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Crows and ravens have cast a spell over humans

Crows and ravens have cast a spell over humans

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Crows and their larger cousins, ravens, have played an important role in nearly every culture’s mythology and religions and often with odd and sinister twists.

What is it about these birds that has made them so central a character to so many cultural stories throughout history? Is it because of their singular shiny, purple-black color? Perhaps it’s their less-than-songlike caws and croaks. Or maybe it's because of their watchfulness that seems full of curiosity yet somehow remains detached and unsympathetic. Whatever the reason, humans have had a complex fascination with crows and ravens since written records began.

In the “Epic of Gilgamesh,” written centuries before the Bible and one of the oldest texts on record, there is a story in which the world is devastated by a flood sent by the gods. A man named Utnapishtim is given instructions to build a ship and fill it with animals so as to survive. When the deluge stops Utnapishtim sends out a crow in search of land, but the bird never returns to the vessel, implying it had found dry land.

In the Bible itself a raven is the first animal mentioned by name (Genesis 8:7) when Noah sends one from the ark, also in search of land. This one, too, never returns. Ravens are also listed as an “unclean” animal (like pigs) in Leviticus (11:15). In the Quran a raven teaches Cain how to bury Abel, the brother he has murdered.

Dozens of Native American tribes have creation stories that include a prominent role for crows and ravens — often depicting them as both bringers of light but also portraying them as troublemakers: selfish, conniving and perpetually famished. Hinduism views crows as bringing omens, and the practice of offering them food (little balls of grain called pinda) during the Śrāddha holiday remains common. Yatagarasu is a raven from Japanese mythology that was sent to earth as a heavenly guide for kings. In China, hearing the crow caw during negotiations is considered a bad omen.

The Greeks saw ravens as linked to Apollo — the god of light, healing, disease and prophecy. Vikings believed crows were synonymous with bloodshed and battle. In Norse mythology two ravens, Huginn (thought) and Muninn (memory), flew over the earth each day and then shared their findings every evening with Odin, the ancient king of the Vikings and their gods.

The reverence for crows and ravens is not just found in history. Even today in England there is a ravenmaster at the Tower of London who cares for the resident ravens because of the widely held belief that if the birds depart the British crown will fall.

A few words about the bird’s biology

The American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) and the common raven (Corvus corax) are both members of Corvidae, or the family of birds that includes crows, ravens, jays and tropical birds of paradise. Corvus is Latin for raven.

Both crows and ravens are large birds, although ravens are larger — about the size of a red-tailed hawk, nearly twice the size of crows. Both are considered extremely intelligent. One study conducted by Oxford University scientists in 2018 reported that crows are able to construct complex tools from up to four different components so that they can obtain food otherwise out of reach. Such a feat has previously only been witnessed in humans and great apes.

The normal life span for crows and ravens is 10 to 15 years, although captive animals have lived to be more than 50 years old. Captive-raised ravens can imitate people’s voices as well as parrots and can often be heard in nature imitating other wildlife.

Ravens and crows are omnivores, eating carrion, small animals, birds, insects, maggots, grain, nuts and dung. Ravens occasionally hide food in caches, sometimes burying it by using tools such as sticks. They might even construct empty caches to fool other ravens. Walk down any quiet street in the fall and you might witness large black birds dropping walnuts from the sky onto the hard asphalt. The “crack” of the nut allows access to the tender meat inside, but it often also seems a way for them to make passersby jump in surprise.

Beyond the size difference, crows have pointy beaks and fanlike tails, whereas the beaks of the ravens are thicker and slightly curved, and the middle feathers of the ravens’ tails are longer, giving them a distinct “V” shape in flight. Crows caw but ravens croak. Crows fly in groups, and ravens are mostly solo or in pairs. Crows flap their wings to fly whereas ravens soar on thermal upswells.

A note about anthropomorphism

Anthropomorphism attributes human traits, emotions or intentions to non-human entities. We often talk about animals in human terms, as in “My dog is happy” or “That kitten looks lonely.”

When I was training to become a biologist, it was drilled into us from undergraduate classes to advanced-graduate seminars that to remain objective it was important to avoid any trace of anthropomorphism. The rationale is that there is no scientific method to find out exactly how a non-human organism feels or thinks. We only know how it is constructed or how it reacts to stimuli.

Although I still believe it’s a challenge to determine how a nonhuman animal feels and thinks, I am now convinced that that’s more to do with our scientific limitations rather than a hard line between the reality of humans and nonhumans. This change in thinking is not limited to me. Much of the scientific community has softened its stand on attributing human characteristics — happy, sad, depressed, bored and the like — to our nonhuman brethren.

Looking skyward

Anything that has consumed as much human interest and intrigue as have crows and ravens must also have a prominent place in the night sky. The constellation Corvus is located primarily in the Southern Hemisphere but is visible in our Northern Hemisphere from January until May. It is a small constellation, ranking 70th in size among the 88 constellations, and it is one of nine that depict birds. The four brightest stars in this constellation form a square known as Spica’s Spanker because two of the stars point the way to Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo.

Corvus is one of the 48 constellations identified by the astronomer Ptolemy in the second century, but it was known by the Babylonians 2,000 years earlier. They saw it as a raven, too, and it was sacred to Adad, their god of rain and storms.

According to the book “Catasterismi” (a prose retelling of the mythic origins of stars and constellations from the third century BCE), the ancient Greeks believed the Corvus constellation was created by Apollo, who had sent a crow to fetch water. Instead, the bird wasted time eating figs and returned late and full of excuses. Apollo punished the crow by throwing it into the heavens and condemning it to eternal thirst — hence the bird’s hoarse call.

Small though it is, the Corvus constellation offers more than just ancient stories. It also contains interesting deep-sky objects that include the Antennae and Ringtail galaxies. Each the size of our own Milky Way Galaxy, these two have collided with one another, and the violence of their impact has contorted their shapes, throwing off plumes of gas that appear to some like insect antennae when viewed by the world’s most powerful telescopes. To me they look more like two birds entwined in a dance.

The poetry of crow

Attributing anthropomorphic characteristics to crows and ravens has deep roots in the human story. Storytellers and poets have long attributed these mysterious birds with a cleverness and cunning that often includes mischief, malice or a mordacious slant.

The poet Anne Sexton used the crow to represent the power and ominous fear of death in her poem “Flee on Your Donkey,” written in 1966 about the trials and tribulations of drug addiction and mental illness: “…Today crows play black-jack on the stethoscope,” she wrote.

Centuries earlier Ovid, in his “Metamorphoses Book II,” told the story of how crow tried to warn raven on the folly and risks of unveiling someone else’s secrets in “The Raven and the Crow.” Alas, raven did not heed crow’s warnings in the Roman poet’s allegory and was eventually shot with an arrow by the very god most associated with the bird — Apollo.

The English poet Ted Hughes referenced the crow so frequently that he titled one collection “Crow,” and he is often remembered as the “crow poet.” To help explain the loss and grief over his wife, Sylvia Plath, an American writer and poet who committed suicide in 1963, he referenced the crow as a metaphor for their intense, occasionally violent and abusive six-year relationship.

In Hughes’ poem, “Crow’s First Lesson,” God tries unsuccessfully to teach crow to say love, but every time the crow tries to speak some new pestilence or violence is released instead. At the end of the poem God tries to separate a man and woman who’ve merged into a violent embrace as the crow flies “guiltily off.”

Probably the most famous poem referencing the black bird is “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe. Published in 1945, this poem tells the story of a man who has lost his beloved. He begins speaking with a raven whose only response is, “nevermore.” At first the man seems fine with this, but by the end of the poem he has been driven to despair by his grief and the seemingly heartlessness of the bird’s repetitive taunts.

“And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting / On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door; / And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming, / And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor; / And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor / Shall be lifted — nevermore!”

The Greek goddess Athena is often said to be the Pallas in Poe’s poem, mainly because Homer referred to the goddess frequently as “Pallas Athena.” Interpreters have imagined Poe’s Pallas references to conjure up Athena’s propensity for wisdom. That may be true; however, Pallas is also the Greek name of a mythological goat-skinned giant who fought Athena and her father, Zeus, in the Gigantomachy war. In that battle Pallas the giant was defeated, and his hide was used by Zeus to make the Aegis shield. To make matters more complex with this part of Poe’s poem, another name associated with Pallas is Minerva, a goddess who was killed by Athena in a “friendly” battle because she’d been distracted by Zeus’s Aegis shield.

To my mind, the “…pallid bust of Pallas” referred to in Poe’s poem is not just a beautiful-sounding collection of words but instead an echo of the repetitive raven. A reminder that each moment is a wonderful, fleeting gift as it is experienced, but if we insist each instance cough up its secret meaning we are left with only frustration and madness.

Grief is the Thing With Feathers

Hundreds — if not thousands — of writers over the millennia have used crows and ravens to try and help explain everything from the origins of life to our helplessness against death. I promise you that if you increase your awareness of these birds during your walks and outings you’ll begin to understand why. Crows and ravens are smart, expressive, aloof and sometimes humorous, and these gorgeous silken black fowl are captivating to watch and ponder.

Perhaps it’s exactly as the English writer Max Porter envisions these birds in his fabulous book published in 2016, "Grief Is the Thing With Feathers,” when the crow in his story admits,

“What good is a crow to a pack of grieving humans? A huddle. A throb. /A sore. /A plug. /A gape. /A load. /A gap. So, yes. I do eat baby rabbits, plunder nests, swallow filth, cheat death, mock the starving homeless, misdirect, misinform. Oi, stab it! A bloody load of time wasted. But I care, deeply. I find humans dull except in grief.”

Irish TV camerman films Calistoga's Charlotte William's scrub-eating goats on a property in Angwin as they start their day.

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