American Crow or Common Raven?

How to Identify American Crows and Common Ravens

Common Raven
Is it a crow or a raven?. Craig Nash

The American crow and the common raven are two nearly identical birds, but these large black birds can be easily distinguished if you know what characteristics to compare. Though they are often misidentified, you can learn to confidently tell these two corvids apart through careful observation not only of the birds physically, but also of how they behave.

American Crow and Common Raven Identification Characteristics

At first glance, the American crow and the common raven may seem identical, but looking closely at different field marks and behaviors can help birders puzzle these species apart.

When you're confronted with a large, black corvid, look for these characteristics to properly identify the bird:

  • Size: One of the easiest differences to see between these two birds is the overall size. American crows are smaller at roughly 19 inches, just larger than a rock pigeon. Common ravens are much larger, roughly 25 inches long, or nearly the size of a red-tailed hawk. Learning how to judge a bird's size can help you use this field mark as a reliable clue effectively.

  • Bill: Both of these birds have large bills, but the American crow's bill is slightly thinner and more delicate, with a straighter shape. Common ravens have much heavier bills and the culmen noticeably curves down close to the bill's tip.

  • Throat: The crow has a smooth throat with relatively short feathers, while the raven has a thicker throat with long, shaggy feathers. This is especially noticeable when the birds are calling and the feathers will stick out more prominently.

  • Wing Shape: Crows have straight wings that have very little bending along either the leading or trailing edge. Ravens' wings are longer with a more visible crook at the wrist and the primary feathers are more splayed, showing more space between them.

  • Tail Shape: When these birds are soaring, the tail shape can be a strong diagnostic clue for proper identification. American crows have shorter tails with only a very slight curve showing when the tail is fanned in flight. Common ravens have longer tails, and the feathers in the center of the tail are significantly longer, creating a distinctly pointed wedge shape.

  • Voice: The typical "caw-caw" call of the American crow is a familiar sound with evenly pitched syllables. Common ravens have a much coarser, rattling call that sounds like a long, slow "grooonk" tone. While both birds have varied vocabularies, listening for these typical calls can help you identify the birds.

  • Flight: In flight, American crows are more energetic with frequent flaps. Common ravens, on the other hand, are more likely to soar and glide with only shallow, infrequent flaps, and they may occasionally somersault in flight, which crows do not do.

  • Flocks: American crows are gregarious birds that will travel in family flocks and use communal roosts, creating large groups of raucous birds. Common ravens are much more solitary or are found frequently in pairs, but very rarely in larger groups.

  • Range: American crows have a widespread range across southern Canada and the continental United States, and northern populations will migrate in the winter. They also visit more varied habitats and can be found in urban and suburban areas. Common ravens are much more common in rural or agricultural areas of western North America and throughout Canada, including much further north than the crow's range, but they are absent from the southeast. Ravens are also found in Europe and Asia, but the American crow is restricted to North America.

    Field Identification Tips for Crows and Ravens

    When you see a large, black corvid in the field, it can initially be difficult to determine if it is an American crow or a common raven. Casual observation may not be enough to puzzle out which bird it is, particularly if you are in an area where their ranges overlap, but a closer look can reveal significant differences. First, watch the bird's behavior, and choose the appropriate clues to focus on – if the bird is flying, study the tail shape, wings and flight pattern, but if the bird is perched, listen for calls and note more body shape characteristics. Telling the birds apart if they are seen together is a simple matter, as the size difference between the species will be obvious.

    It is not always possible to determine whether a large, black corvid is an American crow or a common raven, but using different opportunities to try can be a great chance to sharpen your bird identification skills.

    Whether it is learning how to judge a bird's size, birding by ear or identifying birds in flight, each of these techniques can be useful for distinguishing between these nearly identical birds.

    Photo – Common Raven in Flight © Craig Nash

    American Crow and Common Raven Quick Reference

    CharacteristicAmerican CrowCommon Raven
    Size19 inches, large pigeon size25 inches, hawk size
    BillSlender, pointedThick, heavy, curved culmen
    ThroatSmoothShaggy when calling
    Wing ShapeStraightCrooked wrist, splayed primaries
    Tail ShapeStraight or slightly curved acrossStrong pointed wedge
    FlightQuick flappingSoaring, gliding
    Voice"Caw-Caw"Long "grooonk"
    FlocksFamily groups or large flocksSolitary or pairs
    RangeAll continental United States, southern Canada in summerAll Canada and western United States year-round, also Europe and Asia