Daily winter encounters with the local murder of crows, and exploring crow folklore.
I hear them as the working day draws to a close. I smile to myself when I sit in a meeting and hear them in the distance. It’s the local murder of crows, hundreds of them squabbling through their roosting rituals in the trees near my office.
They gather in the trees with a great cacophony of caws then, upon an unseen signal, they all burst out, flying out en masse before sweeping back to settle once again. They repeat this until finally, after one last round, the crows fall silent in the trees, black upright baubles on dark branches silhouetted against the dusk light and sky colours of the day ebbing into darkness. Then they are lost from sight as the winter night tightens her cold dark grip. By the time I return in the morning, they are already gone, the trees silent and bare.
There’s something wonderfully reassuring about this daily convivial ritual, a rhythm of nature carrying on in the midst of a place shaped by humans. The crows are utterly indifferent to the human world below: the students with their heads down to their phones – their faces bathed by the blue glow from their screens, the buses rumbling below them, the people hurrying to their cars slightly disconcerted by this avian display, because everyone’s seen The Birds right?
Crows are an intelligent social, family-orientated species. Large roosts can number up to hundreds of thousands of crows. Yet for crows, roosts primarily occur during autumn and winter, and during the breeding season they tend to sleep on their territories. It’s tempting to anthropomorphise the roosts as noisy socialising but they happen for practical reasons.
One idea is that the birds are congregating in numbers for protection from predators. They could also be exchanging information about good foraging areas. The crows looking in good health might be followed the next day by their hungrier contemporaries. Another food-related idea is the patch-sitting hypothesis where roosts congregate around a large, reliable food source that’s available first thing and last thing in the day to keep them going.
A crow’s funeral
The sight of a dead crow can attract hundreds of crows to a ‘funeral’ like ritual. The live crows almost never touch the dead one; their gathering is a survival strategy where they try to learn about threats, and what happened to the dead bird. Experts observe that they are hesitant to revisit spots where they’ve encountered a dead bird.
Intelligent survival strategies adopted by birds can be ruthless. Injured or sick birds are often attacked and killed by their own species, and crows are no exception. It’s thought that such extreme violence is protection, as an injured bird can attract dangerous predators.
Why a murder?
According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), bird-watchers and poets have been using the term murder since at least the 15th century. The OED speculates may allude to the cows dark associations, or “to the crow’s traditional association with violent death, or … to its harsh and raucous cry.”
Crow and raven folklore
Crows and ravens, although in the same genus (Corvus) are different birds. However, folklore often seem to confuse crows, rooks and and ravens. Their black plumage, croaking call and penchant for scavenging on the flesh of the recently deceased, associate them with death, loss and ill omen.
Their role in folklore and literature can be complex. The raven is a talking bird that can often represent prophecy and insight. Ravens in stories can connect the material and spirit worlds. As a carrion bird, they are mediate between life and death, with living and lost souls. In Swedish folklore, they are the ghosts of murdered people without Christian burials and, in German stories, damned souls.
In Greek mythology, ravens are associated with Apollo, the god of prophecy. They are said to be a symbol of bad luck, and were the god’s messengers in the mortal world. Apollo sent a white raven, or crow in some versions, to spy on his lover, Coronis. When the raven brought back the news of Coronis’s infidelity, Apollo scorched the raven in his fury, turning the animal’s feathers black, which is why all ravens are black today.
In Irish mythology, the crow is seen as a manifestation of the Morrigan meaning phantom or great Queen. She was a deity signifying ‘battle, strife and sovereignty’, a harbinger of war and death, who regarded the battlefield as ‘her garden’. It’s perhaps why members of the Corvus family have such an ancient reputation because they gathered over battlefields to enjoy feasting on fallen warriors. Despite this being an useful part of nature, it’s understandable why crows would have been viewed with dread by those involved in battle.
Crows are also known for the damage they cause in fields of crops, hence the ‘scare-crow’, although some think it would be more accurate to call them scare-rooks. The old expression, ‘as the crow flies’ also refers more to rooks who do fly in direct lines.
Back to the murder
I don’t hear the murder anymore. The days are longer now and light is slowly reclaiming its ascendancy. Maybe, their roost still happens after I’ve left. Maybe, mass winter roosting is drawing to a close. Time and the seasons pass and shift.
I sit in a meeting and I think I hear something. Was that the cry of the first oyster catchers, arriving for their spring breeding on the loch?