High Country Birding: Is that a crow or a raven?
In Colorado’s mountains, really big black birds are either American crows or common ravens, both of which can be found year-round throughout the state and both of which are often mistaken for the other. If you could find a crow and a raven sharing the same perch, telling them apart would be easy, since crows are smaller (by 6 inches in length, a foot in wingspan) and have a short, rounded or square tail compared with the raven’s longer, wedge-shaped tail.
Identifying one at a distance is more problematic, however. Size is one of the more commonly confused diagnostic features when birding, and without a side-by-side reference, the crow’s 18-inch length can be mistaken for the 24-inch-long raven. Birds contribute to the confusion, as well, by stretching out or hunkering down. As is the case with many other birds, songs and calls are the most reliable way to differentiate one species from the other, and fortunately, both ravens and crows are not shy about vocalizing.
American crows can be identified by their familiar “caw-caw” call, while the common raven’s favorite call is a hoarse baritone croaking “kraaah.” However, if you think that “caw” could possibly be confused with “kraaah,” you would be right. Worse, both birds like to vary their calls through an impressive range of similar sounds.
Edgar Allen Poe picked on the bigger bird in his poem “The Raven,” embedding the word “nevermore” permanently in brains around the world. In fact, many Western poets, authors and cultures have associated the raven with danger and death. But not all is midnight dreary with the oft-maligned raven, which has also symbolized wisdom. Northwest Native Americans revere ravens as creators of just about everything, including the Earth and moon, the sun and other stars. At the same time, they also recognize ravens as tricksters and cheaters. It’s unlikely that any other bird has been so involved with mystery, myth and misinformation, in spite of more than 1,400 research reports in scientific literature.
Ravens are one of the most widespread naturally occurring birds in the world and are found in nearly every land habitat, except rainforests of the tropics. They are opportunistic and omnivorous feeders, with a diet that includes almost everything: insects, rodents, reptiles, eggs, small birds and mammals, seeds, fruit, road-kill and garbage. Fortunately, this includes scorpions, but unfortunately, it also includes several threatened and endangered species, such as the desert tortoise, California condor, marbled murrelet and least tern.
Ravens are often considered an agricultural pest, as well, for their fondness for newborn lamb and calf eyes, which might loom larger than their appetite for rats. Talk about midnight dreary! Like it or not, however, they are likely to remain with us forever. They adapt well to human encroachment and the loss of wild habitat and survive equally well in high-mountain tundra, prairies, deserts, seacoasts, Arctic ice floes and even Chicago, which might be a stretch for some of us.
Poe might just as well have quoted the raven as “evermore.”
Bob Bowers is a naturalist and freelance writer specializing in nature and travel articles. He writes a monthly birding column for an Arizona newspaper, lives in the foothills near Tucson and spends much of his summer in Keystone. He writes a birding and travel blog, http://www.birdingthebroo keandbeyond.com, and his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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