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Is it a crow or a raven? Nevermore confused

Riversiders often mix up the city’s black birds, but distinguishing the solitary ravens from the social crows is simpler than you might think.

A city bird greets the morning. Can you tell if it is a crow or a raven? (Don Benny)

Leading bird walks at the UCR Botanic Gardens taught me that Riverside’s most common wildlife misidentification problem is telling crows apart from ravens. I saw my first raven while staying at the Mission Inn during my job interview at UC Riverside.  That is, I heard it first while looking from my room down into the Spanish Patio.  An unmistakable “cr-oak”. Jerking my head up, I saw it soar overhead and noted its trademark diamond-shaped tail. But the Common Raven isn’t always so easy to separate from the American Crow. 

Both are big and black. Both are crow-shaped. Both species are common and obvious in Riverside. On the 17-minute drive a few days ago from the Wood Streets to my workout place at the foot of the Box Springs Mountains, I spotted two Common Ravens, nine American Crows, and one that I couldn’t figure out. 

Crows and ravens join jays and magpies in the family called Corvidae, one of the many families of the huge group known as “songbirds.”  Corvids are smart. Their brain-to-body ratio rivals that of most mammals and is only slightly smaller than humans. They have excellent memories, are expert problem solvers, and can use tools creatively. I have seen crows drop acorns and walnuts onto Magnolia Avenue so that cars can do the hard work of smashing them open. 

The Corivdae currently has about 135 species, a good chunk of which are big black or black-and-gray birds in the genus Corvus (Latin for “crow”)Identification-wise, Riversiders are lucky that we only have two big black Corvus species to worry about. Three more crow species and one more raven species occur elsewhere in the United States. 

Depending on your view of the bird in question, separating the American Crow (Corvus branchyrhychus = “the short-billed crow) and a Common Raven (Corvus corax = “the raven crow,” go figure) is trivially easy, straightforward, or rarely, frustratingly impossible. 

It’s trivially easy if you have one of each species either in front of you or flying above you. Our crow is about 50% longer than a pigeon. Ravens are HUGE; our raven is almost 50% longer than a crow and twice as heavy. It’s longer than a Red-tailed Hawk. That makes the Common Raven is Riverside’s largest songbird. Thus, size alone is a good key character. The only other big black bird you would encounter in Riverside is the Turkey Vulture, which is not at all crow-shaped.

If you don’t have one of each for comparison, and size is hard to judge, there are several no-fail clues that make ID straightforward.  As the crow flies, it shows a square or slightly rounded tail ( <l or <) ); the Common Raven has a long wedge-shaped tail (<>).   Their voices are an excellent distinguishing character.  Ravens are guttural, croak-ing or kronk-ing or making knocking or gurgling sounds.  Crows are more musical, cawing once or repeatedly; they can also make a rattling sound. A birder friend put it simply: “Ravens speak German. Crows speak Italian.” At very close range, the head of the American Crow is well-proportioned and unremarkable. A Common Raven has a very thick bill that looks oversized and has thin, shaggy throat feathers.  

If you are having trouble getting a good look, here are a few extra clues.  While it is not uncommon for crows to appear as single birds or in couples, crows of a feather often flock together, sometimes by the dozens, occasionally by the hundreds or even thousands. Ravens rarely occur in flocks or even in groups of three.  Usually, if you see three or more together, the vast majority of times, they are crows. Likewise, if the bird or birds in question are soaring like hawks, chances are that they will be ravens. Also, crows will dive-bomb ravens just to annoy them. Ravens don’t waste their time harassing crows; however, I have seen a pair annoying a Golden Eagle. Finally, on very rare occasions, you might see a crow with a few too many white wing feathers, never for ravens. 

There will be a few big black birds that will be frustratingly impossible to identify. Most often, for me, the bird will be flying at a distance that makes judging size impossible and at an altitude that gives a side view of the tell-tale tail. In that case, birders simply chalk it up to the “crow/raven” species.

One thing that you cannot use for a clue within Riverside is habitat. Although crows are much more numerous than ravens within our city limits, both species are everywhere around here. I cannot think of a place in Riverside where I don’t see crows. And I have seen Common Ravens nesting on research buildings at UC Riverside, frequenting UCR’s campus farm (including an atypical foraging flock of hundreds), soaring over the Box Springs Mountains, flying down the Santa Ana River bottom, strutting on Wood Streets lawns, and harassing the Peregrine Falcons that nest at the downtown Presley Detention Center (our so-called “jailbirds”).  A couple of weeks ago, I enjoyed watching a pair of Common Ravens soaring over the heart of Hollywood. California contrasts with elsewhere in the range of the Common Raven, where it tends to avoid urban and suburban settings.

Speaking of ranges, those of our two Corvus are radically different. The Common Raven has a global range that coversthe northern end of the Northern Hemisphere, including Europe, North Africa, Asia south to northern India, Canada, Alaska, Mexico, and most of the continental US from the Rockies west to the Pacific. East of the Rockies, it lives in the northern tier of states and south down the Appalachians.  The American Crow is a New World species. It lives in the southern half of Canada in the summer, migrating south from there in winter; it is more or less a permanent resident in the 48 contiguous states, but it is quite rare or absent from the southwestern deserts of the US, barely making it into Mexico. 

Now that you can amaze your friends and dazzle your neighbors with tricks to distinguish ravens and crows, you might want to branch out into attempting to identify more of Riverside’s one hundred or so common bird species. You already know a bunch: Pigeon, Mockingbird, White Pelican (winter at Fairmont Park), California Scrub-Jay (some folks call them “blue jays”), and Barn Owl (the white-ish one). And just about anyone can easily group birds even if you can’t ID them to species: gull, hummingbird, hawk, dove, duck, egret, sparrow, finch, quail, woodpecker, and more. I suggest a few tools, starting with a book or an app. A good book to start with is Birds of Southern California a real Goldilocks of a field guide, neither too big nor too little. Also, I’ve listed a couple of bird ID apps at the end of this article. Good birding!

Resources used for this article

Dunne. 2006. Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion. Houghton Mifflin Company.

Garrett, Dunn, and Small. 2012. Birds of Southern California. R. W. Morse Company – a comprehensive North American guide may be essential for the hard-core birder, but such books have an overwhelming number of birds that you won’t see in Southern California. Also, this guide will fit in your pocket and won’t weigh you down. It has over 99.9% of the individual birds you will encounter in Riverside and more than 98% of the species that you will regularly see in SoCal.

Webb and Ellstrand. 2002. First record of double brooding in the Common Raven. Western Birds. 33:258-261.

Some birding apps

Merlin Bird ID free from Cornell University. Regularly updated with the millions of global data points on bird distribution accumulated by Cornell’s eBird database. You can set your date and location and answer a few questions to get a short list of the most likely species, Or just load a photo. Or just let it listen. AI at its best.

Audubon Bird Guide – free from the National Audubon Society. Allows a step-by-step identification. Its field guide section includes sample calls and songs. The “Explore” option shows you what’s been seen locally recently (e.g., yesterday, someone saw 20 different species midday at Ryan Bonaminio Park).