Crows are arguably the most familiar birds in America. But in much of the eastern part of the U.S., including the South Carolina Lowcountry, there are actually two different species of crows, and they look alike.
One of these is the ubiquitous American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos), found across most of North America. This is the typical “crow” as far as most of us are concerned. It’s a large, clever, black bird with a harsh voice and a big personality.
But then there’s the Fish Crow (Corvus ossifragus), which occurs along the Atlantic coast from southern Maine to Florida, and along the Gulf. Over the last few decades, the species’ range has been expanding inland and northward.
Both types of crow are members of the family Corvidae, which includes many familiar and intelligent birds, including rooks, jays, and ravens.
Strictly speaking, Fish Crows are slightly smaller than American Crows, and there are other subtle physical differences that are hard to appreciate unless the two birds are seen together.
Fish Crows are more likely to be the species you’ll see near water — at beaches, marshes, lakes, and rivers.
But the best way to tell the two crows apart is by their calls. In contrast to the distinct “caw caw” of American Crows, the call of Fish Crows is higher-pitched and nasal, variously described as “waw-waw” or “uh-uh.” Fish Crows also tend to fluff out their throat feathers and adopt a hunched posture when calling.
Unfortunately, though, things aren’t always as clear-cut. Young American Crows, as well as females when courting, may make Fish Crow-like sounds.
Like American Crows, Fish Crows are opportunistic and omnivorous when it comes to food. They’ll eat anything from berries, grain, crustaceans, and insects to fish, small reptiles, carrion, garbage, birds’ eggs, and nestlings. Fish Crows have been seen dropping mollusks from a height to break open the shells. They’ll also steal food from one another, and from gulls and other birds.
While foraging, Fish Crows often stray from water, overlapping with American Crows in towns, parks, golf courses, farm fields, suburban yards, and landfills.
Like many other corvids, Fish Crows are social and gregarious. They nest in small colonies and flock together during the winter. In the Lowcountry they’re year-round residents, providing identification challenges to birdwatchers and a lively, if raucous, presence on our beaches.