What is the Difference Between a Crow and a Raven

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Crows and ravens can appear to be very similar, making it a challenge for some to know the difference between the two birds.  Both birds are completely black and both species are commonly found across North America.  

Here are some ways you can determine the difference between the common raven (Corvus corax) and the American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos). Clues for telling the difference between a crow and a raven can be found by comparing the size of the bird, shape of the tail feathers,  the smoothness of the bird’s neck, bird sounds, and how the birds socialize.

Size: Raven Versus Crows

One of the most straightforward ways to distinguish a crow from a raven is by size. Ravens are larger, about 2 1/2 times the size of crows. The raven has about a 3.5 to 4 feet wingspan and is around 24-27 inches from head to tail.  The crow is smaller, with a 2.5 feet wingspan and a length of about 17 inches.

Silhouettes of a raven (left) and crow (right) in flight.
Silhouettes of a raven (left) and crow (right) in flight. Image: Caitlin Dempsey.

Tail Feathers: Raven Versus Crows

The tail feathers of a raven are wedged shaped.  Crows, in contrast, have a fan-shaped tail.

Raven tail shape (left) and crow tail shape (right). Photo (L): NPS Photo/Marc Neidig.  Photo (R): NPS/Andrea Putnam.  Both in public domain.
Raven tail shape (left) and crow tail shape (right). Photo (L): NPS/Marc Neidig. Photo (R): NPS/Andrea Putnam. Both in public domain.

Beak: Raven versus crow

Raven beaks are robust and curved, more pronounced and suited for their scavenging lifestyle, enabling them to tear into tougher materials like carrion. In contract, a crow’s beak is noticeably slimmer and straighter, reflecting its more generalist feeding habits which include a diet of insects, seeds, and fruit.

Ravens have hackles

The ruff of feathers on the front a raven just below its neck are called hackles. The hackles are formed by stiff feathers known as rictal bristles. The name comes from their location at the rictus, which is the wide open part of a bird’s mouth or gape.

A common crow calling.
The ruffle of feathers on the throat of a common raven is called the hackles. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

Researchers have come up with several hypotheses to explain the reason for rictal bristles on throat of ravens such as helping to push insects towards the raven’s beak. A growing theory among researchers is that rictal bristles help with spatial orientation during flight.

A crow perched on a thin branch surrounded by bright green leaves.
The throat area of a crow is smoother compared to the common raven. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

While crows also have rictal bristles, they are much less prominent and therefore have a smooth neck area compared to ravens.

Sounds of crows versus ravens

A black crow calling from the top of a wooden fence.
A crow sounding the alarm from a lookout point. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

The calls of these birds offer another clue to their identity. Crows have a more varied range of calls, but they’re best known for their distinctive “caw-caw” sound. Ravens, however, produce a lower and more guttural “cronk” sound. The raven’s calls are also more resonant and can carry for longer distances, which reflects their tendency to inhabit wilder, more expansive territories.

Crow call:

Raven call:

Populated Areas

Both crows and ravens are adaptable birds, capable of living in a variety of habitats. However, crows are more often associated with human-altered landscapes such as agricultural fields, suburban neighborhoods, and urban cityscapes. They have shown remarkable adaptability to living alongside humans. It’s very common to find crows living near people.  

Ravens, in contrast, are very rare in populated areas. Ravens tend towards wilder areas and are more common in forests, deserts, and tundra where their larger territories and lesser propensity for large social groups are more suitable.

Social Groups

Social behavior is a significant differentiator between these two birds. Crows are often seen in larger groups known as a “murder,” especially when roosting or foraging. These communal gatherings can sometimes consist of hundreds to thousands of crows.

Ravens, while they can be social, are typically more solitary or found in pairs, especially during breeding season. In fact, living as a group, known as and “unkindness” or “conspiracy,” has actually been found to increase stress levels in ravens.  

References

Terrill, R. S., & Shultz, A. J. (2023). Feather function and the evolution of birds. Biological Reviews98(2), 540-566.

Delaunay, M. G., Larsen, C., Lloyd, H., Sullivan, M., & Grant, R. A. (2020). Anatomy of avian rictal bristles in Caprimulgiformes reveals reduced tactile function in openā€habitat, partially diurnal foraging species. Journal of Anatomy237(2), 355-366.

This article was originally published on August 25, 2018 and has since been updated.

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.