Every evening we walk our dog Emma to Ina Coolbrith Park at the top of Russian Hill. And every evening there are a few scolding crows who object to Emma’s presence—who could blame them? She takes delight in chasing them off the grass in other locations around San Francisco whenever she gets the chance.
|Photo courtesy of John Winkleman|
But for the past few months, there have been more than a few crows at the top of the hill. In fact, there have been a whole lot of crows—a murder—which is what a group or flock of crows is called. (A group of ravens is called an unkindness, or a conspiracy. Rooks are a building or a parliament) Why a murder? (Why unkindness or parliament, for that matter? But I’m going to stick to crows and murder, here) Supposedly because of crows' historical propensity to show up on battlefields after a bloody fight, which led to their association with violent death. And whether it’s this attributive name or a more deeply imbedded superstition or Edgar Allen Poe, a gathering of a lot of crows feels somehow ominous. Like they’re plotting something. Like they’re up to no good. I keep a firm hold on Emma’s leash, in case they attempt to swoop down and airlift her out over the Bay. These Ina Coolbrith crows probably remember her from the other parks miles away—or have at least heard about her. I kid you not—crows not only have been proven to have face recognition, but to pass that information on to other crows—‘watch out for that bad guy’, or in Emma’s case, ‘that split-faced dog with the needle nose.’ And these birds are fearless—I’ve watched them, time and time again, work in pairs, dive-bombing a red-tail hawk they feel is infringing on their territory.
|Photo courtesy of Matt from London|
They’re also incredibly smart. John Marzluff, professor of avian social ecology and demography at The University of Washington calls crows and ravens ‘feathered apes.’ They have complex brains with astonishing reasoning abilities. They build and use tools. They are capable of three step reasoning. Without prompting or previous observation, a crow will retrieve a short stick dangling from a piece of string in order to retrieve a longer stick inside a cage in order to get at a piece of food in a long tube. That's complex thinking.
Crows also play. They use flats of bark to ‘surf’ the wind and take pleasure in sliding on snowy slopes. Crows have been known to engage in string play with cats. They play tricks on people. And dogs. Marzluff tells a story about a colleague on the University of Montana campus who woke up one morning to his dog madly barking—when he went out he could hear someone calling, “Here dog, come on boy. Come on.” When he went to see who was calling his dog, he found it was a crow! Later, that same crow gathered up a whole pack of dogs in the same way and when classes let out, the crow gave a big “Caw!” scattering the dogs, causing chaos and making more than a few students spill their bags of chips. A clever way to get a snack.
But back to murder. This concept of crows and ravens as harbingers of death, as evil omens. I know, of course, that it is a trope. That if you put a flock of crows in a story, the reader will assume something bad is going to happen. They will expect death to show up on the page by the end of the next chapter. But reality and fiction aren’t always the same and I’m starting to think that crows have gotten the short end of the stick, fiction wise. Maybe as our knowledge of these amazing birds grows and changes, the trope will change. Maybe someday a flock of crows on the page will signify a joke about to be played. Or a complex problem about to be solved. For as Henry Ward Beecher, an oft quoted Congressional clergyman in the 1800’s once said, “If men had wings and bore black feathers, few of them would be clever enough to be crows.”
Does anybody have other stories about crows they’d be willing to share? I’d love to hear about them!
Take Good Care,