A crow flying above the Molonglo River on the border of ACT and NSW
A crow flying above the Molonglo River on the border of the ACT and NSW. Image by Stuart Coulson/AAP IMAGES

Viral crow joke murders the truth with featherbrained claim

AAP FactCheck December 16, 2021

Ravens have 17 main wing or "pinion" feathers while crows have 16, and that is the difference between the birds.


False. Ravens and crows have the same number of pinion feathers, 10.

A meme claims ravens have one more main wing feather – also known as a pinion – than crows, making the difference between the two birds merely “a matter of a pinion”. 

While the text is a clever play on words, it is factually incorrect. Multiple bird experts have told AAP FactCheck that crows and ravens have the same number of pinion feathers, although the corvids differ in other ways.

The meme, shared on Facebook, states: “Scientifically, a raven has 17 primary wing feathers, the big ones at the end of the wing. They are called pinion feathers. A crow has 16. So, the difference between a crow and a raven is only a matter of a pinion.” 

There are many versions of the joke online, see here, here, here and here

University of Washington postdoctoral scholar Kaeli Swift is an expert on corvids, a family of birds that includes crows and ravens. She told AAP FactCheck via email that crows and ravens have the same number of pinion feathers – and it’s 10, not 16 or 17.

Dr Swift wrote an article debunking the meme which says “the entire premise of the joke is simply wrong”. However, she notes the pinion feathers of crows and ravens do appear different in flight. Ravens have four evident finger feathers when flying, while crows have five.

“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,” her article says.

There are other differences between the two birds. In another article, Dr Swift says common ravens in America are about twice the size of American crows. Ravens also have elongated throat feathers called hackles and the birds have different calls – ravens make a “deep, hollow croak”, while crows make a “caw” sound.

Griffith University behavioural ecologist Darryl Jones has published a number of papers on corvid behaviour. He told AAP FactCheck the post was “an attempt at being a bit too clever”.

Professor Jones also noted Australian species of the birds – unlike their American counterparts – were very similar, with ravens the slightly larger of the pair.

“It’s very hard to distinguish any of these species on size. But crucially, there is no simple, obvious difference,” he said in an email.

Australian Museum ornithologist Jacqueline Nguyen also told AAP FactCheck that Australian ravens and crows are closely related, with minor differences such as ravens having hackles while crows’ beaks are slightly longer and more slender.

“Sorry to ruin the punchline but crows and ravens both have 10 primary feathers/pinion,” Dr Nguyen said in an email.

The Verdict

Unfortunately the punchline in the Facebook meme doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Ravens and crows both have 10 primary pinion feathers, experts told AAP FactCheck, not 16 or 17 as claimed.

False – The claim is inaccurate.

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