As the Crow Flies The Mysterious and Intelligent Corvids
Pondered by Edgar Allen Poe
By: John Shepler
"Prophet!," said I, "thing of evil - prophet
still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us - by that God we both adore
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore -
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore."
Quoth the raven, "Nevermore."
- 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
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
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
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
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.