Updated: Mar 28
These two corvid species fool a lot of wildlife watchers. Read on to learn several simple tips to identify the Common Raven and American Crow!
First, let's clear something up. Even though corvid, the family name of crows, jays, and ravens, look similar to COVID, I swear these birds have absolutely nothing to do with coronavirus, Corona beer, or any other calamity. Except for stealing your lunch. They definitely caused that.
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Visual Keys for Common Raven and American Crow Identification
Common Raven vs American Crow Flight ID Keys
In the photo above, I provide two views of these species flying. One view (left) shows how these species appear when they are right above you. The other view (right) shows the more realistic view you can expect, silhouettes of dark birds high in the sky. However, do not throw your Sibley Guide into the trash can out of frustration... yet.
We can see several obvious visual keys to unlocking these tough identifications:
First, look at the outer primaries, or the "fingers." The Common Raven typically shows FIVE obvious "fingers" while the American Crow only shows FOUR obvious "fingers." While not a guaranteed key, the appearance of the outer wing is very helpful.
Additionally, Common Ravens often have a pointed wing appearance, with the points of the wing directed backward.
Next, look at the obvious large head and bill on the Common Raven. Crows are much more petite-headed.
Finally, look at the tail shape. As you can see above (Img. 2) and below (Fig. 1), the American Crow has a short, square tail, while the Common Raven has a long, triangular tail shape.
Common Raven vs American Crow Perched ID Keys
If the birds are perched together, identification can become much easier! However, this rarely occurs. Fear not! Below are a handful of tips for the identification of these two species when not in flight.
Bill - The bill of the Common Raven is longer, "taller," wider, and has more of a hook at the tip than the American Crow.
Throat - The feathers covering the throat of the Common Raven are often "shaggy" in appearance. This helps to give them a "full" throat and large-headed appearance.
Wings - Common Ravens are longer winged than American Crows. This is an attribute that can be difficult to use when birds are perching, as posture plays a major role in wing length appearance. However, because of the shorter wings of the American Crow, the wingtips often do not extend to the tail tip. However, in the Common Raven, the wingtips can reach and even extend past the tail. The Common Raven also has a noticeably longer primary projection. The primary projection is the distance between the longest secondary and the longest primary, in a folded wing.
Size - The Common Raven is about 30% larger than the American Crow. Size can be tough to use, so only use it as a key with the other items listed above.
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Auditory Keys for Common Raven and American Crow Identification
Sound is one of the easiest identification keys for the American Crow vs the Common Raven.
American Crow Sounds
Say the word "cAAAw" in a loud, obnoxious tone. That's an American Crow.
Common Raven Sounds
Say the word "UUgggh" in a low, guttural tone almost as if you had a mucousy, sore throat.
Contextual Keys for Common Raven and American Crow Identification
Range, unfortunately, is not a useful identification key for much of the range of these two species. And soon, with the range expansion of the Common Raven and American Crow, no area in North America may feel safe from this identification issue!
American Crow Range Map
Common Raven Range Map
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American Crow Range Map - Fink, D., T. Auer, A. Johnston, M. Strimas-Mackey, O. Robinson, S. Ligocki, B. Petersen, C. Wood, I. Davies, B. Sullivan, M. Iliff, S. Kelling. 2020. eBird Status and Trends, Data Version: 2018; Released: 2020. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. https://doi.org/10.2173/ebirdst.2018
Common Raven Range Map - Fink, D., T. Auer, A. Johnston, M. Strimas-Mackey, O. Robinson, S. Ligocki, B. Petersen, C. Wood, I. Davies, B. Sullivan, M. Iliff, S. Kelling. 2020. eBird Status and Trends, Data Version: 2018; Released: 2020. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. https://doi.org/10.2173/ebirdst.2018