In A Nutshell
At a glance, crows and ravens look like identical, big, black birds. But there are a few telltale physical signs—the raven is much, much larger than the crow, has shaggy feathers at the throat and a wedge-shaped tail opposed to the crow’s rounded tail—that allow for quick identification if you know what you’re looking for. There are also behavioral differences: Crows travel in large groups while ravens are more often seen in pairs.
The Whole Bushel
The territory of the crow and the raven overlap, making it difficult to differentiate between the two species based solely on location. Physical differences are the easiest way to tell the two apart. With an average wingspan of about 1 meter (3 ft) and a body length of about one-third the wingspan, crows are much smaller than ravens. The average raven has a wingspan of about 1.2 meters (4 ft), and a body length around half of that. The body of a raven is much slenderer and sleeker, and ravens have a distinct, wedge-shaped tail. Crows have a thicker body and tails that are rounded or square-looking, without the long, central feather of a raven’s tail.
Both birds are known for being entirely black, but when a crow is going through its molting period, old feathers take on a brownish hue before they are replaced by new black feathers. Ravens have black eyes, while the eyes of a crow are actually a very dark brown.
If the birds are in a massive community, they’re crows. Crows are much more social birds than ravens, and some groups of crows can number in the millions of birds (especially in the winter months). Ravens tend to travel in mated pairs or can congregate briefly into groups if they’ve been attracted to a major food source. In the case of breeding pairs, the pair will actively chase other ravens away from their nests and out of their territory. When food (particularly a large carcass) is at stake, though, ravens have been known to team up with other area ravens to overwhelm other predators and gain access to the kill. Young birds that aren’t yet of breeding age can sometimes be seen traveling in small groups before they find their mate.
Ravens are generally more graceful in the air than crows are. Ravens will soar more than crows will, and they’ll often be seen doing somersaults and dives just for the sake of playing. Many ravens—young and older birds—will play games while they’re flying, such as dropping sticks and then diving to chase them. Pairs have even been seen playing catch with each other in mid-air.
When crows nest, both the male and the female will help build the nest. Occasionally, other young birds that haven’t reached breeding age will help older birds build their nests. It’s also not uncommon for females sitting on eggs to have food brought to them not only by their mate, but by other crows in their family group. Ravens, on the other hand, leave most of the construction work to the female. Raven nests can be much, much larger, up to 1.5 meters (5 ft) in diameter while a crow’s nest will usually only be about 15–45 centimeters (6–18 in) in diameter.
Both birds are incredibly smart and are known for their problem-solving capabilities. A crow’s ability to make tools to carry water and discourage other animals from coming near their nests is well known. Pairs of ravens will often work together to raid the nests of other birds; one will distract the adults while the other steals eggs and food.