Diagnosis: Murder

Most folklore and most appearence of ‘crow’ in our language and culture

SOUTH NEWFANE — A Murder of Crows was a 1998 suspense film that you've probably never heard of. Reviews were so bad that oblivion was its natural state rather than something into which it faded.

A Murder of Crows is also the name of rock bands in Michigan, Washington state, and San Francisco.

What's curious to me is why a term for a large number of crows should show up in popular culture. Does the phrase have play in a darker subculture that I know nothing about? Perhaps.

What is certain is that most cultures and folklore are ambivalent, at best, in their attitude toward crows.

“A murder of crows,” refers to a large number of crows. The term seems to derive from the persistent folk tale that crows form tribunals to judge - and punish - the bad behavior of a member of the flock. If the verdict goes against the defendant, that bird is killed (murdered) by the flock.

The basis in fact may be that occasionally the birds will fell a dying fellow crow who doesn't belong in their territory; much more commonly they feed on carcasses of dead crows.

As well, we associate crows and ravens with battlefields, medieval hospitals, execution sites, and cemeteries, all places where crows scavenged on human remains. These are not endearing characteristics.

The lore and myths of Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest attributed more endearing and benevolent characteristics to crows, but they were generally an exception. Crow was often a trickster in Native American folklore, similar to Coyote. But, unlike Coyote, Crow's tricks tended toward malice - probably because these scavengers were seen as pests amid the tribes' vital crops.

Most folklore and most appearances of “crow” in our language and culture are negative. At best they're neutral.

* * *

I grew up in Detroit at that ancient time when our Lions were the only professional football team to play a traditional Thanksgiving game. My dad and I attended the noon kickoff, cheered for our side, then went to my grandfather's home for the family turkey dinner.

I remember one year when the headline on the next day's sports page proclaimed that the Lions “ate crow” for Thanksgiving. I was sure that crow did not taste as good as turkey. Given that the Lions that year had been totally embarrassed by their opponent, I didn't have to struggle too hard to figure out that “eating crow” was not a good thing.

Crows get a bad rap. Loud, vain bragging is sometimes referred to as “crowing,” a reference to the determined sounds crows make. But why do crows corner the market on that sort of adjective? Why not jays - or gulls? I guess “jaying” or “gulling” doesn't sound quite right.

Then there are those lines and wrinkles, usually on the face, often by the eyes - they could be sandpiper's feet, or robin's feet, or neutrally, birds' feet. But no: they're crow's feet, and we associate them with aging, a flaw in our culture of youthful beauty.

So, as I said, if not negative, then neutral: a crowbar is used to pry an object up or open, much as a crow uses its beak adroitly. The crow's nest is that lookout nook atop the mainmast of old sailing ships. Note, too, the large, dark masses high up in winter's leafless trees. “As the crow flies” describes the straight-line flight of crows.

From Georgia we have “The Crows Are In the Corn,” the folk tale of the farmer and his wife who decided to sleep late one Sunday morning, the way the rich folk do:

The crows were gathered in a large oak tree, having a big morning meeting. They noticed that there was nobody stirring around the house, and that the corn was ripe in the field. So they adjourned their meeting mighty quick and flew over to the field to eat some corn. “Caw-n, caw-n,” they cackled excitedly.

The rooster continually cock-a-doodle-dooed, warning that,The crows are in the corn!” to no avail. The farmer and his wife slept on. The old turkey came strolling into the yard and watched the proceedings. Finally, he said to the rooster: The corn's all et up, all et up, all et up! When the farmer and his wife finally rolled out of bed, they found that the corn was all gone.

Thus, in Georgia, when it's time to wake up and get a move on, someone may say, “The crows are in the corn.”

In “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” the world's oldest work of great literature and arguably the origin of the story of the Biblical Flood, the hero releases a dove and a raven to find dry land. The dove circles and returns, but the raven does not. The hero concludes that the raven has found dry land.

This suggests that the intelligence of these large, black birds was apparent even in ancient times.

* * *

One summer day on a Newfane hill, I heard a murderous racket from a murder of crows up somewhere in the treetops, high overhead. The crows were angrily mobbing an owl, diving and harassing and screaming at the roosting nocturnal raptor. The great horned owl, the barred owl, and some of the larger hawks are among the crow's few natural enemies.

Driving the interstates, it is not uncommon to see crows driving off a red-tailed hawk or carrying one over the forest canopy. On that summer day, the hellish racket that accompanied their actions was an audio etymology for a “murder of crows.”

On a completely different note, recently I once concluded a day of coastal birding by stopping for a quick scan of resting gulls. Among the flock of mixed adult and juvenile ring-billed and herring gulls, I found a single adult Iceland gull. Gulls can be difficult to break into their respective species, but I picked out the Iceland gull confidently. It stayed still so that my wife could compare and contrast it with its cousins. I reminded her that she had never been with me on occasions when I had seen this gull; it was a life bird for her. At the very end of a long day of birding, we now had something to crow about.

Good birding!

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