in more wild places. The American crow is highly adaptable and occurs just about in any habitat type.
- In the western region of the US, the common raven uses a wide variety of habitat types. From forests through grasslands and agricultural areas.
- In the Eastern US, common ravens are more restricted to forests, mountains, and most wild places.
- In most cities and other urban areas, ravens are replaced by American crows. However, in some cities, such as Los Angeles, both ravens and crows occur side by side.
- In Eastern and Western US, American crows use any habitat and are highly adaptable.
- The Amerian crow generally avoids pristine forests and wild places but may be present in human-created openings such as farms, agricultural land, and recreation areas in national parks and conservation areas.
3.- Ravens move about in singles, pairs, or small flocks, crows generally in large flocks.
A solo or a pair of black Corvids in the mountains are likely ravens. A flock of corvids is likely to be composed of American crows.
- Ravens move about alone or in pairs. Seldom in groups of 3 to 5 individuals.
- In the areas of geographic overlap in the Eastern US, ravens occur in much lower numbers and are more restricted to the mountain areas than the American Crow.
- Common Ravens roost alone, in pairs, or small flocks.
- American crows usually move about in flocks of 10-20 individuals. Flocks can get to hundreds of individuals.
- Where both species overlap, American Crows are more common and ubiquitous.
- They use communal roost often of hundreds of individuals.
- Flocks of American crows often mob and harass single ravens.
4.- Ravens generally “croak” while crows “caw-caw.”
In general, ravens croak and crows caw-caw. While they have several variations in their vocalizations, they can be traced to a croaking pattern in ravens and a caw-caw pattern in crows.
If birds are seen while vocalizing, ravens show a shaggy yet ornate beard while crows maintain a mostly smooth throat and neck while vocalizing.
- Common ravens croak.
- When calling, Common Ravens show and expand a shaggy beard on the throat and neck.
- American crows caw-caw and purr.
- The throat is smooth and remains smooth while the bird calls.
Common raven (left) and American crow (right) showing differences in size. Photo: David Moran.
5.- Common ravens are bigger than American crows.
The difference in size between two animals is helpful when both animals are seen side by side. Common ravens are bigger and bulkier compared to the much smaller American crow. Both Corvids can be told apart by size, even from a distance.
If you are used to seeing the more familiar American crow, you will know it is not a crow due to the striking difference in size when you see a raven.
Photo: Tom Murray/Flickr/CC by 2.0.
- Ravens are said to be about the size of a Red-tailed Hawk.
Length: 24″ (tip to beak to tip of tail)
Weight: 2.6 lb (1,200 gr)
Wingspan: 53″ (tip to tip of widespread wings)
Photo: Chris Chappell/Flickr/CC by 2.0.
- American crows are much smaller more similar in size to a Rock Pigeon.
Length: 17.5″ (tip to beak to tip of tail)
Weight: 1 lb (450 gr)
Wingspan: 39″ (tip to tip of widespread wings)
6.- Differences in tail shape are noticeable during flight.
- A raven’s tail is long, with the middle tail feathers longer than the rest giving the impression of a wedge or diamond shape.
- Ravens have a bigger head and, during flight, they appear to extend their heads further out the wings plane. Some say a raven looks like a flying X due to a raven’s long neck and tail.
- Ravens have a more graceful flight that consists of mostly soaring and gliding with infrequent wing flapping. They often ride the thermals.
- A crow’s tail has feathers more even in length, giving the impression of a roundish fan-like tail.
- During flight, the neck seems shorter with a smaller head that does not stick out much past the wings.
- Crows continuously flap their wings while flying. They can soar and glide too, but they do it less often than ravens and usually in flocks.
A flock of common ravens. Notice the little to no flapping of the wings during flight.
A flock of American crows. Notice the continuous wing flapping.
7.- Common ravens have a thick and curvier beak than the thinner beak of an American crow.
- Ravens have a heavier, longer, and curvier beak.
- Both Covids have prominent bristles, but the raven’s bristles are thicker, longer, and more developed.
- The beak is thinner and more straight.
- The bristles are not as thick and do not reach as far out along the length of the beak.
An American crow shows how it appears to re-arrange its wings and flick the tail on occasions. Ravens do not exhibit this behavior.
8.- Quirky details.
Ravens and crows do certain things on specific occasions that require careful observation.
- Upon landing, ravens simply fold their wings.
- Ravens walk. When they need to walk faster, they hope with the two legs together.
- Upon landing and other activities, crows “shake” or “re-arrange” their wings and quickly “flick” fan-spread and retract their tail.
- Crows walk even when the bird wants to walk faster.
Telling a common raven from an American crow may seem a daunting task because of their similar appearance. Each of the steps listed above is rather conclusive, and depending on the region and specific behavior, one can tell them apart using a single step.
In large regions of North America, the common raven does not overlap with the American crow. Hence, using the map can tell whether the bird you see is a raven or a crow.
Differences in social behavior, habitat preference, size, vocalizations, and appearance at close range are so unique to each species that some say that the only thing the common raven and American crow have in common is the black plumage.
I would like to hear about your experiences with these fascinating birds.
Credits: Sound Recordings:
All recordings were obtained from Xeno-canto as follows:
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