25 October 2011

Close Encounters of the Corvid Kind

Corvid in the Wind, Point Reyes National Seashore, California, 2011

I have been making a study of crows and ravens, the family of Corvids (from the Latin = Corvus, family Corvidae), all during the summer.  I find these birds fascinating because of their clever behavior and ability to use tools. I thought it might be fun to learn a bit more about them in a natural science way, so I am writing a natural science article about crows that live in and around Annapolis and Anne Arundel County for the Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary newsletter, Marsh Notes.  We have two types of crows here in Maryland, the American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) who is slightly bigger than his relative, the Fish Crow (Corvus ossifragus). 

Alongside the incredible scientific studies out their on crows and their raven cousins is the sheer amount of cultural encounters with corvid kind that I have had without even trying very hard.  My research into these birds in the natural world has opened up floodgate of mythological, sociological, and poplar culture references.

Something to Crow About, Big Sur, California
Crows are such an important part of language and our mythic psyche that it is difficult to summarize it all. You might have something to "crow" about if you are proud or be forced to "eat crow" for your misdeeds. If you need to get somewhere quickly, you might see how to get there "as the crow flies." If you need a hand, try a "crowbar," a tool which is named for the shape of a crows' beak, but I think it especially apt for a bird who can cleverly use sticks as tools to get at food as scientists have recently discovered. Farmers still put out scarecrows in the fields to ward off blackbirds from their crops, but the scarecrow is more of an artistic convention than a deterrent to these would-be crop-snackers.

Ravens seem to follow me everywhere, from the local football team here in Baltimore to Charm City's admiration for its resident storyteller Edgar Allan Poe, whose most famous poem is "The Raven." Every autumn, I see crows gathering in the farmlands, looking for tasty bits the farmers left behind. And I also see the Raven appear faithfully every October as one of the Halloween images along with ghosts and monsters. Ravens seem associated with portents of doom, and have been part of this cultural association since our ancestors watched them hover around carcasses and carrion. Therein lies the dark side of this bird family's mythology.

Opportunistic eaters like humans, corvids don't let a potential meal go to waste. Crows and ravens haunt the history of Western culture as harbingers of death and decay because they find our killing grounds, road kill, and trash heaps so appealing. I can understand why the angry farmers whose crops have been stolen don't like them, and why watching watching crows pick through garbage may make them seem "dirty" and unappealing to many people. When I look at my own Northern European ancestry, I find many stories that involve corvids seen in a negative light.

My Celtic forebearers, for example, often associated corvids with goddesses of battlefields, death, and devastation like Macha and Badh Catha. Ravens or crows might appear as companions to these angry, hungry goddesses, or in the case of the Morrigan at the time of Irish hero Cuchulainn's death, she might shapeshift into one.  This isn't very surprising, since part of the corvids' job is to take one human's tragedy and turn him or her into lunch. But fear is a powerful influence on the mind, and so corvids become associated with war goddesses and prophets of death.

Gods, too, are associated with corvids, including Bran the Blessed (Bendigeidfran, the name means Blessed Raven), whose severed head was said to be buried in the ground at a site upon which the Tower of London was built. Bran's head, and apparently since the reign of King Charles II,  modern ravens with clipped wings are there to ward off invasion.  The Norse god Odin has a pair of ravens, Hugin (Thought) and Munin (Memory), who fly the world each day on a reconnaisance mission to observe and report back news from Middle Earth.These are but two of the cultures for whom corvids figure widely in myth and legend.

Wherever people live, crows especially have found ways to live close to them. Ravens tend to keep themselves to themselves and seem to be less tolerant to humanity's grasp on the environment. Both crows and ravens, on the other hand, are a great interest to Native American peoples.  Corvids vary widely in their character from the malicious Trickster to benevolent helper of humankind in Native myths. My all time favorite depictions of these birds come the art of the Pacific Northwest and Alaskan peoples on bark paintings and wood carvings. So revered are these birds that certain families adopted crows or ravens as their symbols.

There is much to be read on the subject of corvids. For my personal explorations, I chose books that combine scientific and creative approaches.  Author Catherine Feher-Elston created a collection of mythic stories and factual essays in her book, Ravensong: A Natural and Fabulous History of Ravens and Crows (Penguin, 2005) that I want to recommend to anyone interested in exploring the folklore, as well as natural history, of corvids in more depth.  Likewise, one of the most readable studies from both the natural science and cultural perspective on corvids is by John M. Marzluff and Tony Angell entitled, In the Company of Crows and Ravens (Yale University, 2005).  Their book surveys scienists' understanding of corvids without neglecting their long effect on our culture. An artist's gorgeous illustrations accompany all aspects of their guide to corvid culture. And finally, for those deeply interested in ravens and their intelligence, you should not miss the incredible books Ravens in Winter and Mind of the Raven by ornithologist Bernd Heinrich, who is not only a brilliant scientist, but a natural storyteller.

My personal survey of crows and ravens leaves me more enchanted than frightened. I find their black feathers shine in the sunlight and their profiles to fit their obvious intelligence and nobility.  Their "caw-caw" and "quork" sounds more like discussion than noise to me.  I can't help it, but I find their antics amusing. I can see crows and ravens as tricksters, but not as malevolent beings.

The photos you see above and below are tributes to the corvids I spent time with this summer in California. There was one early morning where we drove up to the northern section of Point Reyes National Seashore and discovered hosts of crows and ravens lining the farmyard fences. As the car came up the hill, hundreds of black wings took flight on both sides of us and in multiple groups, the corvids flew away. They flocked together in groups. (Family groups? I wonder.) Always, they kept eyes on each other and us. Amazing. So much so, that I had to go back another morning to take more photos.

Fly by Wire



  1. Lots of info here! Great post, let me know when your article is published :)

  2. For anyone curious, my natural sciences article on crows is available online. See page 10 in the following PDF document in the Jug Bay Sanctuary newsletter: Marsh Notes, Winter 2011/2012.