As the Crow Flies
By: John Shepler
"Prophet!," said I, "thing of evil - prophet
still, if bird or devil!
- Edgar Allan Poe
In groups they are a conspiracy of ravens, an unkindness of ravens or a murder of crows. They are the dark foreboding birds of Poe's lament, the "black bandits" vilified for stealing the nation's precious grain during World War II and the scourge of farmers through the centuries. We may fear them, curse them or merely consider them occasional pests. Yet these are highly intelligent creatures, capable of counting people and making and using tools. Their deeds may also have saved more farmers than they have ruined.
They are the corvids. Their ranks include crows, ravens, jays, magpies, jackdaws, rooks and nutcrackers. The common crow is corvus brachyrhynchos, called Okohke by the Cheyenne, Gaagii by the Navajo, Corneille in French, Kraai in Dutch, and Corbie in Old English. The raven, a larger bird with a deeper voice, is known as Voron in Russia, Corvo in Italy and Korppi in Finland. Their domain is worldwide as is their connection with the spiritual world.
Perhaps because of their dark color and the fact that they are carrion birds, scavengers of dead flesh, be it of man or beast, crows and ravens have long been viewed as intermediaries between us and the afterlife. Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest knew the raven as "the great trickster." His tricks were said to have brought fire to mankind so that he would not freeze in the darkness. Ravens supplied water during periods of drought and made salmon for people to eat. Even the creation of man was supposedly the raven's doing. The image of the raven was honored by its appearance on the totem poles of the tribes. So, too, in Siberia stories persist about how the raven created the world.
Other native mythology includes the Sioux story of a white crow that would warn the buffalo of approaching hunters. The buffalo would stampede and escape, and the hunters would go hungry. Finally, one frustrated Sioux cast the white crow into a fire, which is how it became blackened from then on.
Perhaps you have heard the expression "counting crows." For centuries this practice, called crow augury or magpie augury, has been said to predict the future. If you see one crow it foretells an unhappy event. Two means a change for the better. A trio signifies a marriage, four a birth. Five at once is a positive transaction or silver. Six signifies gold in the form of wealth or greed. Seven is something of spiritual significance, perhaps a secret. Eight foretells a life altering experience, while nine means something sensual. Ten signifies an overwhelming sensation. Eleven is uncertainty. A dozen crows is best of all, for they foretell fulfillment and riches, an end to a problem or the answer to a question. There is a children's rhyme which goes "one for sorrow, two for joy..." that incorporates the counting of crows.
But did you know that crows also count? They keep a close eye on hunters, knowing the difference between a hunter with a gun and a farmer with a rake. If three hunters enter a blind and only two emerge the crows will keep their distance, knowing full well that one still lurks inside. They are not fooled until the number of hunters reaches five, with only four leaving the blind. The crows may then feel confident enough to return to the area, having lost track of the remaining hunter still waiting for them.
The scarecrows that farmers prop up among the corn stalks are almost laughable to the wily crows. Seldom does a scarecrow last more than a week before it becomes a handy perch for crows to rest upon between dives to the cornfield. Those cartoon crows, Heckel and Jeckyl, were not that far from true crow behavior as they mocked the simpleminded humans who tried to foil them. Perhaps it is fortunate that the farmers' scarecrows are so ineffective, because the crows who are being blamed for taking a "four talon discount" on corn kernels may often be attacking cutworms and white grubs instead. Woe has been the lot of the irate farmer who exterminated the crows only to find his crops destroyed by marauding cutworms instead.
Dr. Gavin Hunt of Massey University in New Zealand first observed New Caledonian crows manufacture and use hooked tools made by plucking and stripping barbed twigs. The crows would use these tools to forage for insects, centipedes and larvae on the islands of New Caledonia, 900 miles northeast of Australia. Early man hardly did better. Corvids are noted for having large brains for their body weight and may actually engage in forms of simple planning to solve problems.
So are crows our friends or foes? Who knows? The English monarchy is taking no chances. It has been prophesied that if the ravens who occupy the Tower of London ever leave, the tower will fall and with it the crown of England. The appointed RavenMaster is there to care for them, just to make sure they feel welcome. As for poor Edgar Allen Poe who so wishes to learn the fate of his beloved Lenore, he'll just simply have to ponder, weak and weary, on the answer to his query. Quoth the raven, "Nevermore."
Books of Interest:
Bird Brains The Intelligence of Crows, Ravens, Magpies, and Jays by Candace C. Savage. Now in paperback! Examines the lives and behaviors of the highly intelligent members of the crow family, corvids, and includes 61 dramatic images from the world's top nature photographers.
Mind of the Raven by Bernd Heinrich. Asks questions such as "are ravens conscious and emotional?" This award-winning naturalist, finds himself dreaming of ravens and then adopts ravens, thereby becoming a raven father. His personal experiences and observations in their natural habitat make the 29 chapters of this book an excellent study of how ravens think and behave.
The American Crow and the Common Raven by Lawrence Kilham, Joan Waltermire(Illustrator). A professional and up to date book based on 8,000 hours of field observations by Dr. Kilham, a distinguished ornithologist by avocation. Discusses subjects and play and thinking in crows. For anyone seriously interested in these birds.
The Raven: A Natural History in Britain and Ireland by Derek A. Ratcliffe. A wealth of information about this most spectacular and romantic of British birds. Includes chapters on The Raven in Human History, The Raven's Country, Distribution and Numbers in Britain and Ireland, Food and Feeding Habits, Social Behavior, Raven Movements, Associations with Other Animals, Breeding: Nest and Nest Site and more.
Also visit Books-A-Million for an excellent selection of new books, magazines, e-books, audio books and more at low, low prices.
Also visit these related sites:
Raven's Aviary - A Site Devoted to Ravens, Crows, and the rest of the Corvidae, with many articles and audio of the birds' calls. Also many links, including literature (Poe's poem & parodies).
Corvus.org - A website devoted to information, issues and blatant admiration of the American crow.
The Fabulous World of Corvids - facts about crows, ravens, jays and magpies, including the crows who count.
Crow Busters - A site for hunters and others who are not necessarily crow admirers. Does contain historical background plus information on hunting and (oh, dear) recipes for those who are so inclined.
Copyright 1999 - 2017 by John E. Shepler. Contact me at: John (at) JohnShepler.com
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First Published: October 17, 1999 as part of A Positive Light