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Secret Lives of Words: A mindful murder of crows

By Rick LaFleur Columnist

Crows are among the most mindful of birds. My wife Alice and I have long known that from observing those who inhabit the woods of our lakeside home and occasionally swoop down for a morning hello. But recent research reported in Smithsonian magazine suggests that these “spectacularly intelligent creatures” possess reasoning skills at the level of a first-grade child and levels of perception previously thought to exist only in humans and other primates.

Corvus corone, a carrion crow scavenging on the beach near Canford Cliffs, Poole, Dorset, UK.
Bow of a 3rd-cent. B.C. Roman trireme with a corvus.
“Der Doctor Schnabel von Rom,” copper engraving with a satiric representation of a 17th-cent. Italian plague doctor, “like a crow (corvus) on a dung-heap,” by Paul Fu¨rst, 1656.
Promotional still for Alfred Hitchcock’s film, “The Birds,” 1963.

In one study, with video footage as proof, a group of eight New Caledonian crows were able, within just a few minutes, to assemble tools from sticks of varying sizes to access treats in an experimental puzzle box. One of the birds, without any training, fabricated tools from three or four parts, “the first evidence of compound-tool construction with more than two elements in any non-human animal.” A number of the crows were able to repeat the tool-making process multiple times in later trials, demonstrating an ability to “predict what something that does not yet exist would do if they made it,” and then that “they can make it and… use it.”

Old Crow whiskey ad, 1870.

Beyond possessing such engineering skills, crows are like humans in other respects (check out the website Corvid Research). They are communal, often roosting in groups of hundreds or even thousands. They are largely monogamous and remain in the same territory often for their entire lives, which may extend to 20 years or more (even in antiquity they were known for their longevity). They warn one another of perils, share information on food sources, and engage in sports. Researchers have demonstrated the birds can recognize individual human faces, distinguish between human friends and foes, and share that information with their offspring (search online for the PBS “Nature” short features, “The Crow and the Caveman” and “As the Crow Flies”).

Poster by Reynold Brown for the film “The Raven,” 1963.

The crows who share our homestead certainly include Alice and me in the “friends” category, and our French bulldog Ipsa too. On one occasion when Ipsa was a tiny pup, Alice left her in her front-yard pen to go into the house for a glass of water. Suddenly a ruckus arose outside and when Alice rushed out, she spotted two of our crows fluttering and raucously cawing over Ipsa’s enclosure to frighten off a huge red-shouldered hawk that was soaring overhead with the clear aim of enjoying a bit of French bulldog puppy for lunch.

Corvus and nearby constellations, plate 32 in Urania’s Mirror, a set of celestial cards by Sidney Hall, 1825.

This extraordinary intelligence and social behavior, the bird’s unmistakable cry, its imposing size, and its lustrous pitch-black plumage have all exercised a powerful affect on the human imagination over the millennia. The Romans had two words for these imposing creatures, cornix and corvus. The latter term gives us the avian family name Corvidae as well as our name for the genus that includes crows (from Old English crawe), ravens (generally applied to the larger species, Corvus corax, which grow up to two feet long), jackdaws, and rooks. The words corvus/cornix/crow, like the ancient Greek korax and korone, were all likely onomatopoetic in origin, mimicking the bird’s distinctive caw (likewise, of course, a “sound-imitative” word).

Old Crow whiskey ad, New York Times, Dec. 31, 1909.

In Greco-Roman myth the crow had originally white feathers (there are indeed albino crows) and was associated with Apollo for its prophetic powers, including an ability to forecast weather events. But the bird was singed and turned forever black by the god for bringing bad news about a lover he had been dispatched to spy upon. Corvids are presented as crafty schemers in a number of Aesop’s fables. Although omnivorous, the scavengers are especially fond of carrion, and it may have been their habit of gathering on the ground and near battlefields to dine on corpses that led, as early as the 15th century, to calling a flock of them “a murder of crows.”

For the same reasons the birds have been associated in the folklore of many cultures with death, pestilence, and warfare. The 1st-century B.C. historian Livy relates the story of a young Roman tribune Marcus Valerius Maximus who faced off in a duel with a larger, stronger Gallic warrior. A crow swooped down, alit on Valerius’ helmet, then flew violently into the face of his opponent, distracting him and enabling Valerius to slay him; for his heroic victory, the tribune was given the name “Corvus.” We know from Livy’s contemporary, the poet Horace, the expression pascere corvos/“to feed the crows,” as a reference to crucifixion.

“Corvidae,” starring Maisie Williams, Cat and Weasel Films and Wolfheart Productions, 2018

The word corvus was used by the Romans for both a hooked surgical instrument and a military battering ram. The grappling hook on the bow of some warships used during the First Carthaginian War was similarly dubbed a corvus: the bridging device could be dropped from the Roman ship onto a nearby enemy vessel, piercing its deck with a beak-like spike and making it possible for the Roman troops to board. Our own “crowbar” may similarly have been named for its “beaked” end or instead, as some etymologists speculate, for the resemblance of its clawed end to a crow’s foot.

The Crow #1, 1989.

The constellation near Virgo known to us from Greco-Roman astronomers as Corvus, and associated with the Apollo myth, had already been named “The Raven” in Babylonian star-lists dating centuries earlier; the meteor showers appearing within its boundaries are called the Corvids. Some Native American legends also connected the bird to the heavens, imagining that a crow created the earth and hung the sun in the sky. The Native American Crow tribe were originally called “Absaroka,” meaning “children of the large-beaked bird,” which the French translated as gens du corbeaux, “people of the crows.”

The bird has worked its way into other aspects of our own language and culture. “Crow/Crowe” originated as a surname in Middle English; it has been used as a nickname for someone resembling the bird, especially a person with black hair, as an insult for an elderly person, and an ethnic slur for a person of color. Two common expressions first appeared in English in the 19th century, “as the crow flies,” for traveling in a straight line, and “eating crow,” which means having to admit we’re wrong on a point we’d strongly felt sure of.

As to eating crows, though regarded by most as decidedly foul tasting, crow boiled in oil and served with veggies is a dish growing in popularity among Lithuanians, according to a recent AP report. And then there are of course those yummy Crows licorice candies (“Black Crows” when the trademark was registered in 1911), which my Apalach buddy Conrad and I both remember devouring at the movies when we were kids (not to be confused with the U.S. rockers the Black Crowes, who retained that Old English -e-, nor with that other American band, Counting Crows). For some folks, “crow” is cyber-speak for cannabis. And those wretched wrinkles branching out from the corners of our eyes as we age do indeed resemble “crow’s feet,” as someone creatively imagined as early as the 14th century.

Of particular relevance to our lives today, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, is the crow’s connection to the bubonic plague. Beginning in the 17th century so-called “plague doctors” donned a black-beaked crow mask, as part of their “PPE.” The mask’s beak was filled with flowers and herbs meant both to block the smell of the dead and to protect the wearer from the disease. The fearful looking device, familiar to some from a 17th-century engraving titled Der Doctor Schnabel von Rom (“Doctor Beak from Rome”) or from its adaptation in the “Assassin’s Creed” video game (search too for the 3-minute animated film “The Plague Doctor 2012” on YouTube), apparently did little to save lives or improve the poor crow’s image.

Edgar Allen Poe immortalized the corvid as a harbinger of doom in his poem “The Raven,” adapted in 1963 into a schlocky Vincent Price horror flick. That same year the crow attack on a group of school-children was one of the most horrific scenes in Alfred Hitchcock’s movie “The Birds.” A mystical crow resurrects the hero of James O’Barr’s superhero comic “The Crow” and guides him on a vengeance quest; the series has spun off four movies, as well as tv shows, video games, books, and other comics. The English actress Margaret Constance “Maisie” Williams, who made her acting debut as Arya Stark in HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” stars as the aptly named character “Jay” (yes, bluejays are corvids too) in the 2018 short horror film “Corvidae.”

Old crow that I am at this stage of my life, all this research and writing wears me out and builds up a mighty thirst. Maybe I’ll just stop now, pour a jigger of that tasty Old Crow Kentucky bourbon we keep on the bar, and then if editor Adlerstein agrees to publish my scratching, I’ll have something to crow about.

Rick LaFleur is retired from 40 years of teaching Latin language and literature at the University of Georgia, which during his tenure came to have the largest Latin enrollment of all of the nation’s colleges and universities; his latest book is Ubi Fera Sunt, a lively, lovingly wrought translation into classical Latin of Maurice Sendak’s classic, Where the Wild Things Are. His Facebook book group, “Doctor Illa Flora’s Latin in the Real World,” numbers over 3,800 members. Rick and his wife Alice live part of the year in Apalachicola, under the careful watch of their French bulldog Ipsa.