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