by Erin Marissa Russell
Ready to explore the similarities and differences between grackles versus crows versus ravens? These black birds are often mistaken for one another, because visually they are quite similar. But you can learn a few tricks to help you tell the difference between grackles, crows, and ravens. We’ll explain how to differentiate between these species and give you some more information about what they have in common and what is different in this article.
Crows and ravens are related, both coming from the family Corvidae. Grackles are not a part of this family.
Crows and grackles both may travel in large groups. In contrast, ravens are more likely to be seen in pairs or trios. When it’s time to build a nest and raise young, crows are cooperative breeders, meaning they may have more than two adult birds working on tasks like building the nest, feeding baby birds, or defending the nest area. Ravens will only have two birds working on these breeding tasks.
You can identify crows by looking at their tails when they are in flight. A crow’s tail spreads out like a fan (so will a grackle’s), but a raven has longer feathers in the middle of their tail that make it wedge-shaped. Their wings are shorter than a raven’s, broader, and less pointed at the tips.
Crows are known for their loud “caw” call, whereas ravens will make croaking sounds. They’re larger than a grackle but smaller than a raven at around 17.5 inches long, almost the size of a chicken.
Crows have a thinner beak than ravens have, and their shorter tails are squared off at the end to make a flat fan shape. Their feathers are all black, and they have black eyes, except for juveniles, who have blue eyes.
Some groups of American crows will migrate, while others stay wherever they are. Crows in the northern part of the territory, in central Canada, are known for migrating south during the winter.
Grackles of all types eat grain, peanuts, seeds, and suet. When the weather gets cold, they will eat berries, insects, and even smaller animals like frogs or mice. You can see grackles all year long throughout most of the United States. They nest in conifer trees and may nest in large flocks near water.
Although they resemble crows and ravens, grackles are not actually related to these birds. Instead, they are in the blackbird family of Icteridae, which also includes cowbirds and orioles.
Grackles are smaller than either crows or ravens. They’re about a foot long, around the same size as a blue jay or robin.
In contrast to the “caw” of a crow or a raven’s croaks and burbles, a grackle’s call sounds something like the hinge of a rusty gate, with squeaks and whistles interspersed among their croaks.
There are a few different varieties of grackles, so let’s take a moment to look at these different types.
Common grackles have a territory stretching all the way from Canada to the southeastern United States. Males are a glossy, iridescent black color that turns green or purple in the sun, with blue or purple iridescence on the head. Females are smaller and brown. Common grackles are medium-sized birds with long tails (though not as long as great-tailed or boat-tailed grackles) and yellow eyes. These birds are between red-winged blackbirds and crows in size.
Great-tailed grackles have dark plumage with blue or purple iridescence and yellow eyes, just like common grackles. Unlike common grackles, however, great-tailed grackles have sizable fan-shaped tails. You can tell great-tailed grackles and boat-tailed grackles apart because great-tailed grackles have flat heads while boat-tailed grackles have round heads. Female great-tailed grackles are light brown on the chest and darker brown elsewhere, with light brown above the eyes. The territory of great-tailed grackles stretches from Texas and Oklahoma to southern California.
Boat-tailed grackles share the iridescent black feathers of other grackles. But unlike other grackles, boat-tailed grackles have a flattened head shape. They also have dark eyes as opposed to bright yellow eyes. The territory of boat-tailed grackles includes Florida and the eastern and southern coasts of the U.S. As with common grackles, the female boat-tailed grackle is smaller with dull brown feathers as opposed to the male’s shiny, iridescent black plumage.
Juvenile grackles of all types have a patchworked appearance until they get their adult feathers. The juvenile feathers are brown like a female’s, while the shiny, darker adult feathers begin to molt in through the juvenile coat.
Ravens are larger than crows or grackles—about the size of a red-tailed hawk. They’re about 25 inches long.
Ravens have a wedge-shaped tail with longer feathers in the middle, as opposed to the crow’s fan-shaped tail. And while both ravens and crows have curved beaks, the raven’s is much larger and shaped to consume carrion, with a downward curve at the tip.
The call of a raven sounds croaky or gurgly, not clear like the “caw” of a crow. They also have a loud screaming call.
Ravens walking on the ground have a distinctive gait. They will often pick up both feet in a little hopping motion as they go.
In flight, you can tell ravens apart from crows because ravens, like hawks, tend to catch high breezes and soar along. They can even do a barrel roll in midair. Crows will need to flap more instead of gliding as they fly by, though they can barrel roll on occasion, too.
While grackles have straight beaks, both ravens and crows have curved beaks. However, the raven’s beak is larger and more prominently curved. The raven also has bristly feathers at the base of its beak. (So does a crow, but they are smaller and less noticeable.) A raven’s throat feathers are also longer and shaggier than those of a crow or a grackle, though crows have a bit of shagginess on the throat as well. These feathers are called hackles, and the raven uses them in vocalization and other displays.
Ravens are resident birds that do not migrate. They do not travel in flocks, instead traveling in pairs or trios. They mainly eat mammals they find as carrion.
Quick Guide to Grackles Versus Crows Versus Ravens
We’ve learned a lot about these three black birds, so let’s quickly review the best ways to tell the difference between grackles versus crows versus ravens.
- Beak: The grackle has a flat beak, while both crow and raven have larger hook-shaped beaks. However, you can tell the difference because the raven’s beak is so large it appears almost menacing.
- Feathers: Check for a raven’s shaggy throat feathers and bristles around the beak. Although a crow has its own bristles and shagginess around the throat, its feathers are much smaller, almost like hair, while the raven’s are large and noticeable.
- Flight: You can distinguish between crows and ravens by watching them when they are in flight. The crow will flap its wings steadily, while ravens fly higher and glide on the breeze. A raven and a crow will both barrel roll on occasion, though a crow does it less frequently than a raven does.
- Size: Though it can be difficult to discern the size of a bird in some situations, if you are able to tell the bird’s approximate size, you’re well on the way to identification. A grackle is about a foot long, like a jay or a robin. A crow is about 17.5 inches long, about the size of a chicken. A raven is about 25 inches long, about the size of a red-tailed hawk.
- Tail Shape: If you can see the bird in flight, check the shape of its tail. You can distinguish between the two larger birds, crow and raven, this way. The crow has a flat fan-shaped tail in flight, while the raven’s tail will come to a point and appear wedge-shaped.
- Vocalizations: If the bird you’re trying to identify is calling, you’re in luck. These three birds have very distinctive calls. A grackle will whistle, squeak, and croak, and grackles are known for one call that sounds like a rusty, old fence gate. Crows are known for their loud, clear “caw.” Ravens croak, burble, and scream.
Want to learn more about birds? Check out our articles How to Attract Birds to Your Yard and Garden or Care About Birds? Use Native Trees and Shrubs For Your Landscape. Or if you’re coming from the opposite perspective and want to learn about keeping your garden bird-free, you can find out 12 Humane Ways to Keep Birds Out of Your Vegetable Garden.