One of the most common questions is “What’s that big black bird?” The answer depends on when and where the bird was seen, and on how many there were, and if those clues don’t produce an identification, there are many subtle clues to examine, such as size, flight pattern, flocking and other behavior and so on.

The big black bird I’m seeing most often is the raven.

Twenty years ago, I would not have started with the raven when trying to answer a question about big black birds. Ravens have become much more frequent in our area in the last two decades. There have been nesting reports from several locations in northeastern North Dakota, and individual ravens are seen fairly often both in open country and in Grand Forks.

Last week, I also had two raven sightings in Grand Forks. One of these was from the parking lot of Happy Harry’s on the north end of town, not far from the UND campus. The other was at the parking lot south of Altru Hospital.

In both cases, I was concentrating on other business, but the bird I saw was unmistakably a raven, and likely the same raven, I suppose, though there is no way to tell for sure. Ravens are hard enough to tell from other big black birds, as we shall see in a paragraph or two, and they are even more difficult to separate individually – although Bernd Heinrich, author of “Ravens in Winter,” was able to do it.

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These ravens I think of as “the neighborhood raven” and “the city raven.” The neighborhood raven has many miles of open country to patrol, and likely finds adequate provender in roadkill and gut piles left by hunters. For city ravens, I’m not so sure, but ravens are omnivores, quite happy to take carrion and food waste, which a city the size of Grand Forks produces in sufficient quantity to sustain at least one raven and several hundred crows.

Crows are another of the big black birds. Unlike ravens, though, they are not so likely to be seen alone. Instead, city crows tend to form flocks, some of which can become quite large. On Christmas Bird Counts, I regularly see groups of 20 or more crows. This alone won’t separate crows and ravens, however. In fact, for most of my life, I found this a difficult challenge. So this is where the subtle clues come in – the clues you learn by watching.

At a glance, a raven appears to be a chunkier bird with a noticeably thicker bill and a wedge-shaped tail. Ravens make a game of gliding, often riding the wind in open country and rising thermals near tall buildings in the city (which explains their presence near UND and Altru). Equally important, ravens like to coast along while crows seldom soar at all, and then only for short distances. The definitive clue is the noise – a call, but not a song – that each species makes. Crows caw. Ravens croak.

Like ravens, crows have become much more common in Grand Forks than they were 20 years ago, probably as the city has grown, and thus a better source of food. At the same time, the urban forest has expanded, providing the roosts that crows like to use.

So as a general rule, a single big black bird is more likely to be a raven; a bunch of big black birds are more likely to be crows. Crows are more likely encountered in town in winter, though they spread out in the summer, when they raise young.

The eagles are other possible answers to the big black bird question. Both bald and golden eagles are appreciably larger than either crows or ravens. Both are most often encountered as singletons, except when they gather on carrion. Adult bald eagles couldn’t be confused with either ravens or crows, since the eagles have white heads. Golden eagles are rare here, though they do occur, most often in winter. Bald eagles are more often seen in summer, though lately some have spent the winter here.

The other big, black bird to consider is the turkey vulture. This is strictly a summer bird here, and it can be identified instantly both in flight and at rest. In flight, vultures hold their wings in a V-shape, and they characteristically soar together in great circles. At rest, the unfeathered head appears red. In flight, the head appears smaller relative to body size than the heads of any of the other big black birds.

More about longspurs

Dave Lambeth, dean of local birders, called me out about thick-billed longspurs. They do nest in the extreme southwestern corner of North Dakota, and he has pictures to prove it.

For me, the lesson here is that my conclusions do not constitute consensus.

Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at mjacobs@polarcomm.com.

Mike Jacobs
Mike Jacobs