Be Your Own Birder

A Confusion of Crows

The names of flocks of crows are creative – murder, horde, and cauldron are the most common options, with congress and muster also denoting a gathering of crows. But in my experience, I need to add one more to the list – confusion.

In the area I live, there are a number of large, plain, black birds that can be seen. While size is an easy way to distinguish the turkey vultures and black vultures from other birds, and the long tails set the boat-tailed grackles apart from the common grackles, it’s much more challenging to tell the American crows from the fish crows.

Fish Crow

Fish Crow – Photo by Scott Heron

The biggest clue always given for separating these two birds sounds easy, and in fact, is all about sounds – just listen to them. Okay… I did that, over and over. Both of these corvids do have some very distinct calls, that’s true, but some other calls can be very similar. I’m already fussy with my personal bird identifications (I want to be positive and feel confident that I’ve identified the bird correctly). It doesn’t help that traffic noises, other birds (including that jerk mockingbird who owns the neighborhood), wind, distance from the birds, and other ambient sounds can all distort bird sounds, making it even more challenging to listen to very subtle differences.

My solution was to try and watch the birds calling, just to be sure I was certain which bird was making which noises. I happened to be near to what sounded like a mixed flock, with both dull throaty calls and harsher raspy calls that could indicate both fish crows and American crows in the mix. I’d already checked online resources and reports, and I know that both can be seen in the area. I already have the American crow on my life list, but I was greatly interested in being sure I saw a fish crow. For awhile, however, the birds were completely uncooperative.

  • They wouldn’t come out into the open so I could see who was making which sounds, or as soon as I’d see a bird well, it would decide to be quiet.
  • They only made single-note calls, rather than the characteristic double-note of the fish crow that I was hoping for a positive identification.
  • Whenever I’d see one in good light, with a good angle for watching them call, they’d decide they’d had enough of that perch and needed to move 100 yards away.

Finally, I did get one reasonably compliant crow to stay still, stay in good light, and make that unique double-note call. Fish crow confirmed!

And finally, that’s a new lifer for me. Undoubtedly I’ll have wonderful opportunities to observe these birds in the near future, probably seeing them up close and calling up a storm (which usually happens after I’ve struggled and twisted and cajoled to get that lifer confirmation). But at least now I’ll feel better about knowing which bird is which, even if they’re less than cooperative at times!

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