The Great Backyard Bird Count is over and all I saw were crows and ravens. It’s like all the birds decided to stay hidden from our yard for the three days, so I’m glad I wasn’t the only one counting. Six checklists were submitted by four different groups in Houston to the online database (explore it here: www.birdcount.org). Twelve species were recorded, and 179 individual birds spotted; everything from Downy woodpeckers and black-capped chickadees to Bohemiam waxwings and Pine Grosbeaks.
As the sightings came in a conversation brewed about whether the black birds people were seeing were crows or ravens so I thought I’d give some tips on how to know.
“Who sews crow’s clothes? Sue sews crow’s clothes. Slow Joe Crow sews whose clothes? Sue’s clothes.” (Dr. Zeuss in Fox in Socks)
OK so maybe you won’t see one or the other sewing Sue’s clothes but being able to tell them apart does have to do with looking at their feathers, a bird’s “clothes” as it were and behaviour.
The simplest way is to watch them when they fly. Crows have straighter fan-shaped tails and raven’s tails are more wedge shaped coming to a point. On the ground ravens tend to walk and then hop on two feet and are much larger, scruffier looking birds. If you can hear them crows have a high-pitched caw while ravens have a throatier, deeper croak.
Part of the corvid family which includes jays and magpies, crows and ravens are highly intelligent birds. They are known to work together to solve problems as well as make and use tools. They even have their own language. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, scientists have categorized 33 different raven vocalizations and I met a scientist once who claimed to have learned the language so he could have a conversation with them.
Ravens are often found alone or in pairs but crows will congregate in groups of hundreds to thousands in the winter to roost together. These groupings of crows are called a murder rather than a flock and when two or three birds are seen together some describe that as an attempted murder.
Perfectly suited for our northern winters with their glossy black feathers that absorb heat from the sun. Both crows and ravens can be seen on the railway tracks and in fields scavenging for food, making sure nothing goes to waste. So next time you see a murder of crows or hear the croak of a raven instead of trying to chase them away take a moment to observe the shape of their tail, the swagger in their walk or the conversations between them. You might just find beauty where you hadn’t before.