ID Tips

How to Tell a Raven From a Crow

These black birds may belong to the same family and look similar in some ways, but several distinctive traits help set them apart.

This audio story is brought to you by BirdNote, a partner of The National Audubon Society. BirdNote episodes air daily on public radio stations nationwide.

You’re outside, enjoying a sunny day when a shadow at your feet causes you to look up. A large, black bird flies over and lands in a nearby tree. You wonder: is that a crow or a raven?

These two species, Common Ravens and American Crows, overlap widely throughout North America, and they look quite similar. But with a bit of practice, you can tell them apart.

You probably know that ravens are larger, the size of a Red-tailed Hawk. Ravens often travel in pairs, while crows are seen in larger groups. Also, watch the bird’s tail as it flies overhead. The crow’s tail feathers are basically the same length, so when the bird spreads its tail, it opens like a fan. Ravens, however, have longer middle feathers in their tails, so their tail appears wedge-shaped when open.

Listen closely to the birds’ calls. Crows give a cawing sound. But ravens produce a lower croaking sound. 

We’re back looking up at that tree. Now can you tell? Is this an American Crow or a Common Raven?

That’s a raven. The bird calls you hear on BirdNote come from the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. To hear them again, begin with a visit to our website, BirdNote.org.

Read on for more raven versus crow clues:

On the ground
A raven's strut is often punctuated by a few two-footed hops (see video below).

By voice

While crows caw and purr, ravens croak and scream bloody murder. Listen and compare the American Crow to the Common Raven:

American Crow:

Common Raven:

In flight

Ravens ride the thermals and soar, whereas crows do more flapping. Also, as mentioned in the podcast, the raven's tail resembles a wedge, compared to the rounded fan-like shape of the crow's.
Up close
Ravens have bigger, curvier beaks relative to crows. While both species have bristles at the base of the beak, the raven's are noticeably longer. Its throat feathers are also quite shaggy.
Clockwise from top left: Common Raven; American Crow; American Crow; Common Raven. Photos: Ed Oakes/Audubon Photography Awards; Brian Kushner; Arend Trent/iStock; Andrew Lunt/Audubon Photography Awards

Location-wise

 

Common Ravens are much less common than American Crows in the Eastern United States. Out West, it's a toss up. (Chihuahuan Ravens and Fish Crows are common in western states, but they're a whole different ID headache.) Look for ravens foraging in pairs; crows are highly sociable and will hang out in murders and communal roosts. 

From left: North American ranges of the Common Raven and American Crow. Purple means common in all seasons; light purple means uncommon in all seasons; red means common when breeding; blue means common in winter; light blue means uncommon in winter. Maps: Kenn Kaufman

***

Adapted by Dennis Paulson from a script written by Frances Wood.
Calls provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Ambient track American Raven recorded by R.S. Little, American Crow recorded by G.A. Keller.
Forest ambient and featured raven recorded by C. Peterson
Producer: John Kessler
Executive Producer: Chris Peterson
© 2012 Tune In to Nature.org     September 2012     Narrator: Michael Stein

“The views expressed in user comments do not reflect the views of Audubon. Audubon does not participate in political campaigns, nor do we support or oppose candidates.”