Throughout history, the raven and crow have been misunderstood, maligned, and often confused with one another. The latter point is not surprising since ravens and crows related at a family level. They’re also part of the same genus (Corvus). The raven being Corvus corax while the crow is Corvus brachyrhynchos. They look similar too, both have black feathers, look similar while flying, and are rarely in the same area to provide a comparative contrast. Its only when we examine them with a scientific-based comparison are the differences seen.
But before we get to the physical review, its worth taking a quick look at how both birds have appeared in history, myth, and legend, often interchangeably. Dark, shiny, noisy and unsettling are some of the ways these birds are see. Both have been overly-associated with the darker, or somewhat negative side of pop culture. The raven is often related to topics of death and dying due to it’s black plumage and diet of dead and putrefying flesh. Sometimes the crow is also painted in this light, although incorrectly. Additionally, both are used in books, movies, and other visual performances to project a feeling of fear or general uneasiness.
In 1845 Edgar Allen Poe penned his famous work, The Raven. Line after line of the poem pulled the reader into a horrible feeling of being trapped by the tapping of the raven; cementing the bird as an object of terror. Prior to that, Shakespeare used the black birds as harbingers of doom and despair in both Macbeth and Othello. The 1963 masterpiece by Alfred Hitchcock, called The Birds, shook viewers to their core. Murders of angry crows were attacking and killing people along with other species. In the 1994 movie, The Crow, a crow taps on the headstone of a dead rock star, which miraculously awakens him from the dead to avenge his death and the death of his fiancé. This implied power connects the crow to the supernatural. A group of ravens is called a conspiracy of ravens. Groups of crows are called a murder of crows and sometimes a cauldron of crows.
In mythology both birds were viewed as bad omens by some cultures and in others, revered. One belief was that the black birds were spies or carried messages to earth from the Gods themselves. The Celts believed that their Goddess Queen The Morrigan was present when crows and ravens collected on the battlefield to feast on the flesh of fallen warriors. Many Native Americans saw ravens and crows as tricksters or dangerous shape shifters. Norse God Odin had two ravens who were spies; Huginn and Muinnin were their names. In the Book of Genesis, after the great flood waters receded, a raven is the first bird Noah sends out to find land, not a white dove. And the list continues, far too long to put it here. Ravens and crows have been part of the history of many cultures across time and across the world.
Physical Appearance & Vocalization Comparison
Our side-by-side comparison begins with body size. The raven is much larger and heavier than a crow. A crow is about the size of a wild dove (approximately 18″-20″ in length), while the raven is closer to that of a hawk (around 25″ in length). An adult raven will weigh anywhere from 30-40 oz. (around 2 lbs. on average) while an adult crow, even a large one is about 20 oz. (usually 1 lb. on average). The raven has a broader wingspan. than the crow. The bill of a raven is larger than the bill of a crow, as are the talons. Ravens also have longer and thicker feathers.
Crows have straight wings with very little bend to them, while the wings of a raven are longer with a more visible curve. The raven has pointed wings and wedge-shaped tail while the crow’s wings are splayed and blunt shaped. The tail of a crow can be described as short and fan-shaped. When in flight, we see several more differences. The crow flaps its wings more frequently while the raven prefers to glide more often. Yet even with the flapping, the crow flies nearly silently while the raven wings make a distinct sound while in flight. Additionally, one fact that most people probably wouldn’t know, is that ravens will occasionally somersault in flight. Crows travel in flocks. Ravens are usually solitary or in mating pairs, but rarely, if ever, in a big gathering. The raven lives for about 30 years in a normal habitat, while the crow only lasts 8 years on average.
Comparing vocalizations of raven and crow, we hear another noticeable difference. Crows make a ‘Kaw’ sound, which is broken up into a code of sorts. First they emit a single high-pitched and quite loud ‘Kaw’ followed by a series of short ‘Kaws’. The raven, on the other hand, has a deep sound with several different “words”. Although not really words, the different sounds are, “wonk wonk”, “croooaaak”, “gronk- gronk”, and “tok”. In order to really understand the differences in the sounds, included below are examples of each bird, performing for the audience, so to speak.
Social Activities, Diet, & Behavior
For most of the year, crows roost in large gatherings. The number of birds ranges from a few hundred to more than a thousand. In urban areas theses roosts tend to be near food sources. Often places that are good for for scavenging, such as trash dumps, boardwalks, or farm fields. Crows are omnivorous, and will eat just about anything. This includes other birds, food scraps, eggs, seeds, nuts, popcorn, worms, small rodents. They will consume carrion, but only on occasion. As a scavenger, crows are relentless. They will strip an area bare if left to their own desires. This behavior is why farmers put scarecrows in their fields to protect their crops. Crows are generally regarded as a nuisance animal that spreads disease.
Ravens on the other hand are more solitary in nature. They are often found alone or in pairs; rarely in a group. Unlike crows, ravens are usually found in coastal areas, forests or wooded areas, preferring to avoid larger population centers. They camp out on the edge of these forests and hunt in adjacent meadows. Ravens also will eat almost anything. The list includes carrion, arachnids, insects, small animals, other birds, eggs, lizards, fish, grains, berries, and almost any type of human food, fresh or rotten.
Both raven and crow are intelligent. In fact all birds from the Corvus genus are collectively considered smarter than almost every other bird found in nature. Both ravens and crows have demonstrated strong problem solving skills. It is believed that both are abstract thinkers, meaning they have an imagination. Both birds have been observed making and using tools for various reasons. They understand how water displacement works, how levers move, and other complex physical actions happen. Crows have demonstrated the ability to distinguish individual humans by recognizing facial features. They also have a distinctive trait of ‘gifting’ humans with objects. No one is sure why they do it.
Both birds, plus the others in the Corvidae family, seem acutely aware of death. They have been observed having what humans might describe as a funeral when one of their own dies. Birds will gather and take turns walking around the deceased bird. Researchers believe this is more of a learning event, as if they are at an autopsy, rather than paying respects. The surviving birds are said to be observing the dead one for signs of trauma, or other possible reasons for death in the hopes of avoiding the same plight themselves. Researchers also believe that the gathering period is used for birds to ‘talk’ to one another about a myriad of topics.
Even though they are related, raven and crow do not get along. Any interactions between the two species are usually violent and aggressive. Crows are usually the aggressor (about 97%) of the time. Ravens are faster and have no trouble escaping the harassment. Crows are found across the entire United States, while ravens are only seen in the west and upper east coastal areas. If you’ve come this far, chances are the next time you see a large black bird, you’ll know for sure which one it is; a raven or a crow.