A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

(Unless otherwise indicated, all phone numbers are in the 707 area code)


Those who aren't paying attention often lump crows and ravens under the general heading of "crow," but they are different birds--and not that hard to distinguish once you know what to look for. That said, they can be confusing, and sometimes it's hard to get a good enough look to tell them apart. In that case, you can call your bird a corvid and leave it at that.

Opinions will differ, but in my view, the best way to distinguish ravens and crows is by looking at the bill, when visible, or at the tail when in flight. Common Raven (Corvus corax) has a stout, strong-looking bill usually overlapped about halfway or more with heavy bristles. American Crow has a more slender, lighter, more pointed bill. Ravens will often have a scruffy look at the throat lacking in the crow. Ravens are considerably bigger birds than crows. They have much deeper, raspier voices (in fact, learning the voices is usually enough to distinguish cooperative birds that call; ravens croak, crows say "kaw!"--most of the time, anyway).

Crows are among the most intelligent of birds. They're remarkably wary the moment they understand you're paying them any special attention, but they're content to be in close contact with humans they deem indifferent. Our local crows are especially fond of walnuts, which they break by dropping from lampposts or by leaving them in the street for cars to run over. Generally speaking, crows are opportunistic omnivores--a fancy way of saying they'll eat most anything they can get their beaks on.



© Colin Talcroft, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013

Unless noted, all photos by the author. If you would like to use one of my images, please ask for permission for non-commercial use with proper credit or commercial use with proper compensation.


American Crow

For comparison: Common Raven

Ravens have proportionately longer wings than crows, often with more clearly divided primaries that give the look of splayed fingers in flight, although crows can have the "splayed finger" look as well. The raven's tail is a rounded diamond-shape seen from below, that of the crow a narrow fan. (Note, however, that when folded, a raven's tail can look like a fan as well. It pays to watch carefully as the bird flies and as the shape of the tail changes.) This and other aspects of the silhouettes are very useful; it's worth getting to know them. Brinkley states that crows frequently flick their wings when perched, and that ravens do not, although that is not a behavior obvious in the local crows I've observed.

Crows rarely soar. Ravens commonly do--with flat wings that can make them look like hawks at a distance. Ravens are more commonly solitary than crows, which often move in groups, sometimes of as many as 100 birds or more (although ravens, too, may form small flocks and occasionally hunt together). Birds in urban or suburban settings are more likely to be crows. Crows and ravens usually do not associate with one another. In fact, it's not uncommon to see small groups of crows harassing ravens.

Crows are present in Sonoma County year round, but numbers may increase in the winter as birds from colder climates move south temporarily. May form large roosting groups in the winter months. Common throughout the county, except in the very densely forested areas. May be present at the coast but less common there. Ravens more often are present in hilly or even mountainous terrain.


Common Raven

American Crow, Lake Ralphine, Santa Rosa, September 12, 2011

Further reading:

Bolander and Parmeter, Birds of Sonoma County California, rev. ed., 2000, p. 88

Brinkley, National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2007, p. 416

Burridge, ed., Sonoma County Breeding Bird Atlas, 1995, p. 114

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th ed., 2006, p. 326

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th ed., 2011, p. 364

Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, The Birder's Handbook, paperback edition, 1988, p. 416

Fix and Bezener, Birds of Northern California, 2000, p. 266

Kaufman, Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2000, p. 278

Kaufman, Field Guide to Advanced Birding, 2011, pp. 39, 106

Lukas, Bay Area Birds: From Sonoma County to Monterey Bay, 2012, p. 193-194

Parmeter and Wight, Birds of Sonoma County California, Update (2000-2010), 2012, p. 52

Peterson, Birds of Eastern and Central North America, 5th ed., 2002, p. 252

Peterson, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th ed., 2010, p. 266

Peterson, Western Birds, 3rd ed., 1990,  p. 252

Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,1st ed., 2003, p. 308

Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1st ed., 2010, p. 505

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 279

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--American Crow

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--Common Raven

American Crow

Corvus brachyrynchos

1990-2013 Sonoma County data. Graph provided by eBird (www.ebird.org), generated June 5, 2013

EBird reported occurrence in Sonoma County