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How to tell a raven from a crow (2012) (audubon.org)
209 points by souterrain 5 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 100 comments

Have you ever exchanged a look with a stranger and their expression was such that you immediately got a deep impression of their inner life, of their humanity, and felt a connection? That happened to me with a raven, while we were both enjoying a stunning view of a sunset at Petrified Forest National Park. It was a large, old, rumpled, wise seeming creature.

Surely that environment primed me for the experience. The mostly likely explanation is that I had a kind of moral hallucination. But it's changed the way I've seen ravens since. I attribute self awareness to them. When they caw what I hear is laughing ... at a ground bound inferior like me.

Reading _Mind_of_the_Raven_ only reinforced this feeling.


For me, it was watching them play for hours outside the office. Sometimes a pair would fly together for awhile, then one would dive at the other, who would flip over at the last instant. There was no reason for them to do this; they just had enough free time to screw around.

This video of a crow repeatedly "skiing" down a roof changed my view of how animals play - I thought it was all "practice-fighting" but this crow seems to be playing "just for the fun of it".


This is a hooded crow hammering / trying to kill what probably thinks is a prey. Seems more frustrated than happy. The easiest crow to identify in Europe, being gray and black.

How about these? When they roll on their backs down a snowy slope, are they playing?


Killing mites on their body is a common explanation or maybe it's fun.

How about this video, are they playing? https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=C59YIwMcg3Y

This is neither a crow nor a raven (not even a corvidae). A clever and very good singing bird in the family Artamidae

This looks like playing time to me, yup

A few years back I was at lunch in the courtyard at work and a little, somewhat runtish crow kept coming up and standing right next to me. I eventually worked out that he was doing it because a bigger crow was harassing him, but he knew the bigger crow was afraid of me.

That's a sure sign you are watching ravens, not crows. Ravens can play together in the air in ways crows never do.

Ravens are apparently one of the smartest animals.[1]

[1] https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/07/ravens-problem-s...

Seems like the crow is "just" solving the problems independently (with which it has previous experience), rather than thinking multiple steps ahead.

Corvids in general.

The New Caledonia Crow is getting a lot of study for its puzzle-solving abilities.

I wonder if the story of Elijah, who, according to the Bible received food from some ravens, could have some seed of truth?

Kings 17:2-6 “2 Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah: 3 “Leave here, turn eastward and hide in the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan. 4 You will drink from the brook, and I have directed the ravens to supply you with food there.”

5 So he did what the Lord had told him. He went to the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan, and stayed there. 6 The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning and bread and meat in the evening, and he drank from the brook.”

Scott Alexander has a good post on bird intelligence here: https://slatestarcodex.com/2019/03/25/neurons-and-intelligen...

Though they have much smaller brains, there is evidence to suggest that their brains are 10x more computationally dense.

To some extent brain "power" goes with surface area, right? Granted the surface is highly folded in 3 dimensions. But I think larger brains have a lot more "non thinking" matter to support the complexity of maintaining a larger neural network. On the other hand, effective thinking-power may be superlinear in neuron count. Or perhaps sublinear.

Birds are on a better process.

Maybe cooling is also a factor, so we are constrained by our brain's surface area.

When talking about brain power like this, I don't often see people mention the costs of simply driving a more complicated body. Birds are physically simpler than humans (no hands, fairly simple feet/legs) so maybe they just spend less overhead on motor skills and associated control?

Recently finished an interesting survey of bird intelligence (speech, navigation, social order, etc.): https://www.jenniferackermanauthor.com/genius-ofbirds

Crazy to see this posted today. Last night my wife and I were on a reservation in Arizona and watching the birds. She googled this very topic. Then when I looked at HN today, here it is!

I showed it to her and the first thing out of her mouth was, “Is Facebook listening to me?”

Then I had to explain that HN is human-powered and the chances of Big G and Facebook and HN sharing data is pretty close to zero.

Large numbers at work :). Congratulations, out of great many people reading HN today, you won in the lottery of "obscure thing I thought about recently is suddenly on the frontpage"!

Sorry, I think we (my kids and myself) got it as we were literally wondering just last week how to tell crows and ravens apart. (We are always scanning for wildlife of all kinds.)

Great example of Baader–Meinhof effect. When you recently hear something and you remark it everywhere. I can assure you that I also read this post and did not talk about crows/raven recently!

For what it’s worth, Audubon members got this in the Inbox today. Also serendipitous to me, since I just passed Poe’s grave site and thought it odd he would write of ravens even if they are rare in the mid-Atlantic region of the U.S.

Yup, last week my kids and I, who are always on the lookout for wildlife of all kinds, were wondering how to tell crows from ravens. So, yeah, very, very nice timing for us, too.

Similar spooky things happen to me with online adverts. I happened to mention to a friend that I want to adopt a dog. Lo and behold, for the next 5 days, all I see is dog adoption/dog food adverts. It's happened twice to me, and both times, the ads have been so out of the ordinary from my usual ads, that I actually took time to notice them!

I'm fairly certain Google is listening in to conversations for ad targeting. I think your case is serendipity!

I hear this kind of thing all the time. "Your case is serendipity, but they were listening to me!"

Do you know why you thought about adopting a dog randomly? Are you confusing cause and effect? Perhaps you were really being shown dog ads for six (or sixty) days and only noticed it for five.

I say this not to dismiss the fear of recording, but to raise that recording is kind of a lazy rationalization that tech companies probably favor over the other, more realistic explanation.

The idea that the ads have changed your behavior without you realizing is far more creepy. They don't have to listen to what you say because they influenced you to say it.

Yes, I do know why I thought about adopting a dog. It's because I love dogs, and have wanted one since I was a kid, and a really cool dog happened to walk past my window at the time while I was at talking to my friend.

I never Google dog photos or anything dog related really. I have no real reason to. Also, all the ads are see are usually either finance related or tech related. The huge influx of dog adoption adverts was most certainly an anomaly. I dismissed it the first time, but the second time, it was harder to put it down to chance.

I could be wrong, and maybe they aren't listening in, however at this point, I can't say with certainty that they're not. My suspicion is officially raised!

So you adopted a dog. How did you go about buying all the things you need when you suddenly have a dog? Stores? Online? Amazon? Did you use a credit card? Did you research dog food? Post on Facebook or Twitter about how you were getting a dog?

I didn't actually adopt a dog. I merely spoke about the idea of doing so to a friend.

Oops, my bad on the misread.

I visited the tower of london yesterday and bought a raven mug, talk about coincidences

I was expecting you to write that you were then served ads for coffins.

>>Crazy to see this posted today.

Game of Thrones ;) ? We need to tell them apart for we might get mixed messages.

I'd always heard it was a matter of a pinion... (supposedly the pinion feather is longer in Ravens)

I think the entire corvid family is fascinating. They are extremely intelligent. Some of them not only use tools but actually make tools:


Corvids don’t just have the capacity for making and using tools but also metatool use, i.e., using one tool on another [0]. In this respect their cognition apparently exceeds many species of primates.

[0] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S096098220...

Interesting to note there that initially trying to use the short stick to directly retrieve the reward is considered a mistake; I wonder how many humans would give that a try, though.

I think it’s largely dependent on the parameters of the problem. The researchers noted the significance of the distance between the reward, the first tool, and the second tool.

My guess is most humans run two quick analyses: 1) what is the cost of seeing if the short tool can be made to work and 2) what is the cost of retrieving the more distant long tool using the short tool. Human/primate efforts would seem to begin with tool use before escalating to metatool use.

All seven of the New Caledonian crows in the experiment engaged in metatool use on their first attempt; only some of them successfully retrieved the second tool but none of them trialed simple tool use.

Including most humans...just saying

In Seattle a girl gets gifts from the crows she feeds: https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-31604026

Researchers for the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority found over 200 dead crows near greater Boston recently, and there was concern that they may have died from Avian Flu. A Bird Pathologist examined the remains of all the crows, and, to everyone's relief, confirmed the problem was definitely NOT Avian Flu. The cause of death appeared to be vehicular impacts.

However, during the detailed analysis it was noted that varying colors of paints appeared on the bird's beaks and claws. By analyzing these paint residues it was determined that 98% of the crows had been killed by impact with trucks, while only 2% were killed by an impact with a car.

MTA then hired an Ornithological Behaviorist to determine if there was a cause for the disproportionate percentages of truck kills versus car kills.

The Ornithological Behaviorist very quickly concluded the cause: when crows eat road kill, they always have a look-out crow in a nearby tree to warn of impending danger.

The scientific conclusion was that while all the lookout crows could say "Cah", none could say "Truck."

Birds are so awesome. They make me feel so happy. They are also so much more elegant than anything people made that can fly, I think. I absolutely love them.

I think you'd like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pI63Rbxml5U

4K POV of an eagle soaring through the Alps

Thanks. Now I need to look at this on a big screen.

Ravens are huge and they make a sound that to me sounds hilariously like a person doing a bad imitation of a crow.

In Swedish, the names are Korp and Kråka. The birds obviously know this and take every chance to introduce themselves.

> In Swedish, the names are Korp and Kråka.

Strange. I would have guessed Huginn and Muninn.

Hugin and Munin means Thought and Memory. I can't imagine how that would be onomatopoeia :)

The description is so spot on.

Sometimes written "gronk", although they are actually songbirds.

Taxonomically, ravens and crows are not distinct clades. That is to say, not all the species we label "crows" are more closely related to each other than they are to all of the species we label "ravens," and vice versa.

Yeah. The article seems to be a pretty dry list of traits that distinguish the common raven and american crow, which are specific species, so it makes sense in isolaiton. But it seems to be embracing a frame (echoed in a lot of comments here) that "crows and ravens look similar but are very different birds", which is basically wrong.

Here's a very cool Google Creative Labs experiment that used tSNE to organize thousands of bird chirps/songs/calls. The result is an interactive map that groups similar bird sounds (click/tap to play any of the sounds):


source code:


I feel like these kind of cool tech demos paired with a highly motivated and technically savvy phd student would lead to some interesting models in research papers with accompanying demos.

On a related note, there's an app that will identify bird species based on photos that you upload (http://merlin.allaboutbirds.org/photo-id/), and it's powered by "Visipedia", a collaboration between a Caltech and Cornell research group (https://vision.cornell.edu/se3/projects/visipedia/?__hstc=75...).

I remember how nascent the tech was when they first started releasing it in 2011ish and it's incredible how good it is now. Really awesome stuff.

That is really cool. Also, if you click and drag you get the sound of a roller coaster.

Many will have heard the collective noun for crows via the Simpsons episode reference or otherwise (a “murder of crows”), but ravens get one of my absolute favorites: an “unkindness of ravens”.

What's the real story of these supposedly normative collective nouns? They don't seem to stem from natural development of the english language, rather seem to have been poetically constructed at some point — is that true?


> intended as a mark of erudition of the gentlemen able to use them correctly rather than for practical communication

Here's the relevant page in Archive's scan of The Book of Saint Albans: https://archive.org/details/cu31924031031184/page/n111

I’ve also heard of a “conspiracy of ravens” used too

I thought "conspiracy" was used for owls.

It's a parliament of owls, and I think it fits perfectly.

No that's a pairlarment.

In Northern Europe, the subspecies Corvus cornix, hooded crow, is easy to tell apart from the raven due to its grey body parts. For this reason there is never any doubt what you see, but this also has imprinted the other body differences in my mind. I don't think it is hard to tell the black Corvus corone from raven due to this.

They are beautiful and it almost looks like silver. I loved seeing them when I was in Finland.

I’ve found this YouTube video:


more helpful, as it spends more time showing you both (and obviously you can hear the sounds).

I like how he pitches his wine video in the beginning.

An old English farmer with a strong Dorset accent once explained the difference to me:

“If you see a raven, and there’s only one of them, that’s a crow that is. If you see a crow and there’s lots of them, that’s a raven, that is”.


Uh, ok, but, FTA: "Ravens often travel in pairs, while crows are seen in larger groups."

Shouldn't that be the other way round then, according to the article?

That's the joke.

I'm not getting it

I heard/read something similar (possibly in an Enid Blyton novel), but it was contrasting rooks and crows, rather than ravens and crows. Unlike ravens, rooks are much the same size as carrion crows (the typical crow in England), and thus harder to distinguish.

There are also grackles, some of them mostly black, that are mistaken for crows.

Easier to tell the difference if you can gauge the size. This picture with a 1 foot ruler is helpful:


Crows sound like “caw” or “ca-caw” and ravens sound like “nevermore”

At the Grand Canyon National Park they told us that ravens are the only animal allowed at wolf kills; this is because they train wolf pups while the parents are off hunting so theyre recognized.

what do you mean by train wolf pups?

My guess would be that the ravens demonstrate effective scavenging behavior to the wolf pups. Interestingly, both wolves and ravens engage in observational learning of food acquisition behaviors [0].

I think most of us would assume that wolf pups have an innate scavenging ability; this is probably wrong.

[0] https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/aff0/dca479ca58868890d903cd...

A bigger challenge is to differentiate a Northwestern Crow from an American Crow.

> It is smaller than the American Crow and has a more nasal call, but it is so similar that the two may in fact be the same species.


I didn't even realize that my area had an apparently different crow than everywhere until I bought a birding book.

Actually, recent research indicates that these two species began differentiating themselves a long time ago, but their lineages have since converged: they now interbreed freely and there's no reliable way to tell the two species apart: https://twitter.com/dlslager/status/1072353359041085440

It's been really interesting to talk to birders I trust about this. The rough consensus is, most people think they're the same species and will get merged back together soon, but some are very attached to the distinction between the two, haha.

Birds are so cool! I think it's fascinating that we're still learning new things about this stuff all the time.

Hm the story from the posted tweet makes sense to me. Damn that is really cool.

Sounds timely now that Games of Thrones starts again

Wish I'd known this when I was randomly attacked by raven or crow in BC, then I'd only dislike one of them.

Just because you don't understand its reasons doesn't make it a random occurance. I'm guessing you were near a nest or a fledgling, but that's just my non-educated guess.

Another possibility is that you looked like a former 'enemy' of crows. Crows can remember people who mess with them for up to two years and seem to be able to communicate that information among their peers. There is an excellent documentary about that behavior and it may have even been about scientists in the BC area.

They wore masks to test whether the information could be passed down from generation to generation. They found one crow offspring that still recognized the mask its parents had been trained on.

I believe it was called "The Intelligent World of Crows". It was excellent.

French crows are bigger than English crows, and behave rather differently. An English crow on a pavement will hop out of the way of an approaching pedestrian, a French crow will stand there and look at you, as if to say "Yeah, do you want some?"

This article pertains to North America. In Australia there is less distinction between crows and ravens. Australian crows/ravens are infamous for their loud and obnoxious call precisely timed to interrupt your afternoon nap!

"Listen closely to the birds’ calls. Crows give a cawing sound. But ravens produce a lower croaking sound."

Also, the raven is the only one that repeats "Nevermore!'

Aren't ravens the birds with the Spy-vs-Spy behaviors?

If on some midnight dreary there is suddenly a tapping, as of someone rapping, at your chamber door...

It's probably a raven.


I thought I could easily tell the difference till I read this article...

I want to tell a raven from a writing desk.

Ctrl-F jackdaw

...Here's the thing...

that is the best comment section I've ever seen.

Their website has Javascript which causes every single page to spend 3 seconds stuck at a white screen before showing content. Disabling JS makes content appear nearly instantly.

It seems to be just you.

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