Why a Crow May Not Look “All Black”


It’s easy to say that a crow is “all black”. You don’t have to be a birdwatcher to know that all of a crow’s feathers are black. But closer examination reveals that at some point, even though all of the crow’s feathers are the same color, they are not all alike. This is partly because of the actual body contours and lighting effects and partly because the feathers on different parts of the body have different textures.

Imagine a jacket made up of alternating strips of different fabrics: velvet, cotton and silk. Even if all the fabric were dyed the exact same color (eg, black), the distinctive textures would make the stripes of different fabrics obvious. The different feather textures on a bird create similar effects.

In a typical land bird like a raven, the body feathers are still relatively soft and flexible, while the large wing and tail feathers are stronger, straighter and stiffer. As a rule, the body feathers are little or not glossy (with the notable exception of iridescent species like grackles and others). The wing and tail feathers, on the other hand, always have a slightly shiny sheen, regardless of species or color.

A small patch of feathers that is never shiny is the lores – the small area between the eye and the beak. The feathers there are tiny and erect, creating a fuzzy or spiky surface that looks more like velvet. If these feathers are colored black, as they are on crows and many other species, they reflect no light and appear truly black. On crows and other black birds, the lores always appear solid black, contrasting with the slight sheen on the forehead and cheeks.


The broad crow pattern shown above is common to many species of birds. Lore feathers are never shiny. The head and underparts feathers are somewhat shiny, and the wing and tail feathers are always slightly shiny. It is easy to appreciate these differences in a crow or other uniformly colored bird. It’s less obvious on, say, a sparrow, but feather texture still has a consistent effect on how we perceive the bird’s colors.

See also  Identification of Snow Goose and Ross' Goose

A version of this article originally appeared in the September/October 2019 issue of BirdWatching.

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