From medieval times to the modern day, few birds inspire as much fascination as Crows and Ravens. These striking, widespread birds are likely the most intelligent avians in the world, and they live everywhere from remote forests and snowy crags to busy city streets. But what is the difference between these large black birds?
On a species-by-species basis, you can usually differentiate a Raven from a Crow based on size and other physical characteristics. However, there are several species, all from the same genus, and there is no simple and reliable marker that can distinguish between all Crows and all Ravens.
In this guide, we’ll compare these similar birds and introduce the species found in North America, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Read along to learn all about Crows and Ravens!
Taxonomically, there is little that differentiates Crows and Ravens. Both are large passerine birds in the Corvidae family that belong to the Corvus genus. However, some species have visual differences that are pretty easy to spot.
Ravens are generally larger and bulkier than Crows, with heavier bills and characteristic throat hackles. You’re more likely to see Crows around human habitation too, and they tend to be more gregarious than Ravens, but like most rules in the natural world, there are exceptions.
The Chihuahuan Raven (C. cryptoleucus) of Mexico and the American Southwest is a Crow-sized species that may be seen in huge flocks. However, the combination of a chunky curved bill and shaggy throat identifies these birds as Ravens. The Crows and Ravens of Australia (covered later in this guide) are also very similar in size and appearance.
Crow (Carrion Crow)
The difference between Crows and Ravens is mostly a construct of our language rather than a consistent biological difference. While no hard and fast rules separate Crows and Ravens worldwide, there are reliable differences between the two across most of North America and Europe.
Continue reading to learn about some biological differences that apply to Crows and Ravens in the US and the UK in particular.
Both Crows and Ravens are large birds, although their weight varies greatly depending on their species. Ravens tend to be significantly larger than Crows, and at over three pounds (1.36kg), the Common Raven is the largest perching bird in the world! Crows vary between less than half a pound (226g) and about 1.5 pounds (680g).
Crows tend to have thinner bills than Ravens, although some species do have relatively thick bills. One African species, the Thick-billed Raven (C. crassirostris), has a remarkably hefty bill that is taller than its own face!
Tail outline varies between the Crow species, and most have a squared or fan-shaped tail. The Common Raven (C. corax) of North America and Europe is easily identified from Crows by its distinctive wedge-shaped tail.
Crows and Ravens are not known for their colors. Both occur in various combinations of black, white, brown, and gray, although most are uniform black. Crows tend to have fine feathers on their throat, while Ravens have shaggy throat hackles, which are most distinctive when calling.
The aptly named Thick-billed Raven
Ravens live up to about 23 years in the wild, while the American Crow can live to at least 18 and the Carrion Crow nearly 21 years. So, while Ravens may have the longest lifespan, there isn’t much difference in this regard.
Check out this guide for much more on the Crow lifespan!
Both Crows and Ravens are monogamous birds, and both males and females are involved at least partly in building the nest and raising the young.
Twigs and branches are the most important materials used for nest construction, although they will use many other natural and artificial materials. Crows generally nest in trees, but Ravens also use cliffs and man-made structures.
Despite their large size and robust build, Ravens can be remarkably acrobatic. These birds enjoy soaring, and pairs are capable of some amazing twists, turns, and rolls in mid-air. Crows generally fly with a slow and constant wing speed and rarely, if ever, soar.
Common Raven in flight
American Crow in flight
Crows and Ravens are both highly intelligent birds, although Crows tend to be the more social and adaptable species. Social behaviors like communal roosting and cooperative breeding in species like American Crows (C.brachyrhynchos) display an awareness of the benefits of social behaviors for the individual and their relatives.
The New Caledonian Crow (C. moneduloides) may be the world’s smartest bird. These small Crows from the South Pacific are prolific tool-users, capable of using various tools in a complex sequence for a food reward.
However, tool use and planning are not limited to these Island-dwelling corvids. Common Ravens, familiar across much of the Northern Hemisphere, are also remarkably intelligent birds, capable of complex problem-solving, planning, and even deception.
One of the smartest birds in the world, the New Caledonian Crow
Crows and Ravens are technically songbirds, although they’re not exactly sweet singers. Both are excellent mimics that can reproduce other bird calls and sounds from their environment. You may be surprised to learn that some captive individuals even mimic human speech!
Crows, being the smaller of the two, produce higher-pitched songs and calls. These intelligent and social birds make a wide variety of different vocalizations (up to 20 in the American Crow) that typically consist of high-pitched ‘caws’ and rattles.
The Raven’s voice is similar but deeper and hoarser than the Crow, more of a croaking ‘arrr’ than a ‘caw’. Despite this description, their calls have a pleasant quality. Raven vocalizations are extremely varied, perhaps even more so than the American Crow.
Close up portrait of an American Crow
Both Crows and Ravens exhibit social behaviors, although Crows tend to be more gregarious than their larger relatives. Ravens form stable pair bonds and defend their territory against other pairs and individuals, attacking and fighting viciously if necessary. Pairs remain together on their territory all year and even sleep near each other.
Crows have more complex social and family lives than Ravens. Species like the American Crow hold territories but also roost communally, sometimes in huge flocks of over a million individuals. They form close-knit family bonds, and the previous year’s young often assist in caring for their siblings.
Carrion Crows (C. corone) are more like Ravens in that they breed in pairs, although cooperative breeding of larger groups has been recorded.
A pair of breeding Carrion Crows
Crows and Ravens are typically portrayed as dark, mysterious, and magical creatures and feature prominently in horror and fantasy films and television. However, the day-to-day experience with these birds is rather more mundane.
Crows, in particular, are common birds in urban areas, and they are often seen as pests for tearing into garbage or even stealing unattended food. However, Crows also benefit us by controlling the insect population and eating roadkills and other animal carcasses, so they don’t deserve to be labeled as pests. These intelligent birds have learned to live alongside humans while remaining wild and wary.
Some species, like the Asian House Crow (C.splendens), are closely associated with humans. They are always seen around human habitation and have populated cities in many parts of the world after arriving by ship. Occasional specimens even turn up in the US, and many have arrived in Australia.
Ravens are usually less likely to interact with humans and tend to prefer wilderness areas. However, they have become increasingly common in suburban areas in some parts of the world.
The house or Colombo crow (Corvus Splendens)
Crows and Ravens are adaptable omnivores that eat just about anything. Most species from North America, Europe, and Australia are ground feeders, although some of the more tropical species often forage in trees.
Crows and Ravens are typically considered scavengers and egg thieves, but they will hunt insects and small animals like birds as well. Both also feed on plant matter, including grain, fruit, and human food scraps.
American Crows have been observed using tools in the wild, although this behavior is far more common in trained captive Crows and Ravens. Some species, like the New Caledonian Crow and the Hawaiian Crow (currently extinct in the wild), regularly use stick tools without any training to catch prey and retrieve food from crevices.
Raven coming in to land
Both Ravens and Crows are widespread in the United States, with at least one species in each state. They are familiar sights and sounds in modern-day America, everywhere from cities to farmland and remote mountainous areas. However, they also have a rich history in Native American tradition and were particularly important to the peoples of the Pacific Northwest.
Continue reading for a quick introduction to the various native species.
America’s most widespread and familiar Corvus species, these social birds occur throughout the year everywhere except parts of the extreme Southwest.
The Fish Crow is a smaller and more localized species that occurs primarily in the coastal Southeast. However, they also venture inland as far as Illinois and up the coast to Maine in New England.
The Common Raven is the largest American species, widespread in the West but mostly absent from the East.
These small Ravens have a restricted distribution in the Southwest, occurring in Texas, New Mexico, and marginally in surrounding states.
The American Crow and the Common Raven are the most widespread and easily confused species in the United States. Continue reading to learn more about their differences and similarities.
American Crows are more widespread than their larger relatives, occurring across most of the Lower 48 states. Ravens are widespread between the West Coast and the Rockies but also occur in parts of the Northeast, the Upper Midwest, and along the Appalachians.
Both Species are habitat generalists, although Crows prefer more open habitats where they can forage on the ground. Crows are more likely to occur in towns and cities, although Ravens are returning to areas where they were once extirpated.
Ravens are much larger than Crows, reaching about three times their weight. Nevertheless, it can be tricky to tell them apart when seen in flight at a long distance. Fortunately, the shape of their tail is a reliable clue to look out for. American Crows have fan-shaped tails, while Common Ravens have wedge-shaped tails that end in a blunt point.
American Crows and Common Ravens are easily distinguished by calls. Crows produce higher-pitched cawing calls, while Ravens produce their typical deep croaking calls. Crows are also more likely to occur in groups or flocks, while Ravens live singly or in pairs.
Common Raven (Corvus corax)
American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos)
Both the American Crow and the Common Raven occur widely in Canada, although their distribution and migratory habits differ.
American Crows are migratory breeding visitors everywhere except the extreme south and the west coast of British Columbia. Most arrive in the spring and depart in the fall.
Ravens are present throughout the year and occur much further north, even surviving the winter in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. These birds are particularly significant in Canadian traditional mythology and tradition.
The United Kingdom has a high diversity of Corvids, including both Crows and Ravens. Both have a long history in British culture and mythology, and Ravens, in particular are still kept at the Tower of London for fear of an old superstition. According to legend, both Britain and the Crown will fall should the Ravens of the Tower be lost.
Continue reading to learn about the Crows and Ravens of the United Kingdom.
Carrion Crows are the UK’s most common Crow species. They are widespread in England, Wales, and Scotland, although absent from northwest Scotland and limited to the east coast of both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. They are commonly seen singly or in pairs in a variety of habitats, including woodlands, farmlands, towns, and cities.
The similar Hooded Crow is mainly limited to Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the Republic of Ireland. These more social birds are distinguished from the Carrion Crow and Raven by their pale gray body with black tail, head, and wings.
The Raven of the UK is the same species found across Europe, Asia, and North America. This all-black corvid is much larger than the Carrion Crow. Ravens also have heavier bills and characteristic wedge-shaped tails, unlike the squared tail of the more common Carrion Crow.
One of the hundred and twenty species of corvidae, this is an extremely intelligent bird often observed using tools. Predominantly resident year-round, small populations in the far north migrate south to over winter in areas already occupied by other resident carrion crows.
Once considered the same species as the carrion crow, hooded crows were recognised as a distinct and separate species in 2002. They are widely distributed across northern, eastern and southeastern Europe and the Middle East, and are common in Ireland, north-western Scotland and the Isle of Man.
There are five corvid species in Australia, including two Crow and three Raven species. They are important birds that feature prominently in several Australian Aboriginal mythologies and legends.
Each of the Australian Crow and Raven species has pure black plumage, and all have pale whitish eyes. Their similar size and appearance make knowledge of their distribution and calls particularly important for identifying them.
Continue reading for some handy identification tips.
The Torresian Crow is most common in the north and northeast, from the north of Western Australia to Eastern Queensland.
This species is most at home in the vast dry interior, where it often occurs in flocks. Like the Torresian Crow, these birds differ from Australia’s Raven species in having white (not brown) bases to the feathers on the neck and head.
This common species occurs in two areas in the South of Australia. They are most widespread in the southeast in Victoria, South Australia, and New South Wales, although another population also lives in the southwest around Perth.
Despite its name, these birds are only slightly smaller than the previous species. Little Ravens also occur in the Southeast, making them easy to confuse with the Australian Raven. However, Little Ravens produce a far more even-toned, three-noted call while characteristically lifting their wings.
The Forest Raven is the most localized Australian corvid, occurring only near the coast of the extreme southeast and Tasmania. This species is difficult to distinguish from the more widespread Australian and Little Ravens except by its much deeper call.
The Australian raven, Corvus coronoides, belongs to the genus Corvus which includes around 45 widely distributed species from the family Corvidae (aka. the Corvids). Like most of its relatives, the Australian Raven has largely black plumage, though some of its upper parts have a glossy purple, blue and green sheen. Strong in shape and form with a powerful heavy-set beak, the Australian raven is a highly adaptable species that lives in both natural and urban environments.
Crows and Ravens have a rich history in mythology all over the world, perhaps rooted in their obvious intelligence, complex social behaviors, and connection with death as scavengers.
Crows and Ravens are generally considered in a positive light in Native American culture, and the two are not always seen as different entities, although some cultures consider them separately. The Raven is usually seen as a magical trickster being and is often associated with creation and the origin of humankind. It is not only associated with human creation but also the origin of vital resources like fire and water.
In the British Isles, Crows and Ravens are traditionally associated with war and death. In Irish Mythology, the war goddess Morrigan could take the form of a Crow named Badb to terrify her opponents in battle or foretell the outcome of a conflict.
In some Aboriginal Australian mythology, the Crow is seen as a trickster who stole fire and paid the price by burning its feathers black. To some, Crows and Ravens had a more somber role as the transporters of human souls to the afterlife.
Check out this fascinating guide to learn much more about Crow symbolism!
Close up of an Australian Raven
Crows and Ravens are generally adaptable birds, and most of the species discussed in this guide have adjusted well to modern development where they are not persecuted. However, several species in the Corvus genus are threatened, with two vulnerable species, one endangered species, two critically endangered species, and one that is already extinct in the wild.
The Hawaiian Crow (C. hawaiiensis), also known as the ʻAlalā, is the most threatened of the world’s Crow species. These birds no longer occur in the wild due to various factors like habitat loss, introduced animals, plants and diseases, and direct persecution. Fortunately, the species still exists in captivity, and it is hoped that they may be reintroduced in the wild.
A Carrion Crow perched on a branch
Ravens and Crows are fascinating birds, not only for birdwatchers but for people of diverse interests. Both play an important role in ecosystems as scavengers and predators, and they’ve also been significant in historical tradition and folklore across many civilizations and cultures.
While the differences between Crows and Ravens on a global level are pretty inconsistent, American and British birdwatchers have some very reliable clues to look out for when making an identification.
Size, call, and tail shape are the most obvious indicators in the Northern Hemisphere, but Australian readers should pay special attention to the calls of their native species.
American Crow during the winter
A pair of Common Ravens
Crows and Ravens are easy to mistake, especially when you don’t know which clues to look and listen for. Pure black species like the Common Raven, American Crow, and Carrion Crow are especially tricky for beginner birdwatchers.
Ravens are generally larger than Crows, although this isn’t true everywhere in the world because the largest Crow species are bigger than the smallest Ravens. The Chihuahuan Raven of the American Southwest is about the same size as the American Crow.
Crows and Ravens often live in the same general area, although they don’t associate on friendly terms. In fact, Crows frequently harass their larger relatives.
Altogether, there are over 40 species of Crows and Ravens in the Corvus genus, with different species occurring on every continent except Antarctica. It’s best to look up the species that occur in your area to narrow it down before attempting your identification.
Depending on where you live, it’s usually pretty easy to get familiar with your local corvids with some practice. Try to observe the bird's behavior, calls, surroundings, and appearance instead of zoning in on a single characteristic.
Crows and Ravens do not normally mate. Although extremely rare, hybrids between the Raven and Carrion Crow have been reported, and American Crows have formed pair bonds with Common Ravens, apparently without mating.
Ravens have some fear of smaller Crows because even a small injury could prove fatal. Crows may successfully chase off much larger Ravens in flight, but a feeding or safely perched Raven may simply ignore the smaller birds.
Two Ravens fighting
Crows are definitely more aggressive than Ravens when these birds interact with each other. Crows are much more likely to attack their larger relatives than the other way around.
Crows chase Ravens because they represent a threat to their eggs and chicks and a competitor for food resources.
Crow and Raven’s calls serve primarily to communicate with members of their own species. However, these intelligent birds can identify other sounds from their environment and may be able to recognize each other’s calls.
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