Noisy and full of personality, crows, ravens, and grackles are very noticeable. But telling them apart is a different story. So just how can you distinguish a raven from a crow from a grackle? And what makes these birds unique? Read on.
Ravens, like crows and jays, belong to the family Corvidae. Incredibly intelligent, ravens can even learn to imitate human speech—and some have been taught to say “Nevermore!”
Common Ravens once lived throughout New England, but European settlers saw them as farmers’ pests, lamb-killers and ill omens and did their best to exterminate them. Early colonists also clear-cut forests, which was bad for these birds because they prefer heavy, undisturbed woods. By the 1800s there were few or no ravens in the region. As the forests have regrown and the birds have gained legal protection, ravens have staged a remarkable comeback and are now nesting from the Berkshires to Cape Cod and the Islands.
Tips for identifying common ravens:
- Large size, near that of a Red-tailed Hawk
- Heavy bill
- Shaggy throat when viewed at close range
- Long, slightly pointed wings in flight
- Fairly long wedge-shaped tail
- Frequently seen soaring on flat wings; occasionally tumbles in the air
- Often makes deep, croaking or scratchy, burbling calls
As with Common Ravens, early colonists also detested and hunted crows, but these smaller, more development-tolerant birds were never completely wiped out in the region. Crows are common throughout Massachusetts, and in late fall and winter they often gather in huge nighttime flocks to roost.
There are two species of crows in Massachusetts: American Crows and Fish Crows. They look nearly identical, though Fish Crows are smaller, have a more buoyant, fast-flapping flight, and make a distinctly nasal call.
Some tips for identifying crows:
- Slimmer beak than raven, with a short tail that is squared off at the end (unlike ravens’ longer, wedge-shaped tails)
- Broader, shorter, and less pointed wings than ravens
- American Crows make a clear-sounding caw that is higher pitched than the deeper croak of a raven
- American Crows are almost as large as a chicken
- Fish Crows make an even higher-pitched, more nasal sounding caw that sometimes sounds like the phrase uh oh!
Despite also being targeted as pests, Common Grackles managed to prosper after European settlers arrived. Grackles tend to avoid thick, unbroken forests and readily inhabit settled areas. Grackles are members of the blackbird family Icteridae, as are various other Massachusetts birds such as meadowlarks, Bobolinks, and orioles. The Common Grackle is the only grackle species that breeds in Massachusetts.
Tips for identifying common grackles:
- As large as a robin
- Slender body
- Long tails relative to their body size; often appears keel-shaped in flight
- Iridescent blue feathers in a rainbow of colors (especially on the head)
- Striking golden eyes
- Often makes calls that sound like a rusty gate hinge
Learn More About Birds
Interested in honing your bird identification skills? Check out the resources on Birds & Birding on our website. Download backyard bird checklists, sign up for a bird walk with an expert naturalist at one of our wildlife sanctuaries, and learn all about the birds of the Northeast.
updated August 2021