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.
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:
- The crafty American crow
- Crows’ night roost
- Crows preening
- The raven’s love song
- Crow parents, fearless defenders
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.)
how to get birdnote
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:
- Week 1: How do birds make themselves at home—even in winter?
- Week 2: hummingbird migration, and on flying in formation.
- Week 3: on daring behavior, such as when a mob of small birds chase after a bigger one, or a woodpecker drums on a house.
- Week 4: whether birds mate for life, and how long they live.
- Week 5: What senses birds of prey use to hunt.
- Week 6: Bird houses, or nest boxes.
- Week 7: Bird songs and calls! What you’re hearing.
- Week 8: The complex nests of songbirds.
(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).