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Ravens vs. Crows

Dear Bird Folks,

Please confirm if the photos I’m sending you are ravens or if they are crows.

– Jim, Vatican City


We have a technical problem, Jim,

When you send a note to a Q&A column you not only have to include your name, but you also have to tell us where you are from. Don’t ask me why. It’s just the way things have been done since these columns were invented. Since you failed to provide us with the necessary information, I am now compelled to assign a location to you. After careful thought, I decided you are from Vatican City. It’s not that I actually think you live in Rome; it’s just that I don’t get many letters from the Vatican and having one would look good on my résumé. Although years ago I did hear from the Pope, who called to complain about squirrels on his birdfeeder. But I don’t think I can count that. I get calls complaining about squirrels from everybody, so even one from the Pope was nothing special.

I don’t know much about Roman crows Jim, but here on Cape Cod we have three species of crow-like birds. We have the ubiquitous American Crow, plus a growing population of Fish Crows (yes, Fish Crows are real birds). We also occasionally see Common Ravens, which, despite their name, are not very “common” in our area. In 1985, when I bought my first checklist of the “Birds of Cape Cod,” only the American Crow was on the list. Then a few years later, a newer checklist came out and that new list included Fish Crows, a bird that has been on the increase. What do Fish Crows look like? Basically, Fish Crows are a slightly smaller version of the American Crow. But unless the two birds are standing side-by-side, it’s hard to tell which is which (just like it is with Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers). The best way to identify either bird is by its voice. American Crows give the classic “caw, caw,” while Fish Crows have an embarrassing “uh, uh” call, sounding very much like a baby crow learning to talk. But neither of these birds sounds anything like ravens. When ravens want to be heard, they give a loud, raspy “cr-r-uck,” sounding like birds that still sneak out back for a smoke once in a while.

As their name implies, the American Crow lives in America, specifically the United States and Canada, and no place else. By contrast, the Common Raven is far more cosmopolitan. In addition to America, ravens can be found in North Africa, most of Asia and Europe (including, yes, Rome). Back in the 1600s, ravens were common birds in Massachusetts. But the early settlers weren’t thrilled with the ravens’ habit of raiding crops and attacking young lambs. As a result, ravens were persecuted and eventually eliminated from our area. For over a century Massachusetts was basically a raven-free zone. But as the harassment subsided, the birds slowly started coming back and now Common Ravens are once again breeding throughout the Commonwealth. At first most of the birds were confined to the western part of the state; a few years ago, however, a pair of ravens surprised us all by building a nest on, of all places, the power plant at the Cape Cod Canal. Thus, when the next “Birds of Cape Cod” checklist comes out, Common Ravens will now be on it. That’s exciting news…unless you happen to be a young lamb.

Earlier I mentioned that Fish Crows and American Crows are similar, with only a slight variation in their sizes. This is not the case with Common Ravens. Oh, sure, ravens are crow-ish looking, but these massive birds are way, way bigger than any crow. In fact, ravens are larger than most other birds seen around here, including the powerful Red-tailed Hawk. Another important clue for identifying these two similar birds is their beak shape. Crows’ beaks are big but appear normal when compared to the size of the bird. The beak on a raven is almost too big for its face. It is long, thick and very sturdy looking. A raven’s beak would make any woodpecker jealous.

Crows tend to be sleek birds, with all of their feathers held smoothly against their bodies. Ravens, on the other hand, often look as if they just rolled out of bed, showing many ragged feathers, especially in the throat area. In flight, ravens tend to glide and soar, like a hawk, while crows do more flapping. But the key field mark is their tails. A crow’s tail, when spread out, is evenly rounded, like a Chinese paper fan. A raven’s tail is not rounded, but instead has a bulge in the middle of the “fan.” Some people claim this bulge gives the raven’s tail a wedge-shape. However, I think the bulge makes it look like a tail with a hernia, but I might be alone on this one.

Now that we have all the facts in place, Jim, it’s time for me to finally tell you whether it’s a crow or a raven in your photographs. And the answer is: I’m not really sure. No offense, but your photos aren’t the best. The bird in question is kind of far away and a bit blurry (like most of my photos). The important field marks aren’t really visible. At first, I was leaning towards crow, but then I put your pics on a larger computer screen and now I’m thinking raven. To settle things I asked Mark, Mass Audubon’s bird sage, what he thought. After a bit of squinting, Mark agreed with my second verdict, so I’m declaring that your mystery bird is a raven. Final answer.

BTW: If you see the Pope around Vatican City, tell him I just received a fresh load of new squirrel-proof birdfeeders and that I’ll give him a deal on one if he gives me a ride in the Popemobile. I’m sure he’ll go for it.