Myths and tales of crows are as old as language. For thousands of years they have been feared, revered and seen as portents of good and bad luck. In Greek mythology, the once white crow is turned dark by Apollo’s glare. Ted Hughes tells a version of this myth in his poem Crows Fall:
When Crow was white he decided the sun was too white.
He decided it glared much too whitely.
He decided to attack it and defeat it.
He got his strength up flush and in full glitter.
He clawed and fluffed his rage up.
He aimed his beak direct at the sun’s centre.
He laughed himself to the centre of himself
At his battle cry trees grew suddenly old,
But the sun brightened—
It brightened, and Crow returned charred black.
He opened his mouth but what came out was charred black.
“Up there,” he managed,
“Where white is black and black is white, I won.”
The collective noun for multiple crows is a murder, inspired perhaps by their dark plumage, haunting calls and tendency to eat carrion. There are tales of flocks of crows holding trials and executing fellow crows for bad behaviour. Long considered folklore, such gatherings have now been witnessed. In Sweden these trials are called “kråkriksdag,” roughly translated as “crow’s parliament” with as many tales of crows acquitted as found guilty and torn apart.
A crow was found guilty in my back garden this week. From the kitchen I could hear a tumult of coarse caws. From the window I saw three trees filled with crows, maybe forty or fifty in total. Some circled, others darted down to attack a single crow which, for a while, stood its ground, surrounded by another dozen crows. The noise was overwhelming. I looked away for a moment, distracted by the telephone. When I returned my gaze the bird lay prostrate, wings spread wide on the ground. I thought it dead and opened the door onto the garden. The crows flew into the trees, still making their coarse calls. As I walked toward the spreadeagled jackdaw, it rose to its feet (do crows have crows feet?) and hopped circumspectly into the nearby hedge. The crows, after a while, dispersed. I looked into the hedge but could see no sign of the bird.
I’ve always been fascinated by this bird. When I was a child I used to follow their flight with my sight for hours. I used to enter their rhythm, imagining that I was one of them. Their gentle descent over a harvested field is an image that often haunts me.
Thanks for the comment, Sebastian. Yes, they are awe-inspiring creatures. The more I learn of them, the more enchanting they are.
Fascinating. I haven’t witnessed such behavior before. I know that crows (and other corvids, particularly ravens) usually become quite disturbed upon discovery of a dead one of their own, and have been known to “mourn” loudly over this loss. I wonder if they have a way of knowing if it has been a “just” death, according to their own code.
There is an ancestral crow roost near my neighborhood, and during the winter months hundreds of crows fly over my house every day in the early evening hours. One day a large group of them descended into my crabapple tree and devoured all the ripe crabapples in a matter of minutes. It was quite a sight.
Years ago, as a young teen, around 6 decades ago, I was returning home across fields from delivering newspapers to farms and came upon a Crows’Parliament without knowing what I was seeing. It was decades later that Sir David Attenborough talked about a rare sight involving crows, and gave it a name. Like many other fascinating observations of life on earth, we have an awful lot to learn about intelligence. Like Manuel said, in Fawlty Towers, “I know nothing.”