Crows and ravens are both all-black, smart, social members of the genus Corvus that’ll eat anything from dead animals to garbage. In other words, comparing them is less apples-to-oranges and more apples-to-other-apples; so it can be a little difficult to figure out if the bird perched on your fence is a raven or a crow.
But just as you can learn how to tell your Fuji apples from your honeycrisps, there are a few ways to differentiate between a crow and one of Edgar Allan Poe’s “grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous [birds] of yore”—and none involve waiting around for the creature to croak “Nevermore.”
One, however, does involve some croaking. As Chase Mendenhall, assistant curator of bird conservation at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, explains in the video below, American crows and common ravens have slightly different calls. Crows make a higher-pitched, lighter noise that sounds like they’re saying “Caw!” A raven’s call, meanwhile, is a lower, more guttural croak. A handy mnemonic device to help you remember this is that caw and crow both start with the letter c. If your mystery bird is making a throaty noise that sounds like it starts with an r, it’s more likely a raven.
Ravens are also noticeably bigger. According to Effie Yeaw Nature Center naturalist Kristen Angelini, their wingspan can reach 4 feet, while a crow’s is closer to 2.5 feet. But unless you’re looking at a crow and a raven side by side, this might not be much help. So try to sneak a peek at its beak: a crow’s bill is small and straight. A raven’s, on the other hand, is larger and more curved, with much more noticeable bristly feathers on top.
If your bird takes flight before you can creep close enough to stare at its bill, check out its tail. A crow’s tail is shaped like a hand fan, while a raven’s tail feathers don’t spread nearly as much—they look more like a diamond.