One intriguing aspect of Nature is how two creatures can be closely related, can strongly resemble one another, may even share many behavior traits, yet still—in the evolutionary scheme of things—retain their separate identities. There is no better example for Minnesotans than the similarities and differences between the common crow and the raven. If you happen to live where their ranges overlap—from Central Minnesota northward—you’re in the right place to see both, and perhaps come to appreciate what makes each unique.
As winter wanes and spring approaches, wildlife of many species are becoming more active and visible. This is true of both crow and raven, though they have been with us all winter. Both are members of the “corvidae” family of birds, which also includes our familiar winter neighbor the blue jay, its northern cousin the gray jay—the “camp robber” of canoe country—as well as the magpie.
The name “common crow” is both unflattering and apt, for the bird is found virtually everywhere in Minnesota and over the entire continent, north to south. Not so the raven. It is a year-round resident in central and northern Minnesota, but for many—especially those from the metropolitan areas to the south—the first contact may have been while on a journey “up north,” perhaps on the North Shore above Duluth, or on an adventure to “canoe country” near our border with Canada.
One’s first glimpse of a crow or raven could be on the wing, or perched in a tree. But it’s just as likely to be along a roadside, where the bird was taking a meal—a squirrel, rabbit, muskrat, perhaps even a deer—that had met its untimely end in a collision with a vehicle. Like the bald eagle, the vulture, the coyote and others, both crow and raven are part of Nature’s clean-up crew.
Both are frequent scavengers. They survive not only on insects, berries, grains or the eggs and nestlings of smaller birds, but also on the carnage that our cars, trucks and SUVs wreak on all manner of wildlife whose territories our roads penetrate. Sometimes crow or raven will be found sharing a meal with a more intimidating scavenger, like an eagle, a gray wolf, fox or coyote. Ravens have been observed pestering wolves and eagles, staying just out of reach while harrying them—a pull of the tail, perhaps—in the hope that the competitor will allow the bird an opening to grab a morsel for itself.
Unless both a crow and a raven are seen together, the raven’s roughly twice-heavier weight—it can reach a weight of over two pounds—is not so apparent. But their vocalizing is a dead giveaway. The crow’s speech is perhaps the most human-interpreted sound of any bird, described almost always as a harsh “caw-caw.” The raven’s voice seems not as strident, often described as a measured, less aggressive croaking, sounding to some like “krr-ock” or krr-onk.”
But everyone’s ear for sound is different, and putting birds’ calls into printed words can be misleading. The best way to appreciate the calls is to google “raven’s call” and “crow’s call.” The web sites allaboutbirds.org—the Cornell Laboratory or Birds—and audubon.org are among the online places you will find recordings of both.
Seen up close, a raven’s silhouette or profile differs noticeably from a crow’s. It’s more chunky and full-bodied, less lean and streamlined. The raven also has a shaggy “ruff” or collar of feathers at the neck, which is especially visible when the bird fluffs or flares it outward. The bill of a raven is also much thicker and heavier than a crow’s.
A raven’s wings are longer and less rounded, reminding one of raptors that soar and glide, which a raven often does. Crows, on the other hand, tend to beat their wings continuously and fly directly. Crows tend to be more gregarious, while ravens are more solitary or found in small groups.
Crows have a survival stratagem that makes use of their gregarious nature. It’s called mobbing, during which dozens—or more—will descend in clamorous caw-ing on a perceived threat, like a hawk or owl, in an attempt to drive it off. If you’ve seen the Alfred Hitchcock thriller The Birds, you have some idea of what mobbing may seem like to the crows’ target!
Both crow and raven are considered high in the scale of bird intelligence. Use of tools, like manipulating a twig or stick to extract a hidden insect, has been observed. Researchers have found both birds able to distinguish one human from another, and to engage in play activity that has no survival purpose. All are signs of superior animal intelligence. With such uncommon adaptability often comes long-term survival, and crows and ravens have been recorded living more than a decade in the wild.
History and culture have given these birds a mark as black as their coal-black plumage. From Edgar Allen Poe’s dark and mournful poem The Raven, to some native cultures' belief that they are harbingers of doom, these highly evolved birds have had a lot to live down. On the other hand, author Chet Meyers found an exception among several Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest, who in their traditions revere crows and ravens as creatures that brought light to humans living in a darkened world.
Perhaps we could use some of that medicine right about now.