People might say a crow is a crow, but in the Potomac and Shenandoah Valley, when you see a crow it could be one of three different species. By far, the most common is the American crow, followed by the slightly smaller Fish crow. Occasionally a Northern raven will join them. All three species nest here and can be seen all year. But they’re more evident and easier to see in winter.
My fondness of crows started at age ten on a walk in the woods one morning just before Christmas. I discovered an American crow that had died sometime during the night, possibly from a gunshot wound. I stopped to examine it where it lay among the brown leaves in a natural position, every feather in place. I admired the polished ebony bill, feet, and toes. Shiny black feathers caught the winter sun—reflecting a steely blue like the barrel of a newly polished gun. I realized that crows were beautiful.
In high school, I learned to know crows firsthand from a free-flying pet crow I had for two years. Later, when my wife and I moved to the Shenandoah Valley, we learned to know the Fish crows that migrated up the Potomac Basin into the Shenandoah River from the coast in winter. Ravens were always a bird of the wilderness to me before I lived in the Shenandoah Valley. Here, the sight of an occasional raven is commonplace.
Our three crow species, called corvids, can best be told apart by their voices. Most calls of the American crow are some variation of “caw.” A Fish crow has a falsetto, nasal twang, like “unk” or “ah-ha.” A gathering of Fish crows sounds like a boisterous bunch of adolescent boys. Ravens sound like a crow using a megaphone. Most common is a growling “awk” or “cruck.” Many ravens can mimic a tolling church bell, a train whistle, or a car horn. A raven in our neighborhood gives an exact rendition of our donkey’s alarm snort and our dog’s “let me back in the house” bark.
With some practice, it becomes easy to identify corvids in flight. American crows have deep, strong wing beats, but their flight sometimes seems lumbered by wings slightly too big for them. Against a strong headwind they seem to make little progress while working too hard. Fish crows have a similar flight silhouette but their way of going is light and buoyant with more frequent sailing and gliding. Ravens’ heavy bills, tapered wings, and longer tails give them more balance and stability. They can power along with slicing wingbeats, almost like pigeons, or soar like eagles with outstretched wings and a fanned tail.
A raven’s wedge-shaped tail, emphasized in field guides, looks rounded when the tail is fanned wide. Aerial acrobats, ravens entertain themselves with barrel rolls and steep dives. I’ve watched pairs of ravens fly close together, almost in tandem, with synchronized wing beats.
Where a corvid decides to land might be a clue to its identity. American crows are comfortable anywhere but prefer to avoid utility wires, while Fish crows commonly perch on them. Ravens prefer remote areas like rocks, tall bare trees, or telephone poles. All three can be seen scrounging at dumpsters or landfills, often gathering side by side where comparisons between them are easier.
On the ground, an American crow and a Fish crow are hard to distinguish, even by size. The American crow is trim and elegant, and walks with a dignified, marching gait. Up close you’ll notice some shiny feathers edged with a dull fringe, as if it’s wearing fish scales or chain mail on its back. A Fish crow by comparison is overall shiny black. Bills of American and Fish crows appear about the same length as their heads. A raven, in profile, appears to have an oversized, Roman nose. The heavy beak and low forehead give ravens a severe, eagle-like look. Seen near the other two species, a raven looks enormous. No wonder they retreat if he gets too close.
Regardless of their identity, all crows are clever birds that seldom fail to entertain with their antics.