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How to Tell a Raven from a Crow: Bird Identification 101

how to tell a raven from a crow
A great comparison of a Northern Raven (left) and an American Crow: Photo by Jefferson Ashby

How to Tell a Raven from a Crow

We’ve all been there. Picture this: While walking through a forest sanctuary or even a city park, you catch a brief glimpse of a bulky black bird gliding from treetop to treetop. Perhaps it rests momentarily on a branch offering glimpses of its thick black bill and feathers before loudly cawing, its nasally dry rattle echoing as it soars away.

Was that a raven or crow in the canopy? For casual birdwatchers, puzzling out subtle distinctions between Corvid cousins proves tricky with similarities in shape, plumage pattern and coloration. But veteran birders attuned to key identification clues can confidently differentiate the largest perching birds spanning North America’s skies.

By closely examining field marks including wingspan, tail shape, bill size, flight style and signature behaviors – plus tuning into distinct vocalizations – even backyard birders can readily separate American crows from thick and hefty ravens. Understanding what precise physical and audible characteristics set these dark corvid family members apart allows accurately documenting sightings.

So whether you seek to settle debates over ambiguous backyard visitors or hone skills noticing telltale signs identifying North America’s largest passerines (perching birds), exploring fine delineations between raven and crow species grants deeper appreciations for their understated marvels.

Crow or Raven ID: Key Physical Differences

Given crows and ravens share close evolutionary ties (they are in the same family – Corvidae) with overlapping ranges across North America, their larger statures alone offer only partial clues worthy of closer inspection from crown to tail:

Wingspan – The largest wings belong to common ravens (Corvus corax) extending almost 4 feet tip-to-tip fully outstretched compared to a sizable but noticeably shorter yardstick-length measurement for American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) which have a wingspan of about 3 feet.

Tail Shape – A common raven’s distinctive wedge-shaped tail appears longer and more tapered at corners versus the flat, rounded or squared off tail pattern of most American crow individuals when visible.

Bill Size – Thicker raven beaks tend to appear slightly heavier and longer as seen head-on, better suited to rugged environments, compared to North American crow varieties sporting slimmer, more proportional bills that align better with skull width.

Throat Hackles – Feathers surrounding a croaking common raven’s throat puff outward into a dense frill or “hackles” absent among American and northwestern crow species. However, fish crows (Corvus ossifragus) display slight fringing feathers too! (Fish crows and Chihuahan ravens (Corvus cryptoleucus) bring about another IDing nightmare – perhaps a matter for a future article.)

Plumage Density – The shaggy, thick-necked ruffled feather coat encircling a typical raven contributes an uneven bulky headed profile while crows smooth their sleeker chest and shoulder plumage for a tidier outline.

Perched Stances – Common ravens often have more upright posture sitting parallel with branches or tilting their curious gazes upward, whereas American crows cock their heads at attention close to right angles appearing slightly hunched.

Flight Maneuvers – In the air, aggressively playful common ravens show greater aerial agility and acrobatics including deep power dives and barrel rolls compared to the efficient level flight of crows flapping with more even strokes gliding less frequently.

Voice & Sounds – Of course, the iconic gurgling “croaks” of common ravens trump plain caws! We’ll explore key vocalization cues to confirm sightings next.

Listening for Distinctive Vocalizations

Assorted murmurs, croaks or caws overhead may offer early clues something shining black shuttles between sunlit gaps. But assessing species based on signature raven “calls” requires appreciating key audible differences:

Depth Variety – The croaking common raven delivers a remarkable repertoire spanning bass to higher registers. Individuals incorporate harsh groans, knocking clicks and clucks into sequences compared to nasal uniform caws repetitively barking out by crows.

Rolling Warbles – Only ravens produce intricate guttural wordless warbled “songs” compared to the simple paired caw combinations American crows repeat in steady cadences sounding slightly metallic or hollow.

Code Switching – Common ravens mimic a diversity of sounds from wolf howls to phone rings when not crunching gravelly croaks. Such playful mimics exceed vocal ranges of more undeviating regional American crows.

Duration – Sustained hoarse raven croaking measuring several seconds contrasts brief paired couplets or triplets of higher staccato cawing consistently delivered by crows echoing across skies.

Call Contexts – bonded pairs of ever playful, acrobatic ravens croak together whereas crows usually vocalize warnings alerting or rallying nearby flocks rather than lone conversational croaking.

By tuning into subtle yet detectable physical and vocal tells from broad wingspans to rolling guttural croaks, even first-time birders begin reliably distinguishing the largest North American perching birds frequenting backyards and woodlands from high soaring pinnacle hollers to hedge-hopping flybys.

Advancing Crow-spotting Skills Through further Comparison

Confidently telling sleek crows and husky ravens apart just scratches the surface for avid birding hobbyists. Taking identification efforts further reveals more finessed facets worth noting:

Plumage Variations – All-black common ravens and American crows actually occur in color morphs including:

  • Pied/ leucistic with white feather patches
  • Albino forms with reddish eyes and pink accents
  • Gray, blond or brown-hued diluted pigmentation

Range Overlaps – Fish crows sharing coastal habitats with American crows can complicate identification with smaller sizes but throat hackles too! Tracking precise species distribution helps pinpoint possibilities by location. Common ravens are less frequent in the eastern states, particularly the farther south one travels, but out west ravens and crows share their ranges.

Building rounded perspectives through consistent and careful observation allows propelling amateur roadblocks toward confident field identification mastery. Soon, a fleeting flash of feathers or an echoing caw immediately triggers proper Corvid designations.


Whether you seek the trick to naming that hefty mystery bird monitoring your backyard or aim to adeptly distinguish the largest living land birds in North America, recognize common ravens and crows take top perching. Next sighting, put new identification techniques to work decoding details to determine if the black beauty is croaking or cawing as a milestone toward more intuitive birding insights guaranteeing gratifying growth on ever-continuing avian quests!