What Is the Difference between Crows and Ravens?

I get this question a lot, and often don’t know where to begin. The answer is complex, but easy to understand when explained properly, as I will attempt to do.

The key to the confusion is the fact that ‘ravens and crows’ are not two distinct species, but actually about 40 (the precise number is unclear as far as I know). These belong to the genus Corvus, along with two Jackdaw species, and the rook. Nine so-called raven species occur worldwide, leaving around 30 ‘crow’ species. The real question then is: ‘is there an actual good reason that all these different bird species are divided between ‘ravens’ and ‘crows’?

It appears that there isn’t. There seems to be no fundamental behavioral or physiological difference between them, and there is certainly no case to think that all the ‘ravens’ and all the ‘crows’ each share their own distinct ancestors (All of Australia’s native ravens and crows may indeed have a common immigrant ancestor). It might help to remember that both words are about as old as the English Language itself, i.e. more than a thousand years old (though not in the same spelling), and thus predate truly systematic classification of animals based on DNA etc.

It should be further added that the term ‘raven’ often refers to one particular species: Corvus corax, also known as the Common Raven, or Northern Raven, for its predominance in the northern hemisphere. This is the bird of ‘quoth the raven’ fame and does not occur in Australia.

Australia has five recognized native Corvus species:

  • Australian Raven
  • Little Raven
  • Forest Raven
  • Torresian Crow
  • Little Crow

As it happens there is a real difference between ravens and crows in Australia. Those with white bases to the hackle feathers are classified ‘crows’ while those with gray ones are ‘ravens’. However, it must be stressed that this criterion is rather arbitrary.

So what is the difference between ravens and crows? The correct answer at the end of the day appears to be ‘nothing’. If you rephrase the question to ‘how can you tell the difference between the different species?’ the answer, at least in Australia, is ‘not easily!’. Australian corvids are almost identical in appearance. The most reliable way of knowing is simply knowing which town you are in. In Melbourne and Adelaide your local ‘crows’ are Little Ravens. In Perth, Canberra and Sydney they are Australian Ravens. In Hobart, they are Forest ravens, and in Brisbane and Darwin they are Torresian Crows. Note, however, that there may be other species about, such as the elusive Australian Raven visitors in Melbourne.

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