Those of us who live in the Upper Delaware River valley are familiar with the flocks of large black birds that caw noisily from the forest, alight in ones and twos and (in lean times) peck the earth under the bird feeders. But most of us would have a difficult time discerning whether what we are looking at is a flock of crows or ravens.
One morning several weeks ago I found a dead crow at the bottom of my drive, seen at right here. Who knows what killed it—starvation, maybe, or illness, or maybe it was struck by a car. But it got me thinking about the crows in my forest—or are they ravens?
Both birds are smart, although ravens are smarter. Both suffer from spooky, even hateful reputations brought on by superstition and folklore, Halloween imagery and Edgar Allen Poe. Crows and ravens share the same genus (Corvus), but they are different birds. A main difference is size—ravens are much bigger, as big as red-tailed hawks, but unless seen side by side, this can be a meaningless distinction. Ravens soar in the air much more often than crows, which rarely soar. If you see a soaring bird
it is most likely a raven, especially if it has a wedge shape to its fanned tail. (Ravens have also been observed actually somersaulting during flight.) Raven wings have longer “primaries” (or fingers) than crow wings, which means there is more air showing through them during flight. Ravens have huge bills and shaggier throats than crows, and raven beaks have a more horizontal angle than crow beaks.
The common call of the raven is distinctive as well, much deeper than that of the crow. Ravens will occasionally give a “caw caw,” but the more common call is a deep, reverberating “gronk gronk” sound. Both ravens and crows have a number of other distinctive whistles, clicks, rattles and even clear-sounding bell notes.