What are Corvids? And what are ‘True Crows’?

The Corvidae family is made up of more than 120 species of bird. In English, we commonly refer to them as the crow family, but it would be more accurate to call them Corvids.

This family includes choughs, jays, nutcrackers and magpies, but none of these are what we call ‘true crows’. True crows are only those species that belong to the Corvus genus: crows, ravens, jackdaws and rooks.

Highly intelligent and adaptable, these birds inhabit (almost) all corners of the world. So, unless you live in South America, Antarctica or at sea, there’s a good chance you’ll come across these birds on a regular basis.

Because of our ongoing contact with corvids over the centuries, they have always been a prominent reference in the human experience. This week we’ll take a look at where they crop up and what they represent to different cultures.

Corvid Species by Catherine Pape
Corvid Species by Catherine Pape

Where do Corvids appear in human culture?

As the son of a keen birdwatcher, growing up in the English countryside, I soon learnt the difference between a crow, a rook and a raven. Their size, their calls, their beaks and the colour of their plumage are all clues that aid identification.

But, even for those less interested in birdlife, corvids are surprisingly prevalent in the common consciousness. For one, they are ingrained in our language. The ‘crow’s nest’ is a ship’s lookout point, to ‘eat crow’ is to admit your mistakes and, if you’re really hunger, you may be described as ‘ravenous’.

In the playground, school children learn this popular nursery rhyme. The number of magpies you see at any one time determines whether you’ll have bad luck or good luck.

One for sorrow,

Two for joy,

Three for a girl,

Four for a boy,

Five for silver,

Six for gold,

Seven for a secret,

Never to be told.

In this older, simpler version of the nursery rhyme, there’s a lot more at stake!

One for sorrow,

Two for mirth,

Three for a funeral

And four for birth.

Superstition around these birds holds that, when a single magpie is seen, it must greeted out loud with respect. In order to ward off potential bad luck (or sorrow), you should say something like: ‘Good morning, Mr Magpie, how are Mrs Magpie and all the other little magpies?’

Members of the crow family can also be found in place names, coats of arms and emblems of cities and regions around the world. The red-footed chough is a symbol of Cornwall, two ravens appear on Lisbon’s coat of arms and, just half an hour from where I’m sat (in Barcelona) there’s the town of Corbera, which takes its name from the crow.

Coat Arms and Emblems of cities
Coat Arms and Emblems of cities

What do crows and ravens symbolise?

An American minister from the 1800s once said:

“If men had wings and bore black feathers, few of them would be clever enough to be crows”.

Crows and ravens are marked by their advanced cognitive abilities, which include problem-solving, self-awareness and an incredible memory. Across cultures this has not gone unnoticed.

On account of their intelligence and proximity to humans, they have been subject to rich characterisation. From religious texts, mythology and folklore, to poetry and cinematic works, crows and ravens have taken on a vast array of symbolic roles. Here are the main archetypes.

The Trickster

The crow is widely viewed and presented as a liar and a trickster. In Ted Hughes’s poem ‘From Crow’, for example, the crow interferes in the relationship between God and man:

“But Crow Crow

Crow nailed them together,

Nailing heaven and earth together…”

Is there any truth in this representation? Well, crows do have some rudimentary language skills and, arguably, ravens are capable of deception. When ravens have a surplus of food and they are in the presence of other ravens, they display surprising behaviour. They pretend to hide their food in one location, then fly off to hide it elsewhere.

Rook (Corvus frugilegus) isolated on white background. By Marcin Perkowski | Shutterstock.com
Rook (Corvus frugilegus) isolated on white background. By Marcin Perkowski | Shutterstock.com

The Creator

Also for the the Native American Haida people, ravens were characterised as tricksters However, according to their folklore, the raven created the world and, through its slyness, was able to release the light of the universe that was contained in an old man’s box.

Similar stories of creation through mischief are told by other native Americans of the Pacific Northwest as well.

The Messenger

As well as the ominous sign of a magpie, other corvids are connected to practices of divination. In fact, the Romans had a special word for interpreting omens with the help of birds: ‘augury’.

The archetypal figure of the raven as a messenger of darkness is reinforced in Edgar Allan’s poem ‘The Raven’. The final stanza reads:

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 Aggressor

More recently, these depictions have been overshadowed by a far more sinister image of crows. In Alfred Hitchcock’s film ‘The Birds’, we see flocks of crows attacking school children and later killing one of the characters. These terrifying scenes have made a generation of cinema-goers especially wary.

Despite this representation as aggressors, in real life crows are better described as scavengers. They will eat pretty much anything, from fruit and nuts to mice and carrion. This goes some way to explain the collective noun, ‘a murder of crows’. But, there are no records of them attacking humans, so there’s not too much to be scared about.

The Birds Film
The Birds Film

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