The Buzz

What's the difference?: Crow vs. raven

(Photos via Shutterstock)

Maybe it's because they are jet black, but crows and ravens are often considered ominous, with their presence viewed as a bad omen by many. Their portrayal in well-known works like Edgar Allen Poe's "The Raven" and Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" probably doesn't help, either. 

American crows and common ravens are similar looking enough that they are often confused for one another, and we tend to view them both with the same outward suspicion. In many people's minds, no good comes from crossing paths with either a crow or a raven.

But was it a crow or a raven? It can be hard to tell, but in Illinois, chances are it's a crow that crossed your path, because while crows are common across the state, ravens are only very rarely recorded here, according to the Illinois Natural History Survey. In fact, bird observations reported via eBird show only one raven sighting in the state, in Lake County.

Crows are widespread across nearly all the United States and parts of Canada, while ravens have a much more limited range, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Ravens live across the western third of the United States and in parts of the southeast, mid-Atlantic and New England, but they are much more common in the west than the east.

In places where these birds overlap, the biggest and most obvious difference between them is their size. Ravens are quite a bit larger than crows, about the same size as a red-tailed hawk, according to the National Audubon Society. And while crows tend to gather in large flocks, ravens do not, although it is common to see a pair of ravens together.

Because crows are so common in Illinois, many people are familiar with their caw. Ravens, though, don't caw. Instead, they make a croaking sound that's similar to a frog, according to the Cornell Lab.

In flight, look to the birds' tails for clues to help with identification. The tail feathers of a crow are all the same length, so their tails have a fan-like appearance, the Audubon Society reports. Ravens have longer feathers in the middle of their tails, so it has a wedged appearance when it's open in flight. How they fly can also be telling. Ravens tend to soar in flight, riding along on updrafts of air, while crows will be seen flapping more, according to the Audubon Society.

If you can get a good look at the bird, check out the beak. Ravens have more curved beaks than crows. Both birds have eyelash-like bristles where the bill meets the face, but these bristles are much longer and easily apparent on ravens than crows, the Audubon Society reports. One last physical difference between the two is the throat feathers. A crow's throat feathers are smooth and sleek, while a raven's are more ragged and shaggy in appearance.

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