How To Tell A Raven From A Crow

Common raven (photo by Marge Van Tassel)

Ravens (Corvus corax) are becoming more common in Pittsburgh but you might not notice them because they resemble crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos).

In the past month I’ve looked closely at pairs and solo crows. Sometimes I find they are ravens. Here are tips for telling them apart, listed from easiest to hardest.

  • Tail shape: In flight ravens have wedge-shaped tails, crows have straight-across or curved-tip tails.
  • Sound: The raven’s call is a rough “Brock! Brock!” Crows say “Caw! Caw!” Ravens also say a lot of bizarre things.
  • Flight style: Ravens soar and sometimes tumble, crows flap. If you see a soaring corvid it’s a raven.
  • Social behavior: In Pittsburgh, ravens travel alone or in pairs, crows travel in big flocks or family groups of 3-4. (In Los Angeles there are flocks of ravens.)
  • Size (not always helpful): Ravens are larger, the size of a red-tailed hawk.
  • Silhouette: Because the raven’s tail is longer and wider, his head looks relatively small and pointy.
  • Beak: Ravens have big powerful beaks, crows do not.

These silhouettes illustrate two field marks. On the left, two crows have straight-across or curved tips on their tails. On the right, the solo raven has a wedge-shaped tail and his head looks relatively small and pointy.

Two American crows on the left, one raven on the right (photos by stonebird on Flickr and Shutterstock)

Sound is the best field mark if the birds are calling. This audio clip from Xeno Canto has a raven in the foreground (Brock! Brock!) and crows cawing in the background.

Ravens also have an amazing vocal repertoire including these unusual sounds: The Bell call, a machine sound, a water drop, “taco taco” and much more.

Still stumped on how to tell the difference? Here are additional tips and a quiz from The Raven Diaries.

(photo credits: raven in flight by Marge Van Tassel. Comparison: two crows by stonebird on Flickr, raven silhouette from Shutterstock in 2010)

p.s. Click here for an audio treat that includes ravens calling in almost-human voices, recorded in the Adirondacks near Vermontville, NY.