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Identifying Black Birds

Whether you’ve watched one ominously portrayed in a horror movie, perched on a telephone line outside your house, or pictured on a Baltimore football jersey, you’ve probably seen a black bird. But can you tell what kind of black bird it is –  crow, raven, grackle, starling, cowbird? With simple online research and focused observation techniques, you can quickly become familiar with these black birds and develop the bird identification skills necessary to distinguish individual species. While there are many different species of black birds, we will focus on the most common of these birds – the American Crow, Common Raven, European Starling, Common Grackle, and Brown-headed Cowbird. 

When trying to identify birds, there are four main concepts to keep in mind: size and shape, behavior, color pattern, and habitat. Watch the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s video series ‘Inside Birding‘ for further information on these concepts.

Size and Shape

Here's a little cheat sheet of the relative sizes of these blackbirds.

Here’s a little cheat sheet of the relative sizes of these black birds.

Your first impulse may be to identify birds based on unique plumage details. However, it’s best to first observe the bird’s size and shape. Rule out certain species by comparing the size of the bird in question to the size of birds you’re already familiar with. For example, if you’re trying to identify a Common Grackle, observe that it’s larger than a Northern Cardinal and about the same size as (or maybe slightly smaller than) a Blue Jay. Consequently, we know that this bird cannot be a crow or a raven since they are both much larger than a Blue Jay. We also know that this bird is probably not a Brown-headed Cowbird or a European Starling since both of those birds are generally smaller than Northern Cardinals.

European Starlings can appear completely black under strong sunlight. Photo by JanetandPhil.

European Starlings have fan-like tails and  can appear completely black under strong sunlight. Photo by JanetandPhil.

The tail length of a Brown-headed Cowbird is nearly half its body length. Photo by JanetandPhil.

The tail length of a Brown-headed Cowbird is nearly half its body length.
Photo by JanetandPhil.

It’s also helpful to observe the size and length of the tail or beak. Compared to the Brown-headed Cowbird or the Common Grackle, the tail of the European Starling is significantly shorter and fan-like.

Behavior

Observing how the bird acts, what it’s eating, or what it sounds like can provide crucial identification information. This skill is demonstrated with the behavioral differences between American Crows and Common Ravens. Crows are very social birds – if you see a massive flock of large black birds, you’re probably looking at a murder of crows. Ravens tend to be solitary or in pairs. Crows and ravens also have different calls and sounds. Generally, American Crows have the standard ‘caw-caw-caw-caw’ call, which is simple and scratchy. The Common Raven’s call is a  deep, gurgling croak Remember that birds have a variety of calls with different meanings, so not all crow calls will resemble that simple ‘caw-caw-caw’ sound. Learn more about bird communication with our free download Bird Communication.

Color Pattern

It’s important to remember that the sex and/or season can affect a bird’s plumage (think of an American Goldfinch in the summer breeding season compared to one in the winter). Luckily for these five species, sexual or seasonal color pattern differences only exist for Brown-headed Cowbirds and European Starlings.

Female brown-headed cowbirds have different color patterns than males.

Female Brown-headed Cowbirds have different color patterns than males. Photo by JanetandPhil.

Male Brown-headed Cowbirds have a brown head and black body, whereas female Brown-headed Cowbirds are completely brown. Additionally, European Starlings may appear black with a green-purple tint during summer months. But in the winter, they have brownish  feathers and their small white spots are more apparent.

Keeping these intraspecific (occurring in the same species) differences in mind, we can still make generalizations about the differences in plumage patterns. For instance, American Crows and Common Ravens are black from head to toe, whereas the other three species are not. From a distance, Common Grackles look completely black, but actually have glossy blue-purple heads, bronze bodies, and unmistakable yellow eyes. The contrast between the brown and black plumage on male Brown-headed Cowbirds is a telling detail. And the European Starlings have distinctive white spots and yellow beaks upon closer inspection.

You can also observe color differences other than plumage patterns. For instance, Common Grackles have bright yellow eyes and European Starlings have yellow or tan beaks.

Habitat

A range map of the brown-headed cowbird from AllAboutBirds.com.

A range map of the Brown-headed Cowbird from AllAboutBirds.org.

When thinking about habitat, consider both your geographic location as well as your immediate surroundings. Not all of these birds can be found year-round across the US. For example, Common Grackles are not usually seen in the Western United States, and Common Ravens are not generally in the East.

Some birds are more likely to be spotted in suburban or developed areas, some on forest edges or in forested areas, some in fields and open spaces. Some black birds can even be found in all of those habitats. As a broad generalization, Common Grackles, European Starlings, and American Crows are more likely to be spotted near urban or suburban settlements compared to Common Ravens or Brown-headed Cowbirds. To find information about habitats and ranges, go to AllAboutBirds.org.

Also, be aware of your locational bias when you go birding out-of-town. Just because you’re used to seeing crows in your state or by your house doesn’t mean that the black bird you spot is a crow.

Hopefully you’ve learned some of the more obvious and subtle differences between these black birds. But in case you forget some of them, remember that the most important thing is to make a variety of observations when identifying birds, rather than focus on one particular trait.

Ideas for class activities:

  • Intro activity to lesson – label each corner of the room as size and shape, behavior, color pattern, and habitat. Have the students go to the corner that they consider the most important ID observation. Call on a couple of students from each corner to explain their choice. Elaborate on their responses to explain the strengths and weaknesses of that particular type of observation and emphasize the importance of using all types of observations.
  • Mini research projects – Divide your class into five groups, one for each type of black bird. Have each group explore AllAboutBirds.org to find information about their assigned bird. Make charts to organize the information and have students present their research to the rest of the class.
  • Have students write a paragraph about the bird they researched (or one they didn’t research), in which they creatively describe the bird’s appearance, habitat, and behaviors without using its name. Read the paragraphs and have the class discuss and identify the mystery bird.
  • Do some birding! Put these identification skills to work by going on a nature walk and observing local birds. Have students find a partner or get into small groups to discuss and share their observations. If students have difficulty identifying the birds, have them take notes on the bird’s appearance, behaviors, and habitat. Then identify the bird through class brainstorming and online investigation. Or download the free Merlin Bird ID  smart phone app to help students identify birds while outside.

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