Identifying Black Birds

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Whether in a horror movie, or perched outside your house you’ve probably seen an all-black bird. Could you tell what kind of bird it was: crow, raven, grackle, starling, cowbird?

With a quick search and focused observation techniques, you can 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 ones, 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 more information on these concepts.

Size and Shape

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

Your initial impulse may be to identify birds based on their unique plumage details. However, a bird is often too distant or silhouetted to accurately make out any details. It’s best to observe the bird’s size and shape first. 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. Thus, 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. It’s also helpful to observe the size and length of the tail or beak

European Starling©Mike LitakMay/Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab
Brown Headed Cowbird©Mike LitakMay/Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab

Behavior

Observing how a bird acts, what it’s eating, or what it sounds like provides crucial identification information. Note 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 use the standard caw-caw sound, which is simple and scratchy. The Common Raven’s call is a deeper gurgle. Remember that birds have a variety of calls with different meanings, so not don’t expect to always hear one 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. Luckily, with these five species, only the Brown-headed Cowbird and European Starling change appearance depending on sex and season.

While 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 brown and black plumage on male Brown-headed Cowbirds is a telling detail, and European Starlings have distinctive white spots and yellow beaks upon closer inspection. All you need is a few striking, visual differences to differentiate.

Showing seasonal colors of European StarlingsEuropean Starling©Eric Blomberg ,and James Hill, /Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab
Male Brown-headed Cowbirds ©Steven Mlodinow/Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab

Habitat

When thinking habitat, consider both your geographic location as well as your immediate surroundings. Some birds are more likely to be spotted in suburban areas, some in forested areas, others in fields and open spaces. A few of our black birds can be found in all of these 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.

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.

Note: be aware of your locational bias when you go birding out-of-town. Just because your region commonly has a certain bird, it doesn’t mean that other areas do too. To find information about habitats and ranges, go to AllAboutBirds.org.

Hopefully, you’ve learned some obvious and subtle differences between these black birds. It’s okay if 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. Now go out and ID some birds!
 

Ideas for class activities:

  • Intro activity – 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) 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.
  • 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 app to help students identify birds while outside.

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