Raven or Crow: Learn to Identify Both

common raven in grasses

David Ledig, BLM / Flickr / CC0 1.0

The American crow and the common raven are two very similar birds. But these large black birds can be easily distinguished from one another if you know what characteristics to compare. Here are some aspects of their appearances and behaviors to look for.

Identification Characteristics

At first glance, the American crow and the common raven might seem identical. But looking closely at different body marks and behaviors can help birders differentiate between these species. 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 long, just larger than a rock pigeon. Common ravens are much larger, at roughly 25 inches long, nearly the size of a red-tailed hawk.
  • 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 top of their bill noticeably curves down close to the tip. On both birds, short feathers cover the base of the bill. But ravens have more extensive feathering that extends nearly halfway or even farther down the length of the bill.
  • 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 vocalizing and the feathers stick out more prominently.
  • Wing shape: Crows have straight wings with very little bend to them. Ravens' wings are longer with a more visible crook at the wrist. And their primary feathers (main flight feathers of the wings) are fairly splayed, showing more space between them.
  • Tail shape: When these birds are soaring, the tail shape can be a strong 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, diamond, or V 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, croaking "grooonk" tone. While both birds have varied vocabularies, listening for these typical calls can help you identify the birds by ear.
  • Flight: In flight, American crows are more energetic with frequent flaps. On the other hand, common ravens are more likely to soar and glide with only shallow, infrequent flaps. Ravens even occasionally somersault in flight, which crows don't do. Moreover, a raven's wings make a distinct swishing sound while crows' wings are typically silent.
  • Flocks: American crows are gregarious birds that travel in family flocks and use communal roosts, creating large groups of raucous birds. Common ravens are much more solitary. They are found frequently in pairs but very rarely in larger groups.
  • Range: American crows have a wide range across southern Canada and the continental United States, and northern populations migrate in the winter. They also visit more varied habitats and can be found in urban and suburban areas. Common ravens are more common in rural areas of western North America and throughout Canada, including farther north than the crow's range. However, ravens are absent from the Southeast and much of the central Great Plains, and they don't typically migrate. Furthermore, while ravens are found in Mexico, Europe, and Asia, the American crow is restricted to North America.

Field Identification Tips

Telling the birds apart when they are seen together is a simple matter, as the size difference between the species will be obvious. But casual observation might not be enough to determine whether you're looking at a lone crow or raven, particularly if you are in an area where their ranges overlap.

Watch the bird's behavior, and choose the appropriate clues to focus on. For example, if the bird is flying, study the tail shape, wings, and flight pattern. If the bird is perched, listen for its calls, and note more body shape characteristics. The more you observe these two types of birds, the more you will notice the subtle differences between them, and the easier it will become to tell them apart.

American Crow and Common Raven Quick Reference

Characteristic American Crow Common Raven
Size 19 inches long (large pigeon size) 25 inches long (hawk size)
Bill Slender, pointed Thick, heavy, curved upper bill
Throat Smooth, short feathers Long feathers that look shaggy when vocalizing
Wing Shape Straight Crooked wrist, splayed primary feathers
Tail Shape Straight or slightly curved across Strong pointed wedge
Flight Quick flapping, silent Soaring, gliding, sometimes a swishing sound
Voice "Caw-caw" Long "grooonk"
Flocks Family groups or large flocks Solitary or pairs
Range All continental United States, southern Canada in summer All Canada and western United States year-round; also Mexico, Europe, and Asia