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Big Black Birds on the Island – Santa Catalina Island is a haven for ravens and also supports a population of crows. Occasionally, one of these species of big black birds is confused for the other. However, ravens and crows are just plain genetically different. Scientifically speaking, they’re classified like this:
Family Name: Corvidae
American crow genus and species: Corvus brachyrhyncho
Common raven genus and species: Corvus corax

Crows and ravens are both darkly adorned with glossy feathers and, at first glance, look very similar. But to the trained eye, telling one species from the other can be done reliably. Here are a few basics that help tell the difference.

Size Matters: 
Crows are smaller than ravens -- usually quite a bit smaller. If a raven and a crow happen to be perched next to each other, then the smaller one is the crow. Ravens can be as large as a red-tailed hawk, which can be a foot and a half from crown to tail and have a wingspan of four feet. That’s handy information, since you’ll often see ravens flying with red-tails. So, when you have another species with which to compare them, size is a useful tool.

The View from Close-up:  When a bird is perched or flying alone, size isn’t nearly as reliable. From a distance, birds can appear closer or farther away than they really are, making it tough to calculate their actual size. If you see the bird up close, you can better judge its size. Ravens are not just bigger than crows, they’re also a little stouter. The bills of ravens are large and prominent, and these birds sometimes show a set of shaggy throat feathers that crows lack.

Silhouettes Against the Sky: The best field mark for telling apart ravens from crows in flight is their silhouettes. Look at the below images and follow this bit of thinking: When crows glide along, their tail feathers look square, as in the left image. When crows or ravens are in a banking maneuver, they fan their tails -- and both look the same, as in the center image. But when your bird in flight shows a diamond- or V-shaped tail, as in the right image, that is a raven. If you watch your bird in flight, you'll sooner or later get the look you need to make the right call. Incidentally, those looping, upside-down aerobatics that you sometimes see performed by big black birds are something that ravens do, but crows do not. Ravens just seem to really love playing in the air.

Crow in Flight

Crow or Raven Banking in Flight
Raven in Flight

Sketches by Kelly Callaghan

No Caws for Alarm: 
Crows make the familiar "Caw!-caw!" sound and also have a repertoire of relatively thin rattles and clicks. The most familiar call of a raven is deep and rich, and has been described as a reverberating croaking sound -- something like, "Gronk!-gronk!" Ravens also croon some deep, smooth tones that can best be described as “liquid.”

City Birds, Country Birds:
On Catalina, location helps a bit in differentiating ravens from crows. As a general rule, if you’re out in Catalina’s wildlands, you’re much more likely to see ravens than crows. In Avalon, you’ll readily see both crows and ravens. In Avalon, your chances of comparing a crow to a raven, side by side, are much better, since the two species often interact in town. Spending a little time  in upper Avalon Canyon, where both species tend to loiter, should give you a chance to compare, contrast and hone your ID skills.

Getting Good: Once you get the hang of combining the field marks from above with the sounds, size, and urban or rustic tendencies of these big black birds in your neighborhood or elsewhere, you’ll become practiced at your corvid ID. The key is to practice. Take a minute whenever you see a big, dark, glossy bird and work at identifying it.  With a little practice, it will come naturally.

How smart are ravens and crows?: Bird-Brained? No Way!

Issue #5 / All About Crows and Ravens


Knowing One From the Other
Bird-Brained? No Way!
Neighborhood Nuisances
Fact or Fiction: Rattleless Rattlesnakes?
Did You Know…Crab Spider Alters Hues

Conservancy Photo

The image above is of a raven -- note the large, curved bill. 


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