Raven vs. Crow: What's the Difference?

By: Mark Mancini  | 
Antique animal illustration in old-fashioned nature.
This lithograph from 1897 depicts a Northern raven. It's much bigger than the American crow and has significant differences in its beak and wings. THEPALMER/Getty Images

It takes an eye for small details to be a good birdwatcher. And that's certainly the case when it comes to the raven vs. crow. Altogether, there are more than 30 different species of crows and ravens worldwide, and they're all part of the genus Corvus, which includes other black birds like jackdaws and rooks.

Many of these bear a passing resemblance to each other — so when you see one of these black birds, identifying which one it is can present a real challenge. But the slight differences in their feathers, caws and croaks, and behaviors are just a few of the ways you can tell these two birds apart.

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Now instead of comparing the key traits of every single raven and crow species on Earth, we'll just focus on two species from North America: the common raven (Corvus corax) and the American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos).

Physical Appearance

American crow
This lithograph from 1897 depicts a common America crow. It's smaller than a raven and has gentler, fan-shaped tail feathers. THEPALMER/Getty Images

Let's begin with relative size. A raven is noticeably bigger than a crow; it has a greater wingspan that can be 46 inches (or 1.16 meters) in total length, while the distance between the beak tip and tail tip can reach 27 inches (68.5 centimeters). Contrast this with American crows, which have 36-inch (0.9-meter) wingspans.

Beak shape and size is yet another point of dissimilarity: Unlike the straight-beaked American crow, the common raven has a curved, somewhat knife-like beak.

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Both birds have bristles (hair-like feathers) around the base of their mouths, but these are proportionately longer in ravens.

Feathers, Wings and Tails

American Crow
The American crow has a fan-shaped tail because its feathers are mostly all the same length. Tom Franks/Shutterstock

Feathers, including those on the wings and tails, are one more thing that set the common raven apart from the crow. Ravens have pointed wings and longer middle feathers in their tails, which gives them wedge shaped tails. Ravens also have shaggy feathers under their throats, which crows lack.

Unlike ravens, the crow's tail feathers are mostly all the same length, which give them fan-shaped tails.

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The outstretched wings look different, too. Crows have blunt and splayed wings, while ravens have pointed wings. At the tips of both birds' wings, you'll see the finger-like primary feathers that birds use to propel themselves through the air. Because ravens soar as they fly (crows flap), they have longer primaries.

Crows Caw; Ravens Croak

OK, time to move on to the bird calls. You might be surprised to learn that both ravens and crows are considered songbirds. Neither sounds very pleasant, though.

Listen closely and you'll notice crows make a jarring cawing sound (among other vocalizations) while ravens produce a lower croaking sound.

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When it comes to sociability, the two birds are light years apart. Crows amass themselves in larger groups known as murders — and may roost together at night in huge clusters of several hundred birds. Ravens are less gregarious, preferring to live in mated pairs or in tight-knit family units.

Their habitat preferences vary, as well. Crows generally favor wide open spaces while common ravens tend to hang out in forests.

Raven
Ravens soar more often than crows tend to, so they have longer primary feathers on their wings. Raven tails also are wedge shaped.
Paul Reeves Photography/Shutterstock

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They're Both Intelligent

Despite all the things that separate them, these birds share an impressive trait: They're both very intelligent birds. American crows can learn to can recognize the faces of people who've tried to attack them while common ravens have shown both impulse control and active planning in lab experiments.

Crows have been known to form special relationships with humans that feed them; they will even bring back trinkets in return for food.

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Their Diets

American crows and common ravens have distinct diets, although they do share some similarities. Ravens, for instance, will eat everything from small mammals and other birds to reptiles, nuts and seeds. They will also eat fruits, berries and other plants when they're available. Ravens also will eat carrion, which is the decaying flesh of dead animals, and scavenge waste from landfills.

Crows also will eat small mammals, seeds, fruits and grains. But they prefer other birds, mollusks, earthworms, mice and carrion.

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Originally Published: May 29, 2018

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