Ravens and Crows

Crows and ravens are often misunderstood and are anything but evil. They are fascinating and highly intelligent. Devoted to family and mates, they play, and have even been observed showing emotion. They problem solve, build tools, and make toys. They work together with other species to obtain food, and have the ability to mimic environmental sounds, and calls of other animals, including human speech! Their near-human-like abilities likely led to superstition about them. Ravens and crows are unique and among the most intelligent in the animal world. Before we get into some more neat facts about what they are capable of, how do you know a raven from a crow?

Raven versus Crow

Ravens and crows are remarkably similar and come from the same family, genus Corvus. There are many variations of crows and ravens around the world, 3 of which are common in Canada; the common raven, American crow, and Northwestern crow which have strong ties to the Pacific coastline. At a glance, it’s difficult to tell ravens from crows however there are differences.

Size is one of the most obvious. Ravens are nearly double the size of a crow and are as big as a red-tailed hawk, whereas a crow is approximately the size of a pigeon. Weight of a raven I generally double that of a crow around 1 kg to a crow’s 0.5 kg.

Calls of a raven are noticeably deeper and more of a low croaking sound compared to a crows higher pitched cawing. Ravens and crows have the ability to mimic other animals and even learn human speech. It’s unclear how many sounds these birds can make due to the ability to learn new sounds in relation to their environment. It’s been said crows can make around 250 different sounds, typically a variety of clicks, rattles, coos, croaks, and high pitch alarm calls.

In the wild ravens mimic the sounds of other animals, manipulating them to obtain food. Ravens appear to have an especially close relationship with wolves and make wolf calls when there is a prey animal or a carcass present. This signals the wolves that there is food, luring them in to take down the prey animal or open up a dead carcass which results in the ravens having a feast.

The beak size of a crow is smaller, straighter, and pointier than a raven. Ravens have thick chunky rounded beaks. A raven’s larger beak can sometimes even be seen while in flight. Flight patterns are noticeably different. Ravens can soar a lot longer than crows, more like a hawk, and they ride the thermals. Crows on the other hand can only soar a couple of seconds at a time and do a lot more flapping. Ravens are like aerial acrobats doing somersaults and barrel rolls in flight. Crows can do some aerial tricks but not nearly as well as a raven.

Plumages of iridescent greens, blues and purples are seen in both ravens and crows; however, crows appear less sheen than a raven. Ravens have highly glossy feathers that can sometimes look oily or wet.

If you can get close enough you can also tell ravens and crows apart by their tail feathers. Crows have a fan-shaped tail with feathers of the same length, while ravens have a diamond or wedge-shaped tail with the middle feathers slightly longer.

Ravens also have a long neck which can be seen while in flight, and they have shaggy feathers on their throat called ‘hackles’. Feathers on a crow’s neck appear smoother and they do not have the hackles.

Family life is an area with both similarities and differences. Ravens and crows typically mate for life and raise their young for about 5‐6 weeks until they leave the nest. Juveniles of both will join a gang of other youngsters after leaving the nest, and in about 3 years they reach adulthood and seek a mate.

Crow young will stick around and help their parents rear new hatchlings, sometimes for more than half a decade, whereas ravens do not. Crows are much more social and
when the weather gets cold, they gather large communal groups called a roost to sleep, typically in trees or on rooftops, sometimes in the thousands! Some believe this may have to do with safety in numbers, warmth, or combining knowledge to find food. Ravens on the other hand are highly territorial, and groups of them often result in quarrelling. Ravens don’t reproduce until they’ve found a bonded mate and have secured their own territory, so they take this very seriously.

Location of a crow or a raven sighting can give you an idea of which you are looking at. If you see one in the city picking through the trash, you’re likely looking at a crow and often there will be several together. Crows are generally in groups and are happy to live among humans.

Similar to crows, ravens can be found in most places across the Northern hemisphere from deserts to rain forests however ravens tend to avoid large cities. They prefer the woodlands and open spaces, and although you may see young ravens living in groups, adults will most likely be seen alone or as a mated pair.

Social life of crows gives them an advantage against predators and larger birds like ravens. Crows and ravens generally do not get along, and although ravens are much larger, if there is a dispute the crows generally win the fight. Crows gang up and defend one another, giving them power in numbers.

Ravens are negatively impacted by social life while in their juvenile groups. Researchers have identified higher levels of stress hormones in teenage ravens compared to that of mated adult ravens.

Redefining the meaning of ‘birdbrain’.

Crows and ravens have proven it’s not the size of the brain that counts, it’s the structure that matters. Their brains are small but densely packed with neurons and on par with that of great apes in functionality. They’re not just clever but can control and override animal impulses, and act with rational behaviour. They have a great ability to problem solve and even plan for the future. Studies have proven that both ravens and crows even understand water displacement as well as 5–7-year-old children! Crow and raven birdbrains are among
the largest brain-to-body ratio in the animal kingdom.

Crows and ravens love to play and have been seen using snowy roofs as slides or rolling down a snowy hill.
They torment other animals, play keep away, and sometimes mock other creatures just to be funny.

Crows and ravens demonstrate the rare animal behaviour of making toys out of random objects, and playing alone or with a partner. Ravens have been observed playing tug of war with wolf pups with sticks or flying just above them dangling a stick making the pups jump up to grab it.

Crows use human infrastructure to their advantage and have been documented using traffic lights to access food. They seem to understand green means go, and red means stop. They time this to put food, like a nut, on the ground on a red light, wait until the light is green for the cars to crush the nut, then on a red light fly down to eat.

Crows have been caught activating public drinking fountains to get drinking water and to bathe. They’ve even figured out how to adjust the water height to be ideal for drinking and bathing.

Ravens are great communicators using not only sound but physical gestures as well. The use of physical gestures to communicate is typically only seen in primates. You can teach other animals, like police dogs, for example, to point at objects but this does not occur naturally. Similar to how humans use their arms or hands to point to an object or make a gesture to get another’s attention, ravens have been observed doing this using their beak. Much like how young children who are pre‐speech will hold up an object indicating “take this” or point to an object for another to “look here”, ravens do the same. This is generally seen when trying to attract a mate or strengthen an existing bond.

Studies show crows recognize faces for up to 5 years after a stressful event and hold grudges! Researchers put on a caveman mask, and another wore a regular human mask as a control. With the caveman mask on, they caught and banded wild crows at 5 different locations. Over several years going back to the site with the same masks, the birds would caw aggressively and dive at the person with the caveman mask, meanwhile leaving the person with the regular human mask alone. Even birds that weren’t alive at the time of the experiment were aggressive. This demonstrates that they have taught their young to fear the caveman mask.

Crows and ravens also have impulse control. Wild ravens and crows were collected for studies and offered a boring piece of food like bread, and then a yummy piece of food like fried pork fat. They were made to understand that if they liked the 2nd option better, they could swap the snacks, but they would have to wait patiently and not eat the first snack. Results showed that crows and ravens were both willing to wait a few minutes in order to get the 2nd more delicious option.

Finally, ravens and crows have the ability to demonstrate empathy. They console each other if one loses a fight for example. Crows have also been observed having funerals when one dies. A dead crow can attract a mob of 100 + crows and they almost never touch the dead. Scientists think this may be a survival tactic where they are learning about threats. It’s been observed that after a crow dies, others are hesitant to visit that same spot where they saw the dead crow.