American Crow & Raven
The American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) is familiar to everyone. One of the most common and visible birds in our area, this Crow is found in almost every habitat, including towns, forests, fields, and suburbia.
A less familiar bird to many is the Common Raven (Corvus corax), formerly extirpated from the area, and now making a comeback, especially in Putnam county and northern Westchester County. Many birders find it difficult telling Crows and Ravens apart, but the two species can be readily distinguished with experience.
Telling Crows from Ravens by sight has much in common with raptor identification. Shape, proportions, and size are the important characteristics to focus on, since the plumage color of both species is an identical black (barring the occasional bird of both species with manifestations of albinism, often just a few white flight feathers).
Compared to the familiar Crow, the Raven is a considerably larger bird, approaching almost twice as large in some cases. But since there is a good deal of size variation between individuals in both species, and because of the inherent difficulty of judging size at a distance, this characteristic is only useful when the bird in question is right next to another bird of known size. One result of this size (or, in this case, weight) difference is that, when flushed, a Crow standing on the ground tends to fly directly into the air, while a Raven must take a few hops before it can get its greater bulk into the air and flying.
A perched Raven, compared to a Crow, has a longer, heavier bill, slightly shaggier throat feathers, and a longer, more wedge-shaped tail than a Crow (the end of a Crow’s tail is basically straight). But the shape differences between the two are most apparent in flight, where both the greater length of the more pointed tail of the Raven and its longer, more pointed wings can be better seen. Combined with the Raven’s longer neck and slightly longer bill, the overall effect is more “stretched out” looking than a Crow.
The two species also act differently in flight. Crows are rather staid: they don’t experiment with their powers of flight much. Ravens often soar; Crows won’t for more than a second or two. Ravens also are often wackily acrobatic when flying, and when around other Ravens will sometimes perform impressive tumbles and rolls in mid-air which Crows would be embarrassed to even attempt.
The best “field mark” of all, though, is voice. While both are capable of a wide array of vocalizations, the Raven’s typical call is a croaking “RRRUK”, given singly or in a series, quite different from the American Crow’s familiar “CAWW.”*
*I hate to complicate things, but there’s another species to worry about in all this: the Fish Crow (Corvus ossifragus). This species is, for all practical purposes, identical to the American Crow in appearance, but gives a nasal “UH-UH” call. This is quite distinctive, but care should be taken if there are begging juvenile American Crows around, which give a similar nasal call (usually not two-noted). This species is found throughout our area, but is less common than the American Crow.