Caterpickles goes to the library: “How can you tell the difference between a raven and a crow?”

Last Monday while The Ten-Year-Old and I were walking to school, we passed a black bird standing in the middle of the road.

“Look at that crow,” I said. “Or raven. Whatever. Look at that very large black bird sitting in the middle of the road daring the cars to run over him.”

“Mommyo,” The Ten-Year-Old asked. “Can’t you tell the difference between a raven and a crow?”

“I know ravens are bigger than crows, but that’s not much help when there’s only one of them around.”

The Ten-Year-Old sighed. “Better ask Caterpickles.”

Most of the time, when I have a question I’d like to blog about on Caterpickles, I simply fire up Google and ask it. But we’ve been spending so much time at the library lately, I was curious to see if I still go old school, and find the answer to one of The Ten-Year-Old’s questions using only the tools available to me at our local library.

So after dropping The Ten-Year-Old at school, I sauntered off to the library to see if my library research skills still existed.  After all, the last time I hunted for answers in a library on a regular basis, paper card catalogs were the search tool of choice. I haven’t seen a physical card catalog in years. Everything is computerized now.

Surely that would make it easier, though. Finding the answer to a question like this using a computerized card catalog can’t be all that much different from doing a Google search, right?

Step 1: Figure out your search criteria.

“Crow vs. raven,” I typed in the search field of the first available computer.

No matches in catalog. The computer replied.

Huh. That sort of search would have worked great on Google. But maybe this card catalog didn’t do Google-style full content searches. Clearly, I needed to rethink my approach.

Cover of the Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America

Back in the day, I did simple keyword searches in the card catalog. My goal was not to find the specific text I needed, but rather to identify the section of the library where that text was likely to be.

I knew from years of idly identifying the birds which visited our various neighborhoods that field guides to birds typically told you how to tell the difference between similar birds like crows and ravens. All I really needed from the card catalog was to identify the section of the library where these field guides were likely to be.

So I tried again. “Birds.”

That was about as general as you could get. And it worked.

Step 2: Scroll through your search results until you find one that looks close to what you need. 

My search term was pretty general, and the results screen reflected it. There were pages and pages of listings. Too many listings, in fact. The list included ebooks and DVDs, many of which sounded interesting, but none of which were any good to me in this context.

Over on the side of the search screen there was an option to specify the format of the resource I was looking for. I clicked “books” and ran the search again.

The list was still fairly long – apparently “birds” is a popular word to use in the titles of picture books and novels — but it didn’t take too long to find an entry that sounded promising.

Step 3: Write down the Dewey Decimal number(s) of the entry or entries that sound good.

The title of the book I found was something like Backyard Birds of North America. I didn’t write down the exact title because I didn’t really care about it. What I cared about was the Dewey Decimal number assigned to the book: 598.2. That number told me where in the library I needed to go to find the nonfiction books on birds.

Step 4: Go to that section of the library and browse the shelves. 

Cover of the Field Guide to Birds of the Northern California CoastI cleared my search and wandered upstairs to the nonfiction stacks. In the 598.2 section I found all kinds of books that looked promising. I plucked the Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America and the Field Guide to Birds of the Northern California Coast off the shelf and flipped through them to see what they could tell me.

Conveniently, both guides talk about crows and ravens in reference to each other, making a list of differences a relatively simple thing to prepare.

Step 5: Take notes.

Here’s what I learned.

How to tell the difference between a raven and a crow when you’re up close:

  • Look at the bills: A crow’s bill is smaller and thinner than a raven’s. (Source: Field Guide to Birds of the Northern California Coast)
  • Look at the feathers around the head and neck: Crow feathers are smooth around the head and neck. A raven’s feathers are spiky on its head and its neck feathers look kind of like a mane. (Source: Field Guide to Birds of the Northern California Coast)
  • Look at the tip of the tail: A raven’s tail is long and shaped like a wedge. The American Crow’s tail is short and squared at the end. (Source: Both Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America and Field Guide to Birds of the Northern California Coast)
  • Don’t forget size: Ravens are bigger. Their bodies are longer (24” compared to the American Crow’s 17”). Ravens are also heavier – boasting 2.6 lbs to the American Crow’s 1 lb. (Source: Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America)

How to tell the difference from a distance:

  • Look at the wings: A raven’s wings are longer compared to their bodies than a crow’s wings will be. The wingspan of the American Crow is only 39”, but the raven’s wingspan is a much longer 53”. When in flight, a raven’s wings will look long and pointed, and a crow’s wings will look relatively short and broad. (Source: Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America)
  • Notice their behavior: Ravens rarely associate with crows, because crows attack them. So if you see a large black bird being attacked by smaller black bird, chances are that you’re watching a crow attack a raven. (Source: Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America)
  • Notice how many there are: Crows gather in large flocks. Ravens tend to appear in pairs. (Source: Field Guide to Birds of the Northern California Coast)
  • Watch how they fly: Crows tend to fly straight across the sky, flapping their wings in a regular steady beat. Ravens are more acrobatic, soaring and gliding, wheeling and diving. Crows don’t show off. Ravens do. (Source: Field Guide to Birds of the Northern California Coast)

For the visual learners among us, Field Guide to Birds of the Northern California Coast provided this handy illustration that sums up many of these points.

Illustration showing the difference between a raven (top) and a crow (bottom). Artist: Keith Hansen. Source: Birds of the Northern California Coast.

Illustration showing the difference between a raven (top) and a crow (bottom). Artist: Keith Hansen. Source: Field Guide to Birds of the Northern California Coast.

Step 6: Get distracted by some other really interesting book you found while browsing through the stacks. 

Cover for the Curse of the Labrador Duck by Gene ChiltonWhile hunting for reference books on birds, I stumbled across The Curse of the Labrador Duck: My Obsessive Quest to the Edge of Extinction by Glen Chilton. The Labrador duck has been extinct since 1875. Due to its far Northern habitat, it went extinct before we realized it was even fading away. Today, some 50 stuffed specimens of the Labrador duck are thought to remain.

At some point, bird biologist Glen Chilton got it into his head that it would be a good idea to examine each stuffed specimen, analyze the genes of every remaining Labrador duck egg, and personally visit every site where the duck was shot.  When he started his quest, Chilton quickly learned that what was thought to be true — that there were some fifty stuffed Labrador ducks scattered around the museums of Europe, North America, and the Middle East — was not in fact at all true. Some of the specimens had been lost to war. Others were stolen. Still others were hidden away in private collections.

Finding them all meant meeting up with Russian gangsters, having dinner with millionaire murderers, skinny-dipping in glacier-fed streams, enduring numerous hangovers, and narrowly avoiding arrest in New York City. In the end, however, Chilton was able to examine some fifty-five specimens, some of which weren’t forgeries. It sounds like a fabulous story, and I’m very much looking forward to spending my afternoon reading it.

Step 7: Take your new-found knowledge into the field. 

Sadly, reading about ducks will have to wait, because it’s time to go fetch The Ten-Year-Old. You can bet that I will be eying any black birds I spy pretty closely on my way to see if I learned anything this morning.

Sources for this post: 

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About Shala Howell

I spent two decades helping companies like Bell Labs, Juniper Networks, and a genetic testing company that was later acquired by CVS translate some of the world’s most complicated concepts into actionable, understandable English. Now I'm working on a much harder problem -- fostering children’s curiosity and engagement in the scientific, artistic, and linguistic world that surrounds them. The first book in my Caterpickles Parenting Series, What’s That, Mom?, focuses on how to use public art to nurture children’s curiosity in the world around them. My next book will focus on science, and how parents without a science degree can answer their curious child's questions without enrolling in a college level refresher course. In the meantime, you can find me blogging about life with a very curious Eleven-Year-Old at, chatting about books and the writing life at, and tweeting about books, writing, science, & things that make me smile at @shalahowell.
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