Caw Blimey!

During the winter months, and indeed the rest of the year, the easiest birds to spot are large black and noisy:

Corvus – Big Black Birds
Rooks, ravens, crows and jackdaws are all black, pigeon sized or larger and all make a similar “caw” “croak” noise. Due to these reasons they are all in the genus Corvus and it is easy to understand why no one can tell them apart.
However despite the fact that they may look, sound and smell similar (would not advise getting close enough to smell them), they are in fact four distinct species. There are ways of telling the difference if you know what to look for. So read on and WOW your friends with your big black bird knowledge. Well maybe not “wow” exactly, but perhaps pass the time on a boring bus journey or during an awkward pause in conversation.

How to tell which big black bird species you are looking at; an awkwardly sized flow chart.


For more detailed differences between crows and ravens watch this video.

Why these birds have a ‘creepy’ reputation…

1. Ravens are associated with the Tower of London which is in turn associated with death, despair, murder and brutal beheading.
As ravens like to eat meat it is likely that they were originally attracted to the tower to feast on the corpses of the executed prisoners (yum). Apparently after the execution of Lady Jane Grey in 1554, the ravens pecked at the eyes of her severed head. However these days the Ravenmaster (real job) at the tower feeds them; “every day they’ll have at least 8 oz of meat. Every other day they’ll get a boiled egg and I’ll give them chopped apple, grapes – they love cheese by the way” (well who doesn’t?). However this fancy diet is insufficient for some ravens, for example one particular raven (Raven George) was “dismissed” from the tower for eating too many local TV aerials.

2. Crows also eat carrion but tend to scavenge for their food, which is why they are more likely to be seen in towns and cities. Crows are also highly adaptable due to their intelligence and memory. In Japan crows famously crack particularly hard nuts by dropping them onto roads, they then wait at pedestrian crossings until the lights change and they are able to retrieve their nut (video). In fact they are so clever they even understand the importance of recycling…

3. Like crows, rooks can use tools to get hold of tasty treats, this came as a surprise to scientists as rooks do not use tools naturally in the wild (BBC news). Crows from the island of New Caledonia in the Pacific use tools to fetch grubs from holes in the wild but rooks have no need of this adaptation. Scientists have argued that a common ancestor of all Corvids probably had use for tools and this problem solving ability and the ability to fashion tools from natural objects could have been passed down to rooks.
One of the experiments involving rooks and tools included the rook using stones to raise the water level in a tube in order to get to a snack:
I’m not sure even I would have thought of that, but then I have hands.

So, there you are, you can now tell the difference between a crow, rook, jackdaw and a raven. You know that they aren’t “creepy” but just scarily intelligent with a fondness for dead peoples flesh (who can blame them – free food!). And you also know (in your heart of hearts) that they would make a great pet.
Now off you go, have fun trying to teach your cat to make tools using paperclips and bits of string.

P.S. I recently went skiing in the Alps and spotted a large number of big black birds that weren’t any of the species I mentioned in this post. I had seen them a previous year when I was in the same ski resort and I remember them having a yellow beak like a giant male blackbird. It was at this point that I remembered the existence of the Alpine Chough (pronounced ‘chuff’) which has a yellow beak and red legs. Unfortunately I didn’t get a very good picture of them, just this one of them circling above the café I was sitting at, still you can see how many of them there were:CIMG2178