birdnote q&a: crow or raven?

crow or raven? PERHAPS NO BIRDS are more familiar than crows and ravens—but which is which in these similar-looking members of the genus Corvus? And who’s smarter? Ellen Blackstone of the popular BirdNote public-radio show is our guide again as we look skyward in this latest installment in our collaborative series. And watch out, there’s a crow-or-raven quiz at the end of this one (which is why I’m not telling you who’s who in the photos along the way).

“Out of the 810 species of North American birds, only crows and ravens are completely black,” says Ellen. “But they have much more in common than color. Along with their cousins, the magpies and jays, they’re among the smartest birds on the planet.”

In the Q&A that follows, Ellen’s answers contain green links to audio files from BirdNote’s archive that you won’t want to miss. A recap of earlier stories in our series is at the bottom of the page, along with information on how to get BirdNote daily (and the quiz answers–no peeking!).

crow-and-raven q&a, and a quiz!

Q. So who’s smarter, Ellen? Crow or raven?

A. It’s hard to say. Crows make tools, play games, and outwit other species in search of food. Check out this story about a crow fooling a young glaucous-winged gull on the beach.

A rook, a close cousin to the American crow, may have been the culprit in setting the roof of Shakespeare’s wife Anne Hathaway’s cottage on fire–when all he wanted was to smoke out some parasites under his wings, with a smoldering cigarette. That story.

A New Caledonian crow named Betty is famous for her tool-making skills and even turned up on an official postage stamp.

A researcher of crows discovered that the birds can recognize individual faces–and remember a person for his action–for better and for worse. (Note to self: Be careful what you do to crows!)

The raven, on the other hand, has an uneven reputation. Bhutan has taken the raven as its national bird. In Sweden, however, the raven may be seen as the ghost of a murdered person. In Britain, they’re revered–and royally maintained–in the Tower of London.

Myths of the indigenous Pacific Northwest Coastal peoples portray the raven as a trickster, but also as the creator of the sun and of rivers and of tides. In a contemporary story, an employee of Grand Canyon National Park tells how a raven tricked his dog out of her bone.

And biologist and bestselling author Bernd Heinrich writes that, “Ravens associate with any animals that kill large game–polar bears, grizzlies, wolves, coyotes, killer whales, and humans,” and may even help lead wolves to their prey. Hear and read more on that.

crow or raven 2Q. So maybe this question has a more clear-cut answer: how to tell the two apart? Which is a crow and which a raven?

A. This BirdNote archive story explains how you can tell a crow from a raven. Some pointers:

  • Ravens generally travel in pairs, while crows are often seen in larger groups except right before the breeding season.
  • If you can, study the tail as the bird flies overhead. A crow’s tail is shaped like a fan, while the raven’s tail appears wedge-shaped.
  • Another clue is to listen closely to the birds’ calls. Crows give a cawing sound, but ravens produce a lower croaking sound.
  • A raven may weigh four times as much as a crow. Its beak is heavier, too, and it often appears to have a shaggy set of feathers on its throat.

Q. I know that these clever birds have been a popular topic on BirdNote. Any more favorite stories about them to recommend?

A. I think you and your readers will enjoy these past shows in particular:

crow or raven 3Q. You warned me there would be a test. I’m game.

A. OK: In each of the three photo pairings in the story, which is a crow and which is a raven? (Answers at the bottom of the page.)

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FIND ANSWERS to other bird questions in the BirdNote show archives, or on their FieldNotes blog.

Meantime, listen to BirdNote’s latest podcast anytime on the player below, or by visiting their website. Subscribe to the podcast or RSS, free. More than 100 public radio stations playing BirdNote are listed here; if you like what you hear, why not ask your local station if they’ll carry it.

The BirdNote backstory: In 2002, the then-executive director of Seattle Audubon heard a short public-radio show called StarDate. “We could do that with birds,” she thought. In 2005 the idea became a two-minute daily public-radio show. Lucky for all of us!

past installments of our series

IN CASE YOU MISSED anything from my ongoing series with the daily public-radio show BirdNote:

(Photos courtesy of Tom Grey, Mike Hamilton, and Greenfinger; used with permission.)

Quiz answers: Top photo of birds’ heads–American crow, left, and common raven, right (both photos by Tom Grey). Middle photos of perched birds–common raven, left, and American crow, right (both photos by Tom Grey). Bottom silhouettes of birds in flight–crow, left, and raven, right (crow by Greenfinger; raven photo by Mike Hamilton).

  1. naomi d. says:

    Several years back, we visited the Medicine Wheel site in Wyoming. Ravens were playing in the wind currents there, flipping and circling each other. As I watched, a pair glided by – one upside down.

  2. Joanna Spaulding says:

    You might be interested to learn that there are no crows in Prescott, AZ. We do have ravens. In addition to the clues provided by our expert, it also can be noted that ravens feathers go farther down the leg, and that the raven seems sort of unkempt, compared to the crow. Love your blog and your experts. j

  3. Lesliann says:

    My simple way to remember is using the birds own first letter
    Raven– rounded tail
    Crow —cut tail
    To me the raven’s curry tail and rounded makes sense
    With cut for crow as if it’s cut straight across.

  4. Terry Jenkins says:

    About the crows recognizing faces and remembering deeds: At the small zoo I managed for many years, the baby crows fledged and landed into the emu pasture one sad year. The emus killed them. I love all the corvids, and I sadly and reverently retrieved the dead fledgelings. But the parents put out the alarm as soon as I picked one up, and soon, crows were coming in from the next county, all yelling at me “Baby Killer, Baby Killer”! Thus, I was labeled by the local crows, and several generations of them kept watch over me all over town. I once, years later, picked up a particularly nice wing feather a crow had dropped. Instantly, overhead, came the alarm!! It wasn’t until about 15 years later, a sweet little crow who had been hand-raised as a pet, and lived in the zoo aviary for years, formed an attachment with some wild crows who would visit her. I released her, and gradually, the local crows seemed to be less critical of my every move. They would watch me, and sometimes comment on me, but I wasn’t treated like a “bad guy” anymore. I really think she told them I was to be trusted!!

  5. myna lee says:

    the crows in Victoria BC drop chestnuts on parking spaces on the street beside an academy and wait…for cars to park and break open the nuts for them

  6. Marty says:

    Living in Fairbanks, Alaska, ravens are a daily site here. I love ravens! I’m much more familiar with them than crows as I’ve lived here for 35 years. Their call or cackle, guttural throat. Talk is fun to listen to. I have a quilting friend that’s created fabulous bird quilts, many in the ravens honor. Her site is http://www.karinfranzen.com. A treat for all us bird lovers.

  7. Hannelore Passsonno says:

    This reminds me of an incident when I was a child living in a small town in Germany in the 50’s. We had a Raven which was tame. It could come and go as it pleased and lived in the workshop of my father. Our doctor lived across the street from us and one day his maid came around to tell the neighbors that they were missing several silver spoons and forks. We finally figured out that our Raven would fly through their open kitchen window (no screens on windows) and steal the silverware, one at a time. After some detective work we found the hideout on the ground in a bush and returned the loot to the doctor.

  8. Judith says:

    Two years ago, in August, I had a crow land in my birdbath. It didn’t look well,and just sat there all fluffed up and hunched over. Another crow flew over head and it eventually flew after it into a nearby pine tree. It returned later in the day to the birdbath but this time stayed there. It was obviously sick so I went out to check on the it;, as I grew closer the crow raised it’s head, the other crow flew overhead again and cawed. The sick bird then put its head down and died. It was so sad, yet moving as the other crow seemed to be keeping guard over it. I put the dead crow in a box and took it to the local university, where they have a veterinary hospital. The dead crow was diagnosed with West Nile Virus. I’m assuming it must have been feverish and found the water in the birdbath cooling.
    Magpies (I think in the same family as crows and ravens) in England are renowned for stealing bright, shiny objects. Such intelligent creatures…

  9. Lisa Logan says:

    4 stories altogether: (hope you’re not against our feeding them…)
    Crows…I can’t tell you how much I love them. How’s that for a start? The manager of the complex where I lived admonished that if I continued to feed them as I was, I would be asked to move. Three days later I was missing them…feeling sad. Went down by the lake across the street. Sat atop the lifeguard stand. Suddenly, 50 or more crows greeted me and began to make very large oval circles out over the lake and then behind the lifeguard perch. It was magnificent…their calls and their energy. It became one large oval of crows! I’ve moved to another state…it’s 8 months later than when this story I’ve just told happened. I’m 350 miles away. Do you know that the crows who live here were very glad to see me when I arrived? It’s true. And nobody cares if I feed them here…and anybody who meets me gets to listen to my crow stories.

    The fellow who writes books about crows and teaches at the Univ of WA said that crows make soft sounds that they reserve for one another only. That’s not true. There are several who speak to me from a telephone wire above with the sound he describes.

    Okay…just one more story: My dog, Tweak, is half Yorkie and half Poodle. Small. He has taken to going out on the porch and barking slowly and quietly. I finally went out after him to see what he was up to. He’s talking to the crows who respond, also with a quiet sound, and dance for him and come very close to his fence. They love to spend time with Tweak.

  10. Nadine Feldman says:

    When I first moved to the Pacific Northwest three years ago, I started watching a family of black birds that lived in a nearby madrona tree…so I checked to see if they were crows or ravens. They were crows, and I have learned to listen to and enjoy their many and varied sounds of communication. They have yelled at me when I’ve gotten too close to a nest, but I’ve also heard a sound that is surprisingly soft and tender.

    Nearby, in the Olympic National Forest, we see ravens. They are magnificent birds.

    I love both…they have spiritual significance, and yet both are “blue collar” birds, one of nature’s clean-up crews.

  11. Carole says:

    Utterly amazing all the sounds the crows have. They’re all around us here so we’ve had the chance to become very familiar with their calls, routines, and other habits. The soft whoosh their wings make as they fly is one of our favorite sounds. We feed them, too, Lisa, and they love our homemade suet (though the blue jays beat the crows to the dinner table about half the time). So interesting to watch their interactions. Just love them!

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