Crows belong to the Corvidae family, collectively referred to as the corvids.
These highly intelligent birds have fascinated humans for thousands of years and are deeply embedded into culture and folklore.
The corvids include numerous mostly-black birds such as crows, ravens, choughs, jays, magpies, ravens, nutcrackers, jackdaws and treepies. While the entire corvid family are often called "crows", crows primarily belong to the genus Corvus. Nevertheless, “crow” has come to encapsulate the entire corvid group.
This article is all about crows (corvids) in the UK - which includes all UK members of the Corvidae family.
The following crows are more common and are found throughout the UK.
45cm to 47cm
93cm to 104cm
370g to 650g
Carrion Crow call
Maxence Fouillade, XC642131. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/642131.
Carrion crows are common throughout Western Europe and are among the UK’s most intelligent birds. These all-black crows are found across the entirety of the UK but are fairly rare in Ireland.
Like many corvids, Carrion crows have primate-like brains which equip them with the ability to learn faces, solve complex logical problems, and understand the third person. Carrion crows can even forgo a quick and impulsive choice in favour of a better reward that they must wait for.
As the name suggests, Carrion crows are natural scavengers and will eat practically anything. They’re omnivores, consuming a variety of plant foods like seeds, fruits and nuts, and meat in the form of insects, invertebrates and carrion.
Carrion crows are generally quite solitary but do form small flocks. Their hoarse caw call is easy to identify. They’re the second most common corvid in the UK, behind the jackdaw, with over 1,000,000 breeding pairs.
The Carrion crow is a medium-sized black bird that measures 45 to 47cm long with a wingspan of 93 to 104cm. They weigh around 370 to 650g. Carrion crows have a green sheen to their feathers which shines in the light. In addition, they have a typically crow-like bill which is thick and powerful, perfect for pulling meat from the corpses of dead animals.
Simon Elliott, XC604997. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/604997.
The compact Western jackdaw is widespread across Europe and is one of the UK’s smallest corvids alongside the jay. This small corvid is known to be highly social and often from close-knit communities with complex social structures.
Jackdaw society involves numerous displays and fights which play out as “events” with some birds seemingly watching as spectators. Status means a lot in jackdaw society with a strict pecking order that establishes dominance amongst males and females.
These quirky birds are highly adaptable and excellent at solving problems. They also possess excellent flying abilities and are known to chase fast-moving insects at high speeds.
Jackdaws often nest in urban areas and have formed close bonds with humans. In fact, jackdaws are proven to react to nuanced human expressions and communicate through eye contact. There are around 1,400,000 breeding pairs in the UK and are distributed widely through England, Wales and Ireland but are largely absent from isolated parts of Scotland.
Jackdaws are named after their call, which sounds like a harsh tchack, similar to “jack”.
Jackdaws are small corvids, measuring around 30 to 36cm long with a wingspan of around 70cm. They weigh about 200 to 220g. Jackdaws are primarily black with a grey nape. They differ from many darker corvids with their distinctive pale-grey irises and stubbier, more conical beaks.
44cm to 46cm
52cm to 60cm
200g to 250g
Magpie alarm call
Simon Elliott, XC599983. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/599983.
There are many magpies in the Corvid family, but only the Eurasian magpie is native to the UK and belongs to the genus Pica. Several subspecies of the Eurasian magpie are distributed across Europe, Asia and parts of North Africa.
Magpies are curious birds and perhaps less wary of humans than Carrion crows. They’re woven into European folklore and appear in the nursery rhyme “One For Sorrow”.
Magpies are rumoured to enjoy stealing and hoarding shiny items, a well-noted corvid behaviour associated with crows, ravens and jays. There is limited scientific evidence clarifying if and why corvids appear to do this, but whether we can declare that it’s a false - or a myth - is still up for debate!
There’s no doubt that magpies are ingenious birds, with some studies likening magpie intelligence to Great Apes. For example, magpies are shown to use tools to retrieve food and can recognise their reflection in the mirror - a skill reserved only for the most intelligent creatures on the planet.
Magpies are common in the UK, with over 600,000 breeding pairs.
Magpies are amongst the most colourful corvids. They’re similarly sized to the Carrion crow but are considerably lighter, measuring 44 to 46 cm in length, though around half of that consists of their long tail. Their wingspan is 52 to 62 cm, weighing around 200 to 250g.
Magpies have glossy heads, backs and necks, which feature a purple-violet metallic sheen. They have white shoulders, abdomens and outer feathers, and a long tail with a green sheen.
45cm to 47cm
93cm to 104cm
370g to 650g
The Hooded crow is very closely related to the Carrion crow, and they were considered the same species until 2002. These two crows often hybridise with each other, resulting in mixed grey and black plumage. The Hooded crow is common across Scandinavia and western Europe, and its UK population is increasing.
The UK is home to many hybrid Hooded and Carrion crows, while other regions where the two species intercept are rarely home to any hybrids - why they choose to hybridise in some regions but not others is a mystery.
In terms of behaviour, Hooded crows are very similar to Carrion crows. They’re scavengers and will eat practically anything from discarded scraps of human food to meat, insects, seeds, grains and fruits. There are around 260,000 pairs of Hooded crows in the UK.
While practically identical to the Carrion crew in dimensions, the Hooded crow is ash-grey aside from its black head, throat, wings, tail, and thighs. This makes the Hooded crow easy to tell apart from Carrion crows and other corvids. Aside from its colouration, the Hooded crow is almost identically proportioned to the Carrion crow.
34cm to 35cm
52cm to 58cm
140g to 190g
2 Jays Calling
Simon Elliott, XC602414. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/602414.
The Eurasian jay, usually just known as a “jay” in Britain and Ireland, is another particularly colourful corvid. Many subspecies and races of the Eurasian jay are distributed across practically all of Europe.
Though common throughout the UK and Ireland, Eurasian jays are less common in north Scotland. Jays inhabit forests and woodland, especially oak woodland, as they love to eat acorns.
In fact, jays are some of the most important propagators of oak trees. Jays are omnivores, feeding on various plant foods, insects and other invertebrates.
While not uncommon, jays are some of the more secretive corvids and prefer to make their habitats in isolated forested areas. Jays are intelligent, despite being one of the smaller corvids. Juveniles are often seen playing by chasing each other through the trees, and they seem to have complex and egalitarian relationships with their mates.
They also engage in “anting”, which involves sitting on or near an anthill and allowing ants to crawl over their feathers. Researchers believe the ants then secrete folic acid as a defence mechanism which helps the bird clean its feathers. The ants may also attack and kill parasites hiding in the jay’s plumage.
The Eurasian jay is relatively common in the UK, with around 270,000 breeding pairs.
The Eurasian jay is a colourful corvid, though not as colourful as its American cousin, the Blue jay. The Eurasian jay is primarily a light brown colour with a black neck patch, white neck and white and black wings. Their long tail is half white, half black.
Their most distinctive colouration is their panel of bright blue and white wing feathers which are particularly pronounced when flying. This makes the Eurasian jay easy to spot amongst the trees.
The Eurasian jay is quite small, measuring 34 to 35cm long with a wingspan of 52 to 58cm. They weigh approximately 140 to 190g.
44cm to 46cm
81cm to 99cm
280g to 340g
The Rook is the only corvid named as such, and there is just one species distributed across Europe and parts of Asia. Rooks are one of the most sociable corvids and remain sociable throughout much of the breeding season, which is fairly uncommon amongst birds.
Rooks prefer woodland and forest habitats and tend to stay away from urban areas. There are around 1,000,000 breeding pairs in the UK, similar to the Carrion crow. Like other corvids, Rooks are highly intelligent and are shown to create and modify tools to help them forage.
They also seem to understand basic physics, namely gravity; one experiment showed that they understood heavier stones roll faster than lighter stones. Their physics knowledge is comparable to that of a six-month baby or chimpanzee!
Rooks prefer to nest in tall trees and structures, and their communal nests are called rookeries. Like most corvids, rooks form strong pair bonds that are largely egalitarian. They’ve even been observed making amends with their partners after a quarrel.
Rooks are reasonably large corvids, measuring 44 to 46cm long with a wingspan of 81 to 99cm. They weigh around 280 to 340g.
Their dark plumage is crow-like but is particularly dense and thick. They’re easily distinguished from other corvids via their paler bill with white skin at their base.
The following crows are rarer and can only be sighted in specific locations across the UK.
60cm to 68cm
120cm to 150cm
800g to 1.5kg
Common Raven call
Andrew Harrop, XC471530. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/471530.
There are several species of ravens in the Corvus genus - a genus also shared by crows and the rook. The Common raven of the UK is one of the largest passerine birds and has one of the largest brains of all birds. The raven’s mystique is woven into European folklore, and its unique intelligence has been known to humans for thousands of years.
The raven is not especially common in the UK, with around 7,500 pairs distributed primarily in the upland areas of southwest England, the North Pennines, Lake District, Wales and much of Scotland. A tough and hardy bird, the Common raven thrives in various habitats but prefers contoured landscapes.
Ravens are socially intelligent creatures and sometimes live in small cooperative social groups. Amongst numerous intelligent behaviours, ravens are observed holding ‘funerals’ for other dead ravens - a behaviour that isn’t non-typical amongst other corvids. Researchers believe that ravens use such behaviours to learn from the victim’s cause of death.
Raven intelligence continues to amaze science. These curious birds understand when they’re given an unfair trade and hold grudges against humans that offer them a bad deal. Ravens call large predators like wolves to dead carcasses so the predators can open them up, enabling the ravens to feed on the softer flesh.
Ravens are also very playful and are often observed tossing around random items, sliding down snowy hills and even playing with balls.
Ravens are large, dark birds measuring 54 and 67cm long, with a wingspan of 115 to 150cm. They weigh up to 2kg, more typically 0.8 to 1.5kg.
Like other corvids, their feathers have a blue-green iridescent sheen. In addition, ravens have huge bills - some of the largest of any passerine bird.
Compared to crows, ravens are shaggier and scruffier overall, but they’re also considerably larger. Their calls are deep and croaky compared to the sharper calls of other corvids.
39cm to 40cm
73cm to 90cm
260g to 350g
A small flock of Choughs calling
Simon Elliott, XC596499. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/596499.
The Red-billed chough is easily the UK’s least common corvid, occurring almost exclusively in the south and south-west Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man. There are limited pairs in the west of Cornwall. The total breeding population is only around 500 to 1000 pairs. They’re much more common in southern Europe and Asia, especially in India and China.
Choughs are extremely acrobatic and are skilled at catching insects on the wing (in flight). They prefer upland habitats but occur across grasslands in the UK.
The chough is the symbol of Cornwall and appears on its Coat of Arms. According to legend, King Arthur turned into a chough when he died.
Despite numbers being low, the UK chough population is stable and increasing due to conservation efforts. You’re most likely to spot one at South Stack, on Anglesey, Loch Gruinart and Islay in Scotland and along the Causeway Coast in Northern Ireland.
The Red-billed chough is quite small, measuring 39 to 40cm long with a wingspan of 73 to 90cm. They weigh around 260 to 350g. Choughs are easily distinguished from other corvids with their red bill and feet. They have glossy black plumage.
In urban areas, you’re only likely to see Carrion crows, Hooded crows, jackdaws and magpies. Ravens, jays, Rooks and choughs much prefer woodland and forested habitats.
The Carrion crow, Hooded crow and jackdaw can be seen all across the UK, except in the upper parts of Scotland. Carrion crows are largely absent from Ireland.
Jays, one of the more colourful of the UK’s corvids, are pretty exclusive to woodlands but are easy to spot thanks to their electric-blue wing patch. Rooks, while common, are also concentrated in woodland habitats.
Ravens are one of the more secretive of the UK’s corvids, despite being the largest. You can see them across the Lake District, Pennines and Scottish uplands. Choughs are probably best sighted on Angley and the Isle of Man and are the rarest of the UK’s corvids.
Close up of a Hooded Crow on the ground
The Common raven is the largest crow in the UK and one of the largest, heaviest birds in the Order Passeriformes. Ravens sometimes weigh up to 1.5kg or more and have a wingspan of over 125cm.
Common Ravens are the biggest crow in the UK
Jackdaws are the smallest crow in the UK and amongst the smallest corvids. They weigh just 200 to 250g and are compact and agile.
Jackdaws are the smallest crow species in the UK
There are eight species of crow in the UK; the Carrion crow, Hooded crow, jackdaw, Rook, raven, chough, jay and magpie. The UK’s crows span practically every habitat, from urban areas to isolated countryside.
All eight UK species of crows are resident breeding species, and few migrate. In fact, virtually all of the UK’s crows remain here all year round.
Perched Eurasian Jay
All eight species of the UK’s crows are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act. The chough is a Schedule 1 species, with added protection during the breeding season.
Currently, all eight species are listed with a UK conservation status of green and are not threatened. Even the chough, the UK’s rarest corvid, is largely stable and their populations are increasing.
The raven and chough are the rarest crows in the UK.
The UK’s raven population is around 7,500 pairs, and the choughs just 500 pairs or so. The UK’s six other species of crows are relatively common.
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