A matter of a pinion

Like all subcultures, the world of corvidphilia comes with its own set of corny jokes and puns.  Of these, perhaps none is more well known than the classic: “What do you call two crows?”

“An attempted murder.”


Despite their groan-inducing nature, I consider myself a connoisseur of such jokes.  After all, it’s rather flattering that crows are such a cultural fixture that they get their own jokes and cartoons.


There’s one joke though, that I have no choice but to spoil in the name of scientific accuracy. After all, what kind of scientist would I be if I left semi-obscure memes about crows go unchecked?


There are many version of the “matter of a pinion” joke but this one is the most cringe-inducing for me because it has the audacity to present itself as scientific fact.  The truth is, not only do corvids have far fewer than sixteen primaries, but the entire premise of the joke is simply wrong.

All birds have at least nine primary feathers, but most birds, particularly within the passerines, have ten on each wing.  Even outside of passerines, most birds have only ten, though there are exceptions.  Flamingos, for example, have twelve, and ostriches have sixteen.  Crows and ravens, on the other hand, are in no way exceptional, either from the norm or each other.

Crow wing

American crow wing.  Photo c/o the Slater Museum of Natural History.

Revn wing

Common raven wing.  Photo c/o the Slater Museum of Natural History.

So, no, the difference between crows and ravens is not, in fact, a matter of a pinion.  There’s one thing I do want to point out, though, particularly for you #CrowOrNo players.  While it’s true that crows and ravens have the same number of primaries, they do look different enough that in flight you can often identify a bird as either a crow or a raven based on its primaries.  Of the ten primaries, there is a handful that is longer and more distinct than the others, making them look kind of like “fingers”.  Looking at the wing pictures above, you can see that the crow has five evident finger feathers (feathers 5-9) whereas ravens only have four (feathers 6-9).  This difference is a bit easier to detect on birds in flight than on these static wing specimens.


Common raven in flight showing the typical four “finger” feathers.


American crow in flight with five evident “finger” feathers.

So with this in mind, it’s possible that with a little handwaving you can actually get away with saying the difference between a crow and a raven is a matter of a pinion, but by now there’s not much of the joke left since you have to leave off the initial context.  A much more scientifically sound version, however, would be to compare crows and song sparrows, which only have nine primaries.  “What’s the difference between a crow and a song sparrow?”

“It’s just a matter of a pinion!” And then, as with any good joke, you would explain to your audience the scientific merit of the punchline by describing the technicalities of wing feathers.

Funny right?


So what’s your favorite corvid joke? Let me know in the comments!



Filed under Birding, Just for fun, Ravens

29 responses to “A matter of a pinion

  1. Michael Cunningham

    Thank you! Great post. I had about a week of correcting this one and people getting upset with me for taking the fun out of what they thought was a punny post. Not sure what my favorites are though.

  2. Joey Shyloski

    When crows fly in the evenings to their rookeries it’s for the cawventions.

  3. Alix

    Yay! Jokes, I can do jokes!
    It’s -17 celsius, you see several crows sitting on a power line. What do you have?
    A murder in the 1st degree.

    Such a great post, I learned while laughing.
    Happy Holidays!

  4. eli

    Also, if there’s debate about which pine tree has the tastiest nuts, remember it too is a matter of a pinyon!

  5. Your post is every bit as funny as watching the Crows in the Pecan Tree out my window, they always bring a grin to my face.

  6. Gill

    Crow: Would you donate to my charity?
    Lady: Maybe… what’s it called?
    Crow: It’s four good caws.

  7. I’m an amateur bird watcher & corvid lover. Loved the article with clear explanations & images. Couldn’t you just make everyone happy by modifying the joke with science? Ravens in flight display 4 “fingers” and crows display 5. Doesn’t that aspect make it just a matter of pinions?

  8. Bryan Henshaw

    Why do so many crows/ ravens struck by trucks on the road?
    Because the lookout can only say “Car”.

  9. Ken Bouley

    “His stubborn refusal to distinguish between Corvus brachyrhynchos and Corvus corax can only be described as craven.” – from a book I haven’t written yet.

  10. Pingback: The definitive guide for distinguishing American crows & common ravens |

  11. Dr John Murray

    I saw 14 crows and 4 ravens this morning. Bit worried about Corvid-19

  12. Áine O'Riley

    My favorite Corvid joke:
    COVID-19 has mutated into CORVID-20, because the President of the USA has been forced to ‘Eat Crow.’

  13. Denzel

    Glad I checked this, because I saw this joke as a comment on some youtube video distinguishing crows and ravens, and I wanted to make sure it is actually a thing before using it for drawings. Thanks to your article I now not only know the joke ISN’T true, but I also know how to ACTUALLY distinguish crows and ravens flying in my art. Also love the corvid jokes. 🙂

  14. Someone has taken time to fix the meme.

  15. ann

    You all are actually making fun of a scripture that people are using for safety. I will pray for you. Psalms 91:4

    • Hi Ann, I looked up the scripture. Although it speaks of feathers it makes no reference to crows, ravens, their differences, or pinion feathers. If you want to elaborate on the connection between this joke and Psalms 91:4 I’d love to hear it. I’m fascinated by references to corvids in religious texts. And thank you for the kindness of keeping me in your prayers!

    • Judith Thymes


  16. Pingback: TODAY EVEN GOOD HUMOR HAS BAD LIES… | Towheeblog

  17. Pingback: Ravens and Crows, the joke dissected – ChukarBlog

  18. Paul DeCamp

    Saying they both have ten pinions means that scientifically their difference is NOT a matter of a pinion.

    Still sounds like a joke.

  19. toonerty

    Not corvids, but a bird-related limerick I wrote:
    When I see her my soul flies anew.
    Oh tell me, just what must I do?
    Should I finally mention,
    My lifelong intention.
    Which was strigine; to whit, to woo!

  20. Kwiila

    So one pinion feather just looks different? What you’re saying is; while you may disagree with the facts, it’s still just a matter of a pinion.

  21. Fish crows can be distinguished from ordinary American crows by their call. If you ask a crow if it is an American Crow it will reply uh-uh. And that’s straight from Cornell!

  22. Daniel Smith

    I thought this joke was at least some what factual but alas I was wrong anyways I enjoyed reading this thanks for taking the time to make it

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