Night-black; void-black; black as December-seas – crows can be encountered like silhouette cut-outs on a sunny day; you can’t expect them to move, to soar, to have life. They sit sentinel and watching. Maybe that is why this effusive bird has garnered such a dire reputation through the ages, from being the harbinger of death and the herald of war to even having the title ‘carrion’ appended to its name.
But they gleam with cold-eye sparkle. It’s a hard eye-light which is more like how the starlight can be hard; both intractable and piercing. They turn their head to look your way, to really get the measure of this human that disturbs their games. They see you long before you see them.
Crows and corvids have a bad press. As the attendants of the Irish Morrigan, the goddess of battle and fate they scour the battlefields of the recently dead. In Ancient Greek myth, when a white crow told the sun-god Apollo of an affair between one of his wives (Coronis) and Ischys, in his anger Apollo glared at the poor bird and burned its feathers forever black, thus starting the tradition that crows were the bearers of bad tidings.
But crows are also iridescent; insect-green, mediterranean-indigo, temple-purple. This is due to the high density of their feathers, which are structurally strong for their intense aerobatic displays. Feathers are made of keratin – the same stuff as our hair and nails – whose thread-like structures refract pockets of light. The iridescant gleams of a crow’s wings actually describes the way that it shortens the wavelength of light travelling along its form. In the same way that these dark forms capture and transmute light to reveal an entirely different character, we also find that they are intelligent, generous, social, and highly protective creatures.
Crows are cooperative breeders – meaning that whilst one family can raise fledglings, it is more common for whole roosts to help the breeding family by getting food and nesting materials. That might go some way to explain the gang of three corvids that I’ve blogged about before. We all know how intelligent crows are. Crows are also overwhelmingly protective animals, and in my humble opinion should be up there occupying the same psychic space as dogs for their loyalty and guardianship.
Khaaar-Khaaar-Khaaar: A round of two, three or four caws, spoken from the top, most-exposed branch of a tree used as a form of signalling between crowfriends. Almost like a corvid version of beating-the-bounds, a crow will Khaaar to indicate the territory it watches over, adjusting the number of Khaaars to the nearness of its fellows. Four Khaaars will be responded to by another four from the further crow, whereas a ‘1 Khaaar’ will indicate that the next warden is very near.
Crow as the fast-flyer, hedge-clipper, turnfeather-fighters are creatures that will mob the far bigger kites, buzzards, owls and even humans who dare to endanger their nests. This requires teamwork and insane bravery, as the fighting-crows spin downwards out of the sky to attack a bird that is sometimes three or four times it’s size.
Khreee-Khreeee! A rising crescendo of crow shreiks that indicate that The Fight Is On. Often deafening, in appearance it is like watching a broiling black cloud of anger.
Crowtounge is a highly fluid and contextual language. Over the years we have looked after two wayward fledgling corvids, one of whom (Horace the Rook) met his emergency food rations with a wide range of clicks and rasps. All corvids have been known to imitate humans and to produce a dizzying variety of whistles, hisses, clacks and burrs with those folk that they feel comfortable with. This is because crows are hardwired to be social animals. Unlike their rather drear reputation; a happy crow is one that has a community, and if through illness or tragedy they are seperated from their colony they will seek to recreate that close bond with the beings around them. So highly social are they, that Corvids have been known to remember, avoid, or even attack humans that have wronged their colonies in the past (even if the offended crow wasn’t a victim). Ravens have also been known to remember cheaters within their own clans; if a Raven steals anothers food then it won’t be invited on group forages. A common (if uncanny) British tale tells of the ‘Parliament of Ravens’ that could be discovered in some out of the way field: a circle of talking Ravens with one Raven in the middle who could be a King, a confessor, a president or the accused for all we know…
Rakh: A short glottal rasp used often but singularly, that I take to be the basic phoneme of crow-language – or maybe so ubiquitous to be their version of ‘and’ ‘a’ ‘the’?
Rukh-ukh-khur: A repetitive ‘knocking’ or ‘clicking’ sound often said in mid-flight, but not so loud as to be a signal of alarm. Could be a mating call, or a worried “now where did I leave that…”
As a parting gift, my last picture is of one of the gang of three during the snows of THE STORM OF DEATH that we had here in early March. Crows love snow. It isn’t uncommon to see Crows playing games, scoofing through drifts of snow with wings outstretched, sometimes even awkwardly rolling back and forth. This might serve a dual function of cleaning their feathers, but I like to think this crow is just having fun.