How to identify which “Black” bird it is!

Common Raven - Image courtesy of USFWS Mountain Prairie

Whether you are in the concrete jungle, a park, or any rural area, if you look up in to the sky it seems inevitable that you will see a black bird in the sky. But which one is it?

Having spent a lot of time in the woods, and around the Woodland Ways instructors over the last three years, the term Corvid (not COVID) is used a lot for a family of birds. With everything else there is to learn to become an instructor, bird identification wasn’t really on my radar, not until I did the track and sign course last year. Needing to start somewhere with the subject, I thought I would research the Corvids in the hope of being able to answer that question, which black bird is it flying overhead.

I’m going to limit myself to the UK Corvids, for more information on the family as a whole, their diversity and intelligence, see Corvid Birds – Woodland Ways Blog – Bushcraft and Survival (

Of course, the first thing I discovered was the Blackbird is not part of the Corvid family at all, it’s part of the Thrush family!

I’ve been toying with the idea of developing a series of comparison tables to help my learning including UK deer species, tree and plant confusion species etc.  This is the what I’ve done for the Corvids, and I’ve included the Blackbird for comparison.

Comparison - Non ID Specific
Comparison – Non ID Specific.
Features Table
Comparison – Corvid features.

There are eight species of Corvid found in the UK, of these, crows, rooks, ravens and jackdaws are the easiest to confuse so the focus of this blog will be on them.

Magpies are easily recognisable and rarely confused with anything else.

Jays are widespread throughout the UK but can be difficult to see despite their colourful feathers.

The hooded crow and chough are much less common and have a restricted range.


Jay - Image courtesy of tsbl2000
Jay – Image courtesy of tsbl2000


Red-billed Chough - Image courtesy of J.M. Garg
Red-billed Chough – Image courtesy of J.M. Garg.


Magpie - Image courtesy of gcalsa
Magpie – Image courtesy of gcalsa.

Hooded Crow

Hooded Crow in Flight
Hooded Crow in flight.

Jay in flight

Jay in flight - Image courtesy of Bob MacInnes
Jay in flight – Image courtesy of Bob MacInnes.

Chough in flight

Chough in flight - Image courtesy of ahisgett
Chough in flight – Image courtesy of ahisgett.

Magpie in flight

Magpie in flight - Image Courtesy of chumlee10
Magpie in flight – Image Courtesy of chumlee10.

Hooded Crow in flight

Hooded Crow in flight - Image courtesy of Lip Kee Yap
Hooded Crow in flight – Image courtesy of Lip Kee Yap.

It has been interesting writing this blog as an exercise in learning and how the study of different bushcraft subjects has influenced my approach. When learning natural navigation, we can divide the various methods into indicators (tree growth, flowers following the sun etc) and absolutes (sun or stars).

Approaching the identification of the black Corvids in a similar many, the indicators such as habitat, time of year, sociability, population can quickly narrow down which are the potential species.

However, even those things that could be considered absolutes, can in fact still be open to mis-interpretation. For example, rooks have a distinctive white face and light-coloured beak, unless of course it is a juvenile, when it has a black face and looks very crow-like! But then you have to use behaviour as your absolute… you won’t see a white-faced adult rook feeding a crow.

Having dismissed the non-black Corvids, and the Chough because of its limited range and distinct red feet, we are left with Jackdaw, Crow, Rook and Raven for the potential black bird above.

I take full responsibility for any errors in the following analysis, this is my interpretation of the evidence I could gather from the internet, books and identification apps including the RSPB and BTO (British Trust for Ornithology).

What I deduced was that there was a key question to ask, what is the shape of the tail? The answer appears to be one of two shapes, either a fan tail, or a graduated tail:

Fan Tail
Fan Tail.
Graduated Tail
Graduated Tail.

That will split the four into two groups of two, the Jackdaw and the Crow with the fan tail and the Rook and Raven with the graduated tail.

Now, this is when you hope they are making a noise, as the easiest way to identify the difference between the two in each group is by their call…

Fan tail, Jackdaw “Chack” or Crow “Caw”

Graduated tail, Rook “Caw” similar to Crow or Raven “Cronk”

If they’re not making a noise then there are some differences: Jackdaw looks almost blunt in comparison to a crow by way of its shorter beak and broad neck. The rook’s pale face may be visible, if not the wing / body junction is different, the Raven’s wings narrow where they attach to the body whereas the Rook’s are the same breadth.

I have avoided using size as an indicator of species for obvious reason, in the sky there is unlikely to be something to use as a comparison scale. Having said that, Ravens are massive, buzzard size, which may also help distinguish between the species.

Jackdaw in flight

Jackdaw (Corvus monedula) by Lip Kee
Jackdaw (Corvus monedula) – Lip Kee

Carrion Crow in flight

Crows in flight - Image courtesy of Public Domain Photos
Crows in flight – Image courtesy of Public Domain Photos

Rook in flight

Rook in flight - Image courtesy of Wildlife Boy 1
Rook in flight – Image courtesy of Wildlife Boy 1

Raven in flight

Common Raven - Image courtesy of USFWS Mountain Prairie
Common Raven – Image courtesy of USFWS Mountain Prairie.

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