They are big black birds that are noisy and often annoying. We might refer to them as crows or ravens. But what is the difference? In this post, we look at exactly what is a raven and what is a crow. How many species are there in the U.S. and why exactly are they so loud?
The Corvidae Family
The American Birding Association describes the Corvidae as Jays and Crows. There is our first point of interest – jays and crows are related. And its not just jays. Nutcrackers, magpies, ravens and scrub-jays all belong to this family. What have the got in common? They are all gregarious, social and loud birds with big personalities.
The ABA includes the following crows and ravens in the family:
- American Crow
- Tamaulipas Crow
- Fish Crow
- Hawaiian Crow
- Chihuahuan Raven
- Common Raven
The Tamaulipas and Hawaiian Crows are restricted to small areas, so for comparison purposes we will look at the American and Fish crow and both the raven species.
American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos)
The American Crow is, well, crow-like. It is a relatively large bird that is often seen around humans. It is sociable and congregates in groups. Note the bill size is quite small.
- Length: 15.8-20.9 in (40-53 cm)
- Weight: 11.2-21.9 oz (316-620 g)
- Wingspan: 33.5-39.4 in (85-100 cm)
This is the common species of crow seen across continental America, Canada, Alaska and drifting south into northern Mexico. The dark purple on this eBird Range Map indicates population concentration.
The American Crow thrives in a range of environments from forests to open woodlands, fields and urban areas.
This crow is omnivorous and opportunistic. It will scavenge scraps, look for fruit and kill small birds, nestlings and eggs. The American Crow is a common sight on the roads removing roadkill.
This crow is migratory, moving around the U.S. and into Canada to breed. The net result, however is that they are always present across the country.
Fish Crow (Corvus ossifragus)
The Fish Crow looks almost identical to the American Crow and in the field it is pretty much impossible to tell them apart. Checking the range will indicate if a bird is possibly a Fish Crow but the only real way for us average birds to distinguish between them is by their call.
- Length: 14.2-15.8 in (36-40 cm)
- Weight: 6.9-11.6 oz (195-330 g)
- Wingspan: 33.1 in (84 cm)
The Fish Crow is restricted to south eastern parts of the country, so crows seen outside this area will undoubtedly be the American Crow.
The Fish Crow is so named for its penchant for water and this is traditionally where it was seen. However, nowadays it is much more prevalent in urban areas. Note the concentration in Florida.
While this crow prefers a seafood diet, it is actually omnivorous and like the American Crow, will take whatever food stuffs it can find.
This crow is not migratory and remains in the south east of continental America.
Common Raven (Corvus corax)
The Common Raven is again, a sleek large black bird that makes a lot of noise. Note the bill though, it is significantly larger than the crow’s. The overall size of the raven is also much larger than then crow species.
- Length: 22.1-27.2 in (56-69 cm)
- Weight: 24.3-57.3 oz (689-1625 g)
- Wingspan: 45.7-46.5 in (116-118 cm)
The Common Raven is found extensively through the Americas and indeed across into Europe and Asia. Note the absence in the mid-west and south east.
The Common Raven is perhaps the most adaptable of our corvids. It thrives in climates as extreme as tundra and deserts.
This raven is also an omnivore and generalist but prefers to feast on carrion.
The Common Raven is a widespread resident of the Northern Hemisphere and does not migrate.
Chihuahuan Raven (Corvus cryptoleucus)
The Chihuahuan Raven is very similar to the Common Raven and again, very difficult to separate visually in the field.
This is a raven of the desert, inhabiting arid areas of the south west and into Mexico.
This raven is omnivorous but prefers grasshoppers and beetles. It will also consume carrion, nestlings, eggs and scraps.
The Chihuahuan Raven is not migratory and remains in the south west.
Differences between Crows and Ravens
While the visual distinctions between ravens and crows might be tricky, there are some pointers to help us. The following table sums things up.
|American Crow||Fish Crow||Common Raven||Chihuahuan Raven|
|Range||Widespread||Central and south east||Widespread except |
central and south east
|Habitat||Forests, fields, urban||Coasts, urban||All||Deserts|
|Call||Caw-caw||Nasal caw-caw||Deeper caw-caw||Deeper caw-caw|
I think we have established that you should be able to tell crows from ravens but distinguishing between crow species and raven species is very difficult in the field. To improve your identification arsenal, you need to be aware of the range and calls.
One huge thing these birds have in common is their undisputed intelligence and gregarious nature. They are fascinating birds – if only it was easier to tell them apart!
I hope you enjoyed reading about crows and ravens today.
Short answer – It isn’t! We use the terms crow and raven interchangeably, usually because we can’t tell the difference.
Not particularly. These birds eat similar foods and when they are scavenging in particular, they will squabble over it. As ravens are bigger than crows, they will often win.
While ravens are bigger and stronger, crows are often in numbers and so can stand up for themselves as well.