American Crow and Common Raven

August 24th, 2021

It seems like everywhere I go out in Little Lake Valley there are American crows, Corvus brachyrhnchos, and Common ravens, Corvus corax.

American crows like to be in large flocks, caw-cawing together as though they were chatting loudly. Back and forth they caw at each other and together, landing in a field or tree. In the winter they roost together in very large communal groups that can be from hundreds of birds to a couple million crows! The most I have seen in the valley was around 75 flying together in the winter.

The crow is a smaller bird than the raven with a bill that is straighter and more pointed. The tail feathers are all the same size so when it flies the tail is an even line across. They tend to flap their wings a lot which is different from the Common raven that glides and has slower wing beats. Crows are monogamous and raise families along with juvenile birds that stay for a couple of years to help raise the young. They are not ready to find a mate until at least two years old and sometimes not until they are four or five so the family groups can be fifteen birds or more. These raucous birds love to chase any owls they happen upon because they are arch enemies and will not stand for the other in its territory. Their diet is varied from seeds and fruits to bird eggs, fish, snails, insects, and human refuse.

Here on the mitigation lands, we have Barn owls that are occasionally chased by large flocks (called a murder of crows) of a dozen or more crows. Last week in the Watson area, I found a dead and eaten crow next to a dead eaten barn owl and wondered how this had happened. Did the owl get tired of being chased by the crows and turned on one to eat it, and while on the ground doing that did the large coyote that lives in this area then pounce on the barn owl? Or did the owl get mobbed by the family of crows? It did look like a mammal had chewed on the bones and feathers but that could have happened later. It is a rough world out there!

Then there are the Common ravens who are also loud, but they are mostly in pairs or family units of four or five. Their sounds are not caws but more like a croak sound. Ravens can mimic sounds from their environment, including human speech. Non-vocal sounds produced by ravens include bill snapping and clapping and something that sounds like a clucking with the tongue that females make more than males. This is a very large bird, about the size of a Red-tailed hawk with a large, long bill. Their tails have short and long feathers so when they fly it appears to be wedge-shaped or like a diamond. They are also monogamous and mate for life. The young birds spend a couple of months with the parents and then fly off to be in gangs of juveniles until mated. A mated pair can use the same nest several years in a row, building the old nest up more with new sticks and twigs. This makes the nest look gigantic after a few years. Ravens are hawklike and opportunistic when it comes to food. They prey on other birds, reptiles, mammals, carrion, and any black plastic bag they see in the street or the back of your truck. Ravens are pranksters and will pull the tails of Bald eagles that are scavenging some dead animal the raven wants to eat and have been observed following packs of wolves and pulling on their tails too! It seems the Common raven is not afraid of anything.

Both ravens and crows are in the family Corvidae and are among the most intelligent of birds. They can figure out problems especially when food is involved and use tools to help get what they want.

Ravens have been taught to talk using a large vocabulary to interact with people. There are many books written about both ravens and crows. Two well-known books are Gifts of the Crow by John Marzluff Ph.D, and Mind of the Raven by Bernd Heinrich. These common birds are interesting and intelligent members of our year-round wildlife community.