Tag Archives: raven

The definitive guide for distinguishing American crows & common ravens

For two birds that are surprisingly far apart on the family tree, American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) and common ravens (Corvus corax) can be awfully hard to distinguish, especially if you rarely see both together.  But with the right tools and a little practice you can most certainly develop the skill.  Fortunately, there are many different types of clues you can use to tell one from the other, so feel free to use the links to skip around to what interests you.

Physical Differences

Although crows and ravens are superficially quite similar, there are variety of features that can be used to tell one from the other. Overall size can be a good place to start.  This especially helpful if you live in an area where they overlap, but even if you don’t, I find that people who are used to seeing crows take notice when they see a raven in person because it feels ~aggressively~ large.  That’s because ravens, by mass, are about twice the size of an American crow.

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A common raven specimen (top) with an American crow specimen (bottom). On average, ravens are about twice as big as crows, but individually there are certainly large crows and diminutive ravens.

This size difference becomes most obvious is when you look at their face.  Raven’s are much more adapted for consuming carrion than crows are (crows cannot break through the skin of a squirrel) and their bills give the distinct impression that they could, in fact, pluck your eyes from your face with little effort. So if your sense of things is that you’re looking at a bill with a bird attached, then you’re probably looking at a raven, not a crow.

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With practice, judging the proportion of crows’ and ravens’ features, like bill size, becomes easier.

Crow vs. raven measuremntsWith practice, judging relative size becomes easier and more reliable, but for a beginner it may not be useful because it’s so subjective.  Instead, it’s easier to look at the field marks (birder speak for distinctive features) which provide more objective clues.

When looking at perched birds, the most helpful attribute is to look at the throat.  Ravens have elongated throat feathers called hackles, which they can articulate for a variety of behavioral displays.  Crows meanwhile have smooth, almost hair like throat feathers typical of other songbirds.

Crow v raven

Even when the feathers are relaxed, the textural differences between the two species throat feathers are apparent. Note that in this photo, the crown feathers of the crow are erect, while the raven’s is not.  The difference in crown shape should not therefor be judged in this comparison.

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When vocalizing or displaying the raven’s hackles become especially obvious.

In addition to the hackles, ravens can also articulate some of their other facial feathers in way crows cannot.  During threat displays for example, ravens will fluff out both the throat hackles and their “ear” tufts.

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For birds in flight, however, it’s often difficult—if not impossible—to clearly see the throat feathers.  Fortunately, the tail offers a reliable field mark in this case.  Whereas crows have a more squared or rounded tail (depending on how much they’ve fanned the feathers) a raven’s tail will have a distinct wedge shape. Additionally, although they are a bit more subtle, there are also some differences in the primary wing feathers.  While both birds have 10 primary feathers, in flight, ravens will look like they have four main “finger” feathers while crows will appear to have five. Ravens also have more slender, pointed primaries relative to crows.

crow vs raven

Vocal differences

With a little practice American crows and common ravens can easily be distinguished by their calls.  The call of a raven can be best described as a deep, hollow croak.  Crows on the other hand, caw.  Of course, they can both make at dozens of other sounds including rattles, knocks, coos, clicks, and imitations. With practice even these can be recognized by species, but that level of detail is not necessary for most identification purposes.

Juvenile common raven yell (Recording by Antonio Xeira-Chippewa County, Michigan)
Common raven water sound (Recording by Niels Krabbe-Galley Bay, British Columbia)
American crow call (Recording by David Vander Pluym-King County, Wasington)
American crow juvenile begging call (Recording by Jonathon Jongsma Minneapolis, Minnesota)
American crow rattle (Recording by Thomas Magarian-Portland, Oregon)
American crow wow call (Recording by Loma Pendergraft King County, Washington)
American crow scolding (Recording by Kaeli Swift-King County Washington)

Geographic/habitat differences

While both American crows and common ravens have wide distributions across North America, there are some key differences in where you are likely to find them.  The most notable difference is that ravens are absent throughout most of the midwest and the southeast.  Crows on the other hand, occupy most American states with the exception of the southwestern part of the country.  The below maps from Cornell’s All About Birds website offer more specific breakdowns (hover over the images to see the caption). Note that the reason the American crow’s west coast range appears to dry up from the Puget Sound north is not due to a lack of crows, but rather because the crow species that occupies the upper half of the North American west coast is not the American crow, but the northwestern crow (Corvus caurinus).  The continued distinction between these two “species” is likely coming to a close, however.  For more on our current understanding of the differences (or lack thereof) between those two species check here.

With respect to habitat, both birds are considered generalists, with ravens erring more towards what one might describe as an “extreme generalist”. Ravens can be found along the coast, grasslands, mountains (even high altitude mountains), forests, deserts, Arctic ice floes, and human settlements including agricultural areas, small rural towns, urban cities (particularly in California) and near campgrounds, roads, highways and transfer stations. Crows meanwhile are more firm in their requirement of a combo of open feeding areas, scattered trees, and forest edges.  They generally avoid continuous forest, preferring to remain close to human settlements including rural and agricultural areas, cities, suburbs, transfer stations, and golf courses.  In cases where roads or rivers provide access, however, they can be found at high elevation campgrounds.

Behavioral differences

There are books that could be (and have been) written on this subject alone, so we will limit ourselves to what is likely to be most essential for identification purposes.

Migration
While common ravens are residents wherever they are found, American crows are what’s called a “partially migratory species” because some populations migrate while others do not.  Most notably, the northern populations of crows that occupy central Canada during the summer breeding season, travel south to the interior United States once the snow-pack precludes typical feeding behaviors

Breeding
Although trios of ravens are not uncommon, and there have been observations of young from previous years remaining at the nest, ravens are not considered cooperative breeders. Crows are considered cooperative breeders across their entire range (though specific rates vary across populations and not much is known about migratory populations).  If helpers are present they typically have between 1-3. So if a nest is very busy with more than two birds contributing to nest construction, feeding nestlings, or nest defense, it’s more than likely a crow’s nest, not a raven’s.

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Common raven eggs left | American crow eggs right

Diet
Although both species consume a host of invertebrates, crows consume a larger proportion of inverts and garbage relative to ravens.  Mammals, especially from carrion, meanwhile make up the largest proportion of a raven’s diet across surveyed populations.  Access to refuse and population location, however, can dramatically shift the dietary preferences of both these omnivores.

Flight
Because ravens consume a lot more carrion, which is unpredictable in its availability and location, they spend a great deal more soaring than crows do.  So if you see a black bird cruising the sky for more than a few seconds, it’s most likely a raven.  Ravens are also unique from crows in that they barrel roll to advertise their territory.  So if you see a  barrel rolling bird, there’s a better chance it’s a raven.

Interactions
In places where they do overlap, interactions between the two are often antagonistic, with crows acting as the primary aggressors in conflicts.  Ravens will depredate crow nests if given the chance.

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A raven defends itself from a crow by rolling upside down.  Someday I’ll get a better photograph…

Genetic differences

Throughout most of our history, we have used external cues like appearance, voice and behavior, to sort one kind of animal from another.  Now that we have access to a plethora of genetic tools, however, we can ask a new level of the question “what’s the difference between an American crow and a common raven.”

To put it simply, American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) and common ravens (Corvus corax) are different species in the same genus, just like lions (Panthera leo) and tigers (Panthera tigris).  Species and genus refer to different levels of the taxonomic tree, where species represents the smallest whole unit we classify organisms.  The issue of species can get complicated quickly, however, so I’ll direct you here if you want to learn what a mess it really is.  Most important thing to appreciate now, is that if you want a quick, back of the envelope way to evaluate if two animals are closely related, look at the first part of their latin binomial (scientific) name.  If they share that part then they’re in the same genus (ex: crows and ravens belong to the genus Corvus).  If they don’t (ex: American crow is Corvus brachyrhynchos and the Steller’s jay is Cyanocitta stelleri) then they are more distantly related. 

Within the Corvus genus, however, there is still a ton of evolutionary space available.  In fact, to find the closest shared relative of common ravens and American crows you’d need to go back approximately 7 millions years.  Although they are more visually distinct and don’t overlap geographically, American crows are more closely related to the collard crows of China, or the carrion crows of Europe, than they are to common ravens.

Crow phylogeny

Image from Jønsson et al. 2012

Laws and protections

US laws
In the United States, both American crows and common ravens are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.  This means that, like with nearly all native birds species, you cannot kill, possess, sell, purchase, barter, transport, or export these birds, or their parts, eggs, and nests, except under the terms of a valid Federal permit. It is this law that prohibits the average person from keeping these birds as pets, and requires that rescued crows be turned over to a licensed professional.  The MBTA also prohibits the civilian hunting of ravens under any circumstance.  Under 50 CFR 20.133, however states are granted an exception for crows, wherein with some restrictions, states can designate regulated hunting seasons.

In addition, under 50 CFR 21.43 of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, you can also kill crows without a license and outside of the regulated hunting season if they are in the act of depredating crops, endangered species, or causing a variety of other destructive issues.  You can obtain the specifics of the Depredation Order here.  Such lethal control must be reported to Fish and Wildlife to remain within the law. No such depredation exceptions exist for ravens. 

Canadian laws
In contrast to the US, no corvids receive federal protections in Canada.  Crows and ravens may receive provincial protections, however.

Concluding thoughts

Before we pack it up, I want to leave you with one last useful piece of information.  This whole article was dedicated to the question of how American crows are different from common ravens.  Hopefully, you’re walking a way with a solid understanding that these animals are in fact different morphologically, behaviorally, and genetically. Asking if American crows are different from common ravens is a different question, though, than asking if “crows” are different than “ravens”.  Because while that first answer is a hard, “yes,” there is no one thing that initially classifies a bird as either a type of raven or a type of crow.  Generally ravens are bigger and have those elongated throat feathers, but there are plenty of crow named birds that could have been named raven and vice versa. So proceed cautiously and consider the specific types of birds the question’s author is referring to before offering specific answers.

If you want to continue to hone your skills I invite you to play #CrowOrNo with me every week on twitter, Instragram and facebook, all at the @corvidresearch handle.  While it’s not to quite this level of detail, I promise it will help advance your ID skills and introduce to to more of the world’s fantastic corvids. For a head start, keep this charming and informative guide illustrated by Rosemary Mosco of Bird and Moon comics handy!

raven vs crow

 

Reference literature
Jønsson K.A., Fabre P.H., and Irestedt, M. (2012).  Brains, tools innovations and biogeography in crows and ravens.  BCM Evolutionary Biology 12
https://bmcevolbiol.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1471-2148-12-72

Freeman B.G. and Miller, E.T. (2018).  Why do crows attack ravens? The roles of predation threat, resource competition, and social behavior.  The Auk 135: 857-867

Verbeek, N. A. and C. Caffrey (2020). American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

Boarman, W. I. and B. Heinrich (2020). Common Raven (Corvus corax), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (S. M. Billerman, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

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Filed under Birding, Corvid diversity, Crow behavior, Crow curiosities, Raven behavior, Ravens, Taxonomy, Vocalizations, Wildlife

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.”

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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.

Velcrows

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?

Pinion

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.

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

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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.

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

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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?

Funny

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

***

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Filed under Birding, Just for fun, Ravens

It’s a wonderful raven’s life

Every year, Jimmy graces our screens as countless people watch him help tell the story of the Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life.  I’m talking of course about Jimmy the Raven, though I suppose one could make the same case for Jimmy Stewart.  Between the two, however, even Stewart recognized that it was the raven who was the superior colleague, and acquiesced to being referred to as “JS” to stop Jimmy from flying on set every time the director said Stewert’s name.1

“The raven is the smartest actor on set.  They don’t have to make as many retakes for him as for the rest of us.” – Jimmy Stewart, while filming You Can’t Take it With You in 19382

Among corvid lover’s, Jimmy’s role in It’s a Wonderful Life is surely a memorable delight, but few probably know the full extent of his career and accomplishments.

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Jimmy in a screenshot of It’s a Wonderful Life.

Jimmy’s first role was in Frank Capra’s 1938 movie, You Can’t Take It With You, after which Capra cast Jimmy in every one of his subsequent films.  As a result, Jimmy is sometimes mistaken as Capra’s pet, though he really belonged to animal trainer Curley Twiford.  In fact it was Jimmy riding on Twiford’s bulldog, Squeezit, along with two parakeets that initially caught a director’s attention and launched Twiford’s career as one of Hollywood’s earliest animal trainers.3

To make him more marketable, Twiford trained Jimmy to do a wide variety of things including opening mail, operating a typewriter, lighting a cigarette, flipping magazine pages, and dealing a hand of poker.  In the course of Twiford’s career he trained hundred of animals, but it was Jimmy and his subsequent corvids that he marveled at the most.  In a remark that will probably surprise no one, Twiford once said that of all the animals he trained, cats were the most challenging and corvids were the easiest, remembering their stunts for ten years.3

To achieve such tricks, Twiford taught Jimmy a sizable vocabulary of 53 words.  Since so much of Jimmy’s act (and therefore Twiford’s income) depended on Jimmy’s memory of these words, Twiford had Jimmy insured with a first of its kind “loss of memory” policy.4  Lloyds of London, which remains in operation today, wrote the policy–no doubt with ample side-eye from their competitors.  No word, though, on if they currently have any avian clients.

Twiford claimed that between 1938 and 1950, Jimmy had appeared in over 1,000 credited and uncredited films. IMBD, the contemporary scorekeeper of such things, lists 22 credited appearances, including The Enchanted Valley, God’s Country, and The Secret Garden.  He even had an extended roll in The Wizard of OZ, though the scene was later cut.

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A deleted scene from The Wizard of Oz

At the height of his career, Jimmy might well have been a household name, even having newspaper articles dedicated to his biography and upcoming films.  One such article in 1948 boasted that Jimmy possessed a, “Red Cross gold medal for his 200 hours spent entertaining Wold War Two veterans,” though the article did not specify if it meant the American Red Cross, or some other entity.5  Still, neither Rin Tin Tin nor Lassie (both of whom Jimmy worked with6,7) can claim such an honor, even if its true nature is rather murky .

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The Evening News. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. December 31, 1948. p. 12 (and, no, ravens don’t live until they’re 140 even in captivity.)

Jimmy’s last film was Three Ring Circus, filmed in 1954, nearly 20 years after his first movie.  Sadly, his subsequent whereabouts and death are unknown, though I found one article from 1957 that talks about a raven named Jimmy.7  For iconic animal actors however, their successors are often named after them and, indeed, an article published in 1958 mentions a raven by the name of Jimmy Jr., so it’s possible that other articles published during that time were really talking about different birds.8  Curley Twinford died himself only two years after Three Ring Circus in 1956.

Searching through newspaper databases, it’s incredible to see the amount of attention Jimmy received throughout his career. Like other Hollywood stars, his activities, on-set demands, and pay rate were all the subjects of much ado.  He charmed audiences and his costars alike, no doubt leaving impressions of intelligence that would not be widely accepted until much later.  It would be nearly another twenty years after his death before corvids such as Jimmy would be federally protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.  I can’t say what role, if any, Jimmy played in shaping the public’s perception of these birds, but it’s hard to imagine that such a star left without leaving a mark.

References:

  1. The Cincinnati Enquirer June 7, 1946: pg 17.
  2. Driscoll, C. New York Day by Day. The Choshocton Tribune. Choshocton, Ohio.  June 29, 1983: pg 8.
  3. Kohrs, K. and Ross, S. Movie Animal Man. The Salt Lake Tribune.  March 26, 1956: pg 109.
  4. Clary, P. Hollywood Film Shop. The Daily Republican.  Monongahela, Pennsylvania. November 18, 1948: page 6.
  5. Jim, the Raven, in new flicker. The Evening News. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. December 31, 1948: p. 12.
  6. Parsons, L.O. Those Film Fauna are Ticklish Detail.  Tampa Bay Times, St. Petersburg, Florida.  March 17, 1946: pg 79.
  7. Burton, R. Film Shop. Odessa American.  Odessa, Texas. April 30, 1957: pg 8.
  8. Performing Raven. The Tribune. Coshocton, Ohio.  August 23, 1958: pg 4.

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Filed under Corvid trivia, Just for fun, Ravens

RAVENous for crow eggs 

Given their similarities, it might surprise folks to see crows occasionally harassing and chasing ravens. After all, birds of a feather right? Not in this case.  Rather than being in cahoots, the relationship between crows and ravens is most often competitive, though it can also be predatory.

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A raven barrel rolls to scold an attacking crow.

Such is the case in a recent video shared with me by a reader, Ty Lieberman.  To the dismay of him and his colleagues, a crow nest they had been observing outside their Los Angeles office window was partially dismantled, and at least one egg taken by what they believed was a pair of crows.   Concerned for the survival of the nest, Ty reached out for my interpretation.  Based on his initial description, I wondered if maybe he had witnessed egg transport, something I knew had been observed in black-billed magpies and pinon jays.1  Previous accounts of these species included descriptions of eggs being taken, and then returned to the nest, as well as eggs being deposited into the nests of neighbors, both of which are utterly fascinating behaviors and probably warrant their own post.

To date, however, there are no accounts of crows engaging in this behavior, though there is one documented observation of a nestling being deposited into a nest from which it did not originate.2  Again, utterly fascinating, but not helpful here.

Later, a more detailed account from Ty made mention of the size of the intruding birds, which quickly led me to the story’s true explanation.  Shortly after my ‘ah ha’ moment, to the dismay of he and his colleagues the nest raiders returned, and this time were caught on video by one of Ty’s colleagues (who you can follow on twitter, @namnam).  Rather than being crows, these literal homewreckers were common ravens.

Instead of being something out of the ordinary, Ty had witnessed a typical breeding season interaction between crows and ravens.  It’s no wonder then, that crows can be so hostilie when ravens enter their territory. 

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Crows (top) mobbing a raven (bottom) in Kent, WA

Eggs of all kinds are one of the most power-packed meals in the animal kingdom, so it’s no surprise ravens would take advantage of crow nests when they find them.  Around this same time back in 2015, a black bear made a similarly memorable meal out of a raven nest, reminding us that for corvids of all kinds, it’s a constant fight between being predator or prey.

Literature cited

  1.  Trost CH and CL Webb. 1986. Egg moving by two species of corvid. Animal Behaviour 34: 294-295.
  2. Schaefer JM and Dinsmore JJ.  1992.  Movement of a nestling between American crow nests.  The Wilson Bulletin 104: 185-187

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Filed under Birding, Breeding, Crow behavior, Raven behavior

What’s in a (corvid) name?

Most people know various corvid species by their common names but have you ever wondered what etymologies inform their scientific names? Turns out it’s a pretty fun little exercise to find out!

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Before we get to breaking down individual corvids though, a quick word on scientific names more generally.  Scientific names always have the format: Genus species. Meaning, the first word in the name tells you what genus the plant/animal belongs to and the second tells you the species name specific to that organism. So for example crows, rooks, jackdaws and ravens are all in the same genus so their scientific names will all start with the same word: Corvus. The second word, however, will be unique to each species. This system of binomial nomenclature was first developed by Carl Linnaeus in the 1700’s.  By looking up the roots of an animal’s scientific name we can learn a thing or two about what he, (or whoever named it) was trying to highlight. Then again, sometimes they’re just fans of Beyoncé or Jonny Cash.

One more note: although scientific names are often referred to, informally, as Latin names, their roots may actually pull from many languages.  Though by far the most common languages are Latin and Greek.

As it happens, I have an old book of  root words I inherited from my late grandfather, Richard Swift. Something about having that book in my hands begged for this exploration in a way that having the breadth of the Internet at my fingertips never did. What can I say, a childhood spent in the library of my grandfather’s office has made me a sucker for old, smelly books. So let’s get started!

Common raven: Corvus corax
Common ravens are the biggest of the corvids (and in fact, the biggest of all the songbirds) so it makes sense their name might be the yardstick by which other corvids are measured. Cora literally translates to “crow, raven” so the common raven’s scientific name essentially just means raven.

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GO, the American crow

American crow: Corvus brachyrhynchos
Turning to American crows, we can see that yardstick I mentioned coming into play. Brachy means “short” and rhynch means “a beak or snout.” So the American crow’s full scientific name basically translates to the “short-beaked crow.”

junlge crow

Jungle crow, photo c/o Anne Kurasawa

Jungle crow: Corvus macrorhynchos
At this point, the meaning of the jungle crow’s name probably needs no explanation. The bird looks essentially like an American crow but with a more pronounced bill. Macr rhynch = large beak.

corvus_albus_-etosha_national_park_namibia-8

Pied crow, photo c/o Frank Vassen

Pied crow: Corvus albus
Alb means “white.” No mystery here.

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House crow, photo c/o Benjamint444

House crow: Corvus splendens
Splen means “a badge or patch.” With grey sweater they sport, it’s likely the person who named them was trying to highlight this physical distinction.

thick billed raven

Thick billed raven, photo: Ignacio Yufera

Thick-billed raven: Corvus crassirostris
Sometimes, scientific names are precisely their common names. Such is the case here. Crass means “thick” and rostr means “beak.” This is a good example of where we see different languages influencing the names.  In this case, thick-billed ravens got the Latin root, whereas American and jungle crows got the Greek root for beak.

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Rook, photo c/o Pam P.

Rook: Corvus frugilegus
This one is less clear to me. Frugi means “useful, fit” and legus means “lie down; choose; or collect” depending on what language you pull from. My guess is it’s supposed to be ‘collect’ and the name refers to the more specialized bill they have for collecting insects.

Finally,

grey-crow

The grey or bare-faced crow, photo c/o B.J Coates

The grey crow: Corvus tristis
Trist means “mournful; sad.” I have a feeling I know the backstory for this one but I’ll leave it to my readers to see if they can figure it out. Leave me your best explanation (made up or researched) in the comments!

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Filed under Birding, Corvid trivia, Crow curiosities, Uncategorized