The 10 Best and Worst Things to Feed a Crow

Whether you own a pet Crow, take care of one in your back yard, rehabilitate corvids, or take frequent walks in the wilderness to feed them, you should know what things will delight them the most – and which to avoid!

The Worst

1. Chocolate

Chocolate is a wonderful treat to share with human family members, but it can be harmful or fatal to your pet bird. Chocolate poisoning first affects a bird’s digestive system, causing vomiting and diarrhea. As the condition progresses, the bird’s central nervous system is affected, first causing seizures and eventually death.

2. Apple Seeds

Believe it or not, apples – along with other members of the rose family including cherries, peaches, apricots, and pears – contain trace amounts of Cyanide within their seeds. While the fruit of the apple is fine for your bird, be aware that in addition to the poisonous seeds, there may be pesticides present on the fruit’s skin. Be sure to thoroughly cleanse and core any apple pieces that you share with your bird to avoid exposure to these toxins.

3. Avocado

The skin and pit of this popular fruit had been known to cause cardiac distress and eventual heart failure in pet bird species. Although there is some debate to the degree of toxicity of avocados, it is generally advised to adopt a “better safe than sorry” attitude toward them and keep guacomole and other avocado products as far away from pet birds as possible.

4. Onions

While the use of limited amounts of onion or garlic powders as flavorings is generally regarded as acceptable, excessive consumption of onions causes vomiting, diarrhea, and a host of other digestive problems. It has been found that prolonged exposure can lead to a blood condition called hemolytic anemia, which is followed by respiratory distress and eventual death.

5. Alcohol

Although responsible bird owners would never dream of offering their pet an alcoholic drink, there have been instances in which free roaming birds have attained alcohol poisoning through helping themselves to unattended cocktails. Alcohol depresses the organ systems of birds and can be fatal. Make sure that your bird stays safe by securing him in his cage whenever alcohol is served in your home.

6. Mushrooms

Mushrooms are a type of fungus, and have been known to cause digestive upset in companion birds. Caps and stems of some varieties can induce liver failure.

7. Tomato Leaves

Tomatoes, like potatoes and other nightshades, have a tasty fruit that is fine when used as a treat for your bird. The stems, vines, and leaves, however, are highly toxic to your pet. Make sure that any time you offer your bird a tomato treat it has been properly cleaned and sliced, with the green parts removed, so that your bird will avoid exposure to any toxins.

8. Salt

While all living beings need regulated amounts of sodium in their systems, too much salt can lead to a host of health problems in birds, including excessive thirst, dehydration, kidney dysfunction, and death. Be sure to keep watch over the amount of salty foods your bird consumes

9. Caffeine

Caffeinated beverages such as soda, coffee, and tea are popular among people – but allowing your bird to indulge in these drinks can be extremely hazardous. Caffeine causes cardiac malfunction in birds, and is associated with increased heartbeat, arrhythmia, hyperactivity, and cardiac arrest. Share a healthy drink of pure fruit or vegetable juice with your bird instead – this will satisfy both your bird’s taste-buds and nutritional requirements.

10. Dried Beans

Cooked beans are a favorite treat of many birds, but raw, dry bean mixes can be extremely harmful to your pet. Uncooked beans contain a poison called hemaglutin which is very toxic to birds. To avoid exposure, make sure to thoroughly cook any beans that you choose to share with your bird.


The Best

fruits, grains, nuts, acorns, snails, mussels, small birds, eggs, rabbits, mice, toads, crayfish, snakes, lizards, salamanders, rats, grasshoppers, cutworms

1. Fruit

Blueberries, strawberries, apricots or other “wild” fruits normally found in your neck of the woods  or  just about any kind of fruit imaginable is good for your bird. Full of taste and various vitamins, fruit is a wonderful source of nutrients and is a favorite among the vast majority of birds.

2. Nuts

Crows scavenge a wide variety of nuts during their daily routine, primarily pine nuts, walnuts, acorns and chestnuts. They also have a sweet tooth for unsalted, shelled peanuts.

3. Snails

Not the kind of commodity you can find in your local grocery, but check your local fish bait or reptile supply for non-toxic snails and your crow will thank you.

4. Eggs

Raw egg yolks, whole eggs or hard-boiled eggs are a favored treat high in needed protein. Organic eggs are best.

5. Worms and Grubs

Another natural favorite, worms and grubs can be bought from most fish bait shops or reptile supplies. Try putting them inside a toy the crow can get into with a tool or its beak to give your bird a little extra entertainment.

6. Whole Grain Bread or Pasta

No matter whether it’s cooked or uncooked, birds love pasta. The good thing is, it’s full of energy-enhancing carbohydrates! Try boiling some bowtie pasta with vegetables and serving it to your bird when cool. If your pet prefers his pasta crunchy, fill a few raw macaroni noodles with peanut butter for a fun and tasty snack.

Whole grain breads taste great, and are a wonderful source of fiber. Try offering your pet small bites of nutty breads as a treat for good behavior. Be careful not to confuse this with white bread, which is nothing but empty calories and sugar that can gum up their little bellies.

7. Popcorn

Believe it or not, manybirds enjoy snacking on popcorn! You can serve your bird either popped or unpopped kernels. If you choose to serve the popcorn unpopped, boil the kernels for a bit in plain water to soften the tough hulls. If you desire, you can pop the kernels for your bird using a very light amount of pure vegetable oil. Be sure to never give your bird microwave popcorn. These varieties are extremely high in fat and salt, which can be harmful to a bird’s health.

8. Raw grains

Grain farmers often complain when flocks of wild birds descend on their crops to feast. A hungry group of birds can strip a field of grain in no time — because grains are nutritious, and very good for them! Whole grains are another good source of vital protein, not to mention beneficial carbohydrates. Most pet supply stores that carry quality bird feed will have a good balance of grains and seeds.

9.  Low Phosphorous Cat Food

If you’re in a pinch, a crow will usually find cat food palatable, but you need to take care that it is quality food with low phosphates, as most brands contain a lot of filler and additives that are not good for your bird (or your cat, for that matter). The label will usually tell you, or look for the variety advertising renal health and a good PH balance.

10. Peppers

Although many humans have trouble eating spicy peppers, birds can definitely take the heat. It seems that our avian friends lack the taste receptors that pick up on a pepper’s stinging bite, which makes them a favorite of birds around the world. Try giving your pet a nice fresh chile or banana pepper and watch him chomp through it to get to the meat and seeds inside. You may find out that you have quite a hot little tamale on your hands!


10 Amazing Crow Facts

Corvids can be found all over the world except southern S. America, the Poles and various islands. They are believed to have originated in central Asia and species diversity is still high there. The oldest corvid fossils have been found in Europe from 20-25 million years ago; from an ancestor called the Miocene. Below are ten more interesting facts about our favorite bird:

There are about 45 species of crow worldwide known by a variety of names, including treepies, corbies, nutcrackers, bushpies, choughs, and the pica pica.

Mating crows will often remain together for years and some until parted by death. Most of the offspring will leave the nest after a couple months never to return. Some, on the other hand, remain, assisting in co-operative breeding.

Corvids are absolutely fearless, particularly when chasing bald or golden eagles. On other occasions, they’ll pick up and drop stones, pinecones or sticks on predators or people they come in contact with.

The common crow will usually live for about seven years, although some have lived as long as 14 years in the wild.

Almost all corvids have been observed using tools, and the Raven can be taught to speak basic human language.

Crows are emotional animals, too. They react to hunger and invasion by vigorously vocalizing their feelings. They display happiness, anger and sadness.

Crows are considered song-birds and posses a deep repertoire of melodies. And, like humans, the more melodious the song, the more soothing the effects. Some crows have even been taught to recite opera.

Crows have an excellent memory. They’re masters at stashing food in many caches, moving it sometimes two or three times, and remembering exactly where they placed it. In fact, for their size, crows have the largest brains of all birds except some parrots. Their brain-to-body ratio is equivalent to that of a chimpanzee and amazingly, not far off that of a human’s.

Magpies, Choughs and Nutcrackers are all basically modified crows.

Crows, rooks, Ravens and Jackdaws are the most successful members of the group except in Central and Southern America where only Jays have reached. Corvids are believed to have reached the Americas via the Bering Land Bridge. Jays, being the oldest corvids, reached America first and rapidly spread south but have not yet reached the southern half of S. America. American Jays are predominantly tropical or sub-tropical whereas in the Old World they are temperate and/or alpine species.

Raven Empathy & Compassion Indicators of Higher Intelligence

Over the past few decades, researchers have started finding behaviors that were once considered uniquely human, like tool use and empathy, in a number of other species. Many of these findings have come from our fellow primates, who presumably share a lot of our evolutionary legacy. But a surprising number of sophisticated behaviors have been showing up in birds, which haven’t shared a common ancestor with any mammals for a very long time. The latest behaviors to add to birds’ growing list are empathy and consolation, according to a paper released on Wednesday by PLoS one. As the list of complex behavior in birds grows, it seems our expectations for the evolution of behavior may have to evolve, as well.

The finding comes from a study of ravens which spend up to a decade in socially complex flocks before settling down into a pair-bonded relationship. A previous study using other corvids (rooks) indicates that pair-bonded mates will perform what are termed “affiliation behaviors” following conflicts, suggesting that there may be some degree of consolation at play. So, the questions the authors tried to address here was whether, in the absence of pair bonding, the same sort of affiliation would occur within a larger social group where pair bonding hasn’t occurred.

The research involved a flock of 13 ravens kept in an aviary, a social group in which a number of the individuals were directly related. As in the wild, the flock displayed various forms of aggression. All of these were recorded over a span of two years, and the researchers looked for signs of affiliation (“defined as contact sitting, preening, or beak-to-beak or beak-to-body touching”) or further incidents of aggression. The timing and birds involved in these events were recorded, and the researchers noted whether the victim solicited the affiliation, or whether it was offered spontaneously.

What wasn’t observed was the sort of reconciliation that has been seen in chimps. Sometimes, the victim and aggressor engaged in affiliation, but a statistical analysis of these events indicated that they were more of a randomly timed event, rather than a deliberate strategy to diffuse tension. In fact, the victim was generally at risk for renewed aggression from the same attacker in the immediate post-conflict period.

The victims of aggression were not likely to lash out at another individual in the social group, a behavior that has been observed in some species. That means approaching the loser doesn’t carry any exceptional risks. Affiliation displays also had a practical value, as renewed aggression was less likely while affiliation was taking place. So, it’s not much of a surprise to find out that the losers tended to actively solicit affiliation from their fellow flock members.

What is somewhat surprising is that many of those flock members appeared to offer affiliation without a request. This occurred most often among those members of the flock that were related by kinship, although it still occurred at an appreciable rate among unrelated birds. Strikingly, this unsolicited affiliation didn’t seem to confer a protective function—renewed aggression was just as likely in these instances.

The authors speculate at length in the paper’s discussion about whether those latter events indicate some limited form of empathy, and if they serve to console the victim. It’s an interesting question, but one that’s extremely difficult to answer, in part because we can’t really get inside the mind of a bird, and in part because “consolation” implies lots of context and mental processes, which make determining whether something is consolation a matter as much of semantics as anything else.

Evolutionary parallels across a great divide

What’s very interesting, but not discussed at all, is what this means from an evolutionary perspective. We tend to accept that something complex—a gene, a tissue, a behavior—that is shared between two related species probably got to both of them via common descent. But the distance between birds and mammals is immense. Birds are essentially the modern form of the dinosaurs, while mammals are an offshoot of a completely different group of reptiles. In fact, the brains of the two groups are structured differently enough that biologists have struggled to figure out what structures might functionally correspond to each other.

At the same time, these sorts of complex behaviors seem to be absent from many of the species that, if they were really ancient, should also have picked them up from a common ancestor.

The alternative—that they arose separately in these groups—raises a whole series of other questions about behaviors, like consolation, that we tend to think of as complex, and once thought were something that made humans distinct from other animals. Maybe they’re not really all that complex, or the selective pressures that produce them are simply common within social species, like the protection from aggression that’s offered by affiliation requests seen here. Maybe once a certain behavior like pair bonding evolves, a degree of consolation just comes along for free.

In any case, the fact that we’re now finding so many complex behaviors in birds—tool use, problem solving, social learning, planning—may catalyze a significant rethink of what we thought we knew about the biology of behavior.

[box]John Timmer is a Cornell Univeristy professor and writer for Ars Technica. View comments on this story here [/box]

Featured Creature: The Jackdaw

Jackdaw (Corvus monedula)

This month our focus is on a European bird, the Jackdaw.  These Jay-sized mini-crows are an extremely lively and social bunch, and are most (in)famous for their compelling infatuation with shiny objects.  Quite a remarkable character, the jackdaw prefers the glossy black – and sometimes purplish – coat of a gentleman, but is also commonly seen with a grey ‘hooded’ look about the nape. their legs and beaks are black as well, but perhaps the most stunning feature which sets it apart from all other corvids is the crystalline blue eyes.

The Jackdaw spends most of his time and brain power to the practice of thievery. For reasons known only to himself, he is very fond of human beings and will go through a lot of trouble to get himself adopted by one with a nice garden. He captures our attention with amusing tricks, and if especially ambitious, will go as far as to learn our language and strike up a raspy conversation, albeit with limited vocabulary.

His bright eyes are interested in everthing happening around him, and he will not hesitate to bark orders to your dog. Beware of caging this delightful chap however, for not only is it illegal but it will depress him beyond his ability to cope.  He also has a weapon of revenge – anger a Jackdaw and he might just nip you enough to dose you with Campylobacter jejuni, which will see you properly acquainted with your loo for several days.

Example of a Jackdaw who adopted a pair of humans:

[yt]mLrRNgkf3q8& [/yt]

You see, Jackdaws possess the intelligent talents inherent to all members of the Corvidae family,including the cunning ability to plan ahead, but they are also adept readers of the human intent.  His chattering and pirouetting around your patio or kitchen windowsill is simply a ruse to distract you from that bit of foil or that lump of pie crust, and somewhere nearby he has a hip flat of shaggy twigs where he hoards such loot in his quest to be the most pimp bird in the ‘hood.

The species may be the only animal aside from humans known to understand the role of eyes in seeing and perceiving things, according to a new study by Oxford University. While humans often use visual clues to communicate, it wasn’t known whether other animals share this social ability until recently.

Jackdaw eyes, like those of humans, are unusually conspicuous, with dark pupils surrounded by silvery white irises.

“The physical similarities hint that jackdaws use their eyes to communicate in the same ways humans do”, says study leader Auguste von Bayern, a zoologist currently with the University of Oxford. “We can communicate a lot via the eyes, and jackdaws do that as well, in my opinion.”

Von Bayern’s study of hand-reared jackdaws shows that the birds can use a human’s gaze to tell what that person is looking at. “They are sensitive to human eyes because they are sensitive to their own species’ eyes,” she says.

By contrast, previous studies have shown that other animals regarded as intelligent, such as chimpanzees and dogs, find even their own species’ eyes hard to read.

Conflict and Cooperation

In one test, Von Bayern and colleague Nathan Emery timed how long a jackdaw took to retrieve food if a person was also eyeing the prize.They found that the birds took longer to retrieve the food if the human was unfamiliar—someone the bird apparently didn’t trust. The birds were equally sensitive to the gaze of a single eye, such as when the person looked at the food in profile or kept one eye closed. This suggests the jackdaws made the decision to risk conflict solely based on eye motion and not on other cues, such as the direction a potential rival’s head was facing.

In a second experiment, the birds were able to interpret a familiar human’s altered eye gaze to “cooperate” to find food that was hidden from view. The study authors add that more tests will be needed to tell if the birds were able to read eye movements based on their natural tendencies or if it is a learned behavior from being raised by humans.

Jackdaw & Rook

Jackdaws are the second smallest corvid, with the Jay being slightly smaller. Above you can see a Jackdaw in comparison with a Rook (which is about the size of a crow).  Unlike Crows, Rooks, and Ravens, Jackdaws rarely (if ever) feed on carrion or kill other animals and prefer to feed on mostly ground level fare such as berries, seeds, and grubs.

Jackdaws work together to build their swank apartments by dropping sticks into hollow trees, or any other crevice or burrow they can find (such as your chimney, so remember to keep a cap or net on it!). The resulting platform supports the eventual walls and roof which will usually contain a large percentage of fine material such as coins, foil, pop-tabs, cigarette butts, and so-on.

The Jackdaw call, which lends itself in part to their common name of just ‘Daws’, is a cute kak-kak, and distinguishes itself from a crow in its higher-pitched and more chipper cadence. Like the crow, they adapt easily to song and are known to mimic everything from opera to Madonna.


The Jackdaw appears in many historical and current works, most notably in Aesop’s fables and the The Ingoldsby Legends written by Richard Harris Barham.

The legends were first printed in 1837 as a regular series in Bentley’s Miscellany and later in New Monthly Magazine.They proved immensely popular and were compiled into books published in 1840, 1842 and 1847. They remained popular through the Victorian era but have since fallen out of fame.

The best known poem is the Jackdaw of Rheims, about a jackdaw who steals a cardinal’s ring and is made a saint. As a priest at the Chapel Royal, Barham was not troubled with strenuous duties and he had ample time to read and compose stories. Although based on real legends and mythology, such as the hand of glory, they are usually deliberately humorous parodies or pastiches of medieval folklore and poetry.

Ancient Greek authors tell how a jackdaw, being a social creature, may be caught with a dish of oil which it falls into while looking at its own reflection. The Roman poet Ovid also saw them as a harbinger of rain (Amores 2,6, 34). In Greek legend, a princess Arne was bribed with gold by King Minos of Crete, and was punished for her avarice by being transformed into an equally avaricious jackdaw, who still seeks shiny things. Pliny notes how the Thessalians, Illyrians and Lemnians cherished jackdaws for destroying grasshoppers’ eggs. The Veneti are fabled to have bribed the jackdaws to spare their crops, and finally in another ancient Greek and Roman myth, “The swans will sing when the jackdaws are silent,” meaning that educated or wise people will speak after the foolish become quiet.

In some cultures, a jackdaw on the roof is said to predict a new arrival; alternatively, a jackdaw settling on the roof of a house or flying down a chimney is an omen of death and coming across one is considered a bad omen (this is more commonly attributed to crows).

Similar to Crow Augery, jackdaws standing on the vanes of a cathedral tower are meant to foretell rain. Czech superstition formerly held that if jackdaws are seen quarrelling, war will follow, and that jackdaws will not build nests at Sázava, having been banished by Saint Procopius.

Jackdaws in Art

Stay tuned this month as we continue to feature Jackdaw art and photography. Enjoy some of our favorite shots from our featured Jackdaw photographer, and be sure to visit his Flickr Gallery here.  You can also jump over to Ted’s gallery here, which we featured last month.


References: UNEP ; The Eugene, OR. Register-Guard, 1972; Systema Naturae & Wikipedia; The University of Oxford press; National Geographic Magazine, April 2009


Why Crows Aren’t Black

A pair of House Crows (Corvus splendens) was observed in a residential area perched on a television antenna. One was black and the other was a light brown colour- and that was something odd.

Feather shafts of birds sink into the skin organ to receive the necessary nourishment for growth and endowment of birds’ plumages. Colours of feathers are determined by the genetic make up and quantity distribution of pigmentation cells present in the skin. Similar to Vitiligo in humans, Leucism in birds is a genetic disorder whereby the pigmentation cells are unevenly distributed, hence resulting in patches of feathers looking paler, bleached looking or show white. (While Albinism dictates that the skin body is totally devoid of pigmentation cell. Hence, if one looks into the iris of an albino, it always shows reddish-pink or near equivalent.) It has been observed that the leucistic House Crow was treated as an outcast and chased off by other crows while the former was scavenging and ate lunch.

It is not a common phenomenon and science has yet to figure out why leucism occurs. Perhaps… it is one of those things that Mother Nature, the divine architect sees fit – to be allowed to mastermind mistakes now and then! And which ascertain that in our world, nothing and nobody is perfect… and we be allowed to do so sometimes too.

The White Crow or Raven has figured largely in mythology – both as being the original color of the bird before it swallowed the sun (and thus became black as night), as one of the animals released from Noah’s Ark, and also the alternate form of King Arthur of Camelot (and in some cases, Merlin).

As recently spotlighted by CC&R, White Crows and Ravens never fail to make top news when found. This story on the Daily Mail quotes British Trust for Ornithology spokesman Tom Cadwallender as saying, “To have one white raven is extremely unusual, but for it to happen again in the same place and to have three white birds this time is unprecedented.

“It is too much of a coincidence and the same parent birds must be involved.It looks like something is amiss with their genes.”

Mr Cadwallender said it was likely the white ravens would have been rejected by their own kind.  There have been several White corvids reported in single  locations like this one, suggesting it is a strong genetic selection in some mating pairs.



Shade, a Very Smart Raven Widgets

Author Diane Phelps Budden witnessed firsthand the special relationship between Sedona resident Emily Cory and a raven and found it so inspiring that she has written a book for children, “Shade: A Story About a Very Smart Raven.” Cory was training Shade to rescue people in the Red Rock country of Sedona and one morning, while the raven was scouring her surroundings for breakfast, she came upon a man wandering in the desert, lost. Shade flies home to tell Cory, and they set off to find the man and lead him to safety, using her tracker. The story describes Shade’s potential as a search and rescue worker, much like dogs that law enforcement teams use as trackers. Cory based her master’s thesis at the University of Arizona on the feasibility of using ravens to help searchers find lost hikers in Arizona’s rugged desert areas.Says Diane of Emily, “

” She actually bought a raven fledgling , and wrote her thesis on the premise that ravens could be trained to help search and rescue teams find hikers lost in the High Country desert. Sorta like a rescue dog, but with wings! While Shade has not rescued her first person yet, Emily has trained her to recognize many words and shapes, and to wear a harness for the time when she will fly free to be tracked by a GPS device. I was so inspired with her work that I decided to write a children’s story about it.”

You can visit Diane’s blog here

Off the Beaten Path – Willy Wagtail

For this feature, we thought we would give you somthing unconventional – a bird that is not normally associated with Crows and Ravens, but shares many characteristics both scientifically and mythologically.

The Willie (or Willy) Wagtail (Rhipidura leucophrys) is a passerine bird native to Australia, New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, the Bismarck Archipelago, and eastern Indonesia. It is a common and familiar bird throughout much of its range, living in most habitats apart from thick forest. It is unrelated to the true wagtails of the genus Motacilla; it is a member of the fantail genus Rhipidura and is a part of a ‘core corvine’ group (the super family Corvoidea) that includes crows and ravens, drongos and birds of paradise. The Willie Wagtail is the largest, and most well-known, of the Australian fantails. It wears a snappy little black and white suit and sports a pair of white eyebrows which make it look rather like an angry old wizard.

The Willie Wagtail is insectivorous and spends much time chasing prey in open habitat. Its common name is derived from its habit of wagging its tail horizontally when foraging on the ground. Aggressive and territorial, the Willie Wagtail has no qualms about standing up to much larger birds such as the Laughing Kookaburra and Wedge-tailed Eagle.

Despite this, Wilie Wagtails are considered friendly and cheerful creatures and the sight of them brightens the heart of many Australians. They are common in urban areas and are tolerant of human activity, even becoming semi-tame. Willie wagtails have a noisy scolding call when disturbed, but otherwise have a sweet, fluting call that is recognisable. They have been known to call endlessly on nights when the moon is bright.


The Willie Wagtail hops into your life to remind you to be cheerful! Much nourishment can come from taking the time to present yourself as cheerful and gregarious to others, even if you’re not particularly feeling either. The Wagtail serves to remind us that when you reach out to others with cheerfulness, others will often reach out with the same warmth and a smile. If you experiment by smiling warmly to children or strangers while shopping or walking, you will be surprised by how many take the time to smile back. Even when you are feeling angry, or tired, or downtrodden, it is always possible to smile at a stranger, or to receive one free of charge. As the Wagtail often brings a smile to the most hardened of hearts, so he helps you to share this gift with others.

Chances are, if Willie Wagtail energy is around, you may not actually be feeling that friendly! The Willie Wagtail itself is an extraordinarily territorial bird, and for its diminutive size, can irritably swoop and attack others (including people) to get them away. This bird is one of those guides who teaches us how to self-generate positive energy, no matter how much we don’t feel like it, we are reminded that it doesn’t take very much to get us feeling a glimmer of hope or happiness again.  It is through curiosity that we find out about the greater world around us, and as a trait, it can help us to locate more nourishing sources of energy, particularly those that make us feel good. It is curiosity about a stranger that can lead us to making a new friend. Curiosity about places can help us to find new sites to visit and new ways to create positive memories for ourselves.

In the aboriginal legend of the Wallaroo and Willy-Wagtail, several members of the animal kingdom are slowly disappearing as they bravely go searching for the last of the Wallaroo. The Wily Wagtail – a wise old shaman in this story – seeks out the old Wallaroo and offers to find his relatives for him, and, with this intention, started on his way. When he had gone a short distance the Wallaroo offered him a boomerang as he had offered the others before him. The willy-wagtail was very suspicious about his intention, and said: “Throw it to me; it will save me the trouble of walking back to the tree.”

The Wallaroo then threw the weapon with all his strength, but the willy-wagtail was prepared, and, as soon as the boomerang left the hand of the thrower, he jumped quickly aside. When the Wallaroo saw he had missed his mark, and that his evil intentions were known to the willy-wagtail, he became furious, and threw all his spears  at him, but failed to strike him. Then the willy-wagtail took the boomerang and threw it at the old Wallaroo. It struck him a heavy blow on the chest and killed him. He then skinned him, and prepared to cook his flesh, but he was too old and tough to eat. He now took the skin and returned to the camp. When he told the tribe of the fate of their brothers they were sorely grieved, but their grief was turned to joy when the willy-wagtail showed them the skin of their enemy. The wagtail was rewarded by being made a headman of the tribe.

The headmen now decided that Blackfellows (a euphamism for the Aboriginal Australians) should never travel alone. As a mark of remembrance, Wallaroos have always had a strip of white fur on their breasts. It is an indication of the boomerang wound that killed the old Wallaroo of Mountain Ridge.


Modern Day

In Australia, willie wagtail will often hop into your life literally, flying a few metres (or feet!) away from you in your own garden, or fluting and chattering nearby if you take the time to walk around the suburbs and parks. As they are such intelligent, curious birds, it is not hard to get the sense that they are looking directly at you, wondering as much about you as you are about them!

When Grackles Attack

Women won’t walk alone through the intersection of Chase Street and Trinity Place in West Palm Beach anymore. There have been assaults, merciless attacks… by birds. According to a WPBF report, nearly a dozen residents have been assaulted by a winged rebel intent on pecking, squawking, following, and other ruthless acts of, you know, being a bird.

Grackles will often divebomb humans to protect their young, so this comes as no suprise this time of year – at least to those of us on the no-hit-list. Grackles defend their nests fiercely by mobbing, chasing or diving. In winter, they join large flocks of mixed species such as European Starlings and Red-winged Blackbirds. These flocks can exceed one million birds!

Corvids such as Crows and Ravens (and sometimes Blue Jays) have been observed attempting to steal eggs or hatchlings from a grackle nest and paying dearly for it – this is one black bird that is not to be messed with.

The Grackle is not directly related to the Crow or the Raven (it is an Icterid and not a Corvid), but does posses a measure of their intelligence. Grackles have a unique habit of taking hardened pieces of bread or dog food and dipping them in water and eating them after they have softened, a practice they then teach to their young.

Defending their young so fiercely does come into sharp contrast with some Grackle’s poor nesting habits – Caribbean Grackles are  known to simply abandon clutches of eggs. This is caused by other birds passing parasites to the Grackle, who lays speckled eggs of unrecognizable color and pattern. The Grackle then abandons the eggs, which suffer and die. While not every egg per clutch will be lost, the ones that do not survive are ill afforded by the Grackle species as a whole – even if it is one of the most prolific black birds in North America.

In a normal situation, both male and female Grackles bring nesting materials to the nest cavity usually in coniferous trees, willow swamps, under the eaves of barns, on rafters and in woodpecker holes. But the nest is built by the female only in about 5 days. The nest is large and made of twigs, grasses and leaves. The inside is lined with mud, fine grasses and horsehair. The female lays 1 to 7 eggs. The color of the egg ranges from nearly white, light blue, pearl gray to dark brown. The female incubates the eggs for about 12 to 14 days. At this time, the male may desert the nest and pair with a second female. The male that stays guards the nest while the female feeds the young. The young leave the nest 12 to 15 days after hatching though they remain near the nest for the next 1 to 2 days.

Grackles are one of the most abundant breeding birds in North America. They can be found throughout the United States east of the Rocky Mountains and extending to Canada in the summer breeding season. A Grackle is a large (11 to 13 inches) black bird with purple or bronze iridescence. It has a long, stout black beak and pale yellow eyes. Its tail is long and in flight forms a deeply keeled V-shape. The female Grackle is slightly smaller, less glossy with shorter tail than the male. Although Grackles may appear to be all black, the color varies regionally.

View more incredible photos here

Cue the Hitchcock Music!

The birds are taking over. A crow patrol is scouring the streets of Kagoshima, Japan. The birds’ crime is not murder (the name for a group of crows) but instead causing blackouts by roosting among the power lines and reportedly “frightening away residents”. The patrol has been hired by Kyushu Electric, and tasked with looking for ways to reduce the city’s population of the noisy black birds.

Japan has apparently seen massive increases in the quick-witted birds, which have apparently been out-foxing the patrols by building dummy nests. (In a less quick-witted way, the blackouts happen when a peckish subject explores a high-voltage power line). This clash between Japanese city life and Corvus species parallels recent complaints by UK farmers that ravens have gone predatory on their herds; pecking lambs and calves to death in a black feathered frenzy. The Zooillogix blog gives the UK press a hard time for sexing up the story

Still the events do call to mind Alfred Hitcock’s 1963 classic The Birds. Corvus species like crows, rooks, and ravens hold a special place in the scary bird category even if Hitchcock’s film was actually about seagulls. Of course in the United States, the only thing eerie about crows lately is their absence. Their susceptibility to west Nile virus has decimated US crow populations.

Photo by Joi

To learn more about west nile virus, visit the following articles:

Mythological Ravens

For centuries the corvids, ravens and crows in particular (corvus corax is the Latin name for the common raven and corvus corone for the carrion and hooded crows), have had a special place in the mythology of various cultures. In modern times this fascination has barely diminished. From Edgar Allen Poe’s literary classic to the film of James O’Barr’s cult graphic novel “The Crow”, these birds still exert a powerful hold over the psyche of a significant fraction of the population. The Goths who paint their faces with white make-up and the weekend warriors who expect Raven to take them to the Otherworld to meet the dead do not see the same animal as the farmers who set up decoys in order to shoot large numbers of them every year in late spring. This is, however, typical of a creature that presents a paradox wherever one looks.

Corvids are sociable birds. They tend to form social groups, and this can be seen particularly in the case of rooks, which stay in their flocks all year round. Ravens, the largest of the family, reaching as much as 3 feet from beak to tail, form groups as juveniles, pairing off into lifelong monogamous and extremely territorial relationships at around the age of three. The courtship can involve such fun and games as synchronised snow sliding, and, of course, the synchronised flight test. The corvids can be found all over the world, and are the largest of the passeriformae, or songbirds. The common raven is widely distributed throughout the Northern hemisphere, and the adaptability and intelligence of this family have made it extremely successful.

As far as the mythology goes, the first confusion arises over the distinction between Crow and Raven, at least on the European side of the Atlantic. The two appear, in many instances, to be interchangeable, and the appearance of one or the other in a story depends as much on which author is transcribing it as it does on story itself. Whereas John Matthews 1 gives Bran the raven almost exclusively, Miranda Jane Green 2 ascribes to the God’s companion animal either the crow or the raven, much as both authors do for the Morrigan. The confusion on the American side of the Atlantic is not so profound. There is a distinct geographical trend in the likelihood of Raven appearing in a story, and so we will start our examination there.

Whereas ravens appear almost exclusively as signatory animals for deities in Europe, in the shamanic cultures of aboriginal North American tribes Raven appears as deity himself. From a dichotomy of cultures, we reach a dichotomy of characterisation, for Raven in America, particularly the Northwest coast region, is both demiurge and trickster, both hero and villain, and often at one and the same time. Raven appears as simple Raven, as Dotson’ Sa (Great Raven), as Nankilstlas (He Whose Voice Must Be Obeyed) and also, in a Tlingit creation myth, as Nascakiyetl (Raven-at-the-Head-of-Nass, the Nass being a river). In nearly every single creation myth of the region I have encountered, Raven, in one of his guises, is either the actual creator of the world, or has a great part to play in it. In many, such as the Tlingit myth just mentioned, Raven appears in more than one of his guises – in this case both as Nascakiyetl, and as Yetl, the Raven. This is possible because of the personification of the animal characters in the culture. Animals can take on human form without a second thought (although Raven is the greatest shapeshifter of them all, being able to change into anyone and anything to get what he wants), and can also lead human style lives. Orca, for instance, is the Chief of his own underwater city, and the drowned go to live there with the killer whales, according to the Haida people.

Raven’s character is very similar to that of Coyote – indeed, the two appear in stories carrying out very similar roles, the former in the North, the latter in the South. Both Coyote and Raven are driven by greed: Raven’s for food, Coyote’s for more carnal pleasures. A Tlingit storyteller says that “Raven never got full because he had eaten the black spots off his own toes. He learned about this after having inquired everywhere for some way of bringing such a state about. Then he wandered through all the world in search of things to eat.” 3 The journeys of Raven form the basis of most of the myths in the region, and he travels around meeting animals of all descriptions and usually succeeds in contests of wit with them, either destroying and eating them or driving them off and securing their food. The Haida people make a distinction between the first part of the Raven cycle, in which he is truly creative, and the latter part, which consists of stories of his more risible behaviour. Young men are not allowed to laugh during the early part of the cycle, which is referred to as “The Old Man Stories”. The Old Man Stories take in the creation of the world, sometimes a complex tale such as in the Tlingit and Tsmishian versions, sometimes a simple one, as in the Haida: “Not long ago no land was to be seen. Then there was a little thing on the ocean. This was all open sea. And Raven sat upon this. He said, ‘Become dust.’ And it became Earth.” They also cover one of the most widely known Raven stories, how he stole the Sun, the Stars and the Moon, and also fire (reflecting on the corvine fascination for shiny objects), and the almost universal flood tale, which brought about the end of the Age of Animal Beings and brings about the Age of Men, for which Raven is invariably responsible.

In this guise, as Great Raven, Dotson’ Sa, or Nankilstlas, the irrepressible greed is there, the sarcastic and laconic nature, the almost audible heavy sigh that starts off every conversation (see, for instance, Raven’s first words in the story of the whale transcribed by Joseph Campbell 4 ), yet he is a character to be admired and respected, to whom homage is deserving. Although there is no evidence that Raven was ever worshipped, as such, it is said by some that the Northwest peoples did used to leave food out on the beaches for ravens. In this form he is capable of inspiring awe and terror, although always there is that twinkle in the eye and the knowledge that it can be only moments before he says something that will inspire laughter, albeit often irritated laughter as he hits the nail of truth well and truly, and sometimes uncomfortably, on the head. His creative nature usually shows itself through circumstance rather than intent, through the desire to satisfy his own needs, rather than any altruistic principles, but he seems genuinely fond of human beings, as related in “Raven finds the First Men” 5 , amongst others. He is the great shapeshifter, creative magick personified.

In his later, perhaps younger guise, Raven, or Yetl/Yelth, is often the butt of his own jokes; these are the stories in which Raven is often undertaking a position taken by Coyote in the desert and plains regions of the South. In this guise, Raven is at his most devious and tricky, is also cruel, with little thought for anyone or anything other than his own stomach. He will go to great efforts to satisfy his appetite, from tricking his cousin Crow out of his entire Winter’s food supply, to tricking Deer into leaping onto some rocks so that he may be devoured, and even tricking an entire tribe into being killed by an avalanche so that he might eat their eyes 6 . He is the Raven at whom the young Haida men are allowed to laugh, but is also the Raven of whom to be most wary. He can be much crueller than his demiurge culture hero self. This Raven will have you in fits of laughter while he distracts you from the fact he is tricking you into doing something for him you may not actually want to do, and which may cost you dearly. This Raven is also a great shapeshifter, and uses his ability to aid him in deceiving others to do as he wishes.

Some of the stories do have Crow as the main character, and the main difference appears to be that Crow stories concern the themes of justice rather than greed, even if justice is not always seen to be done, as in the story of Raven and Crow’s Potlatch, mentioned above.

The only time at which Raven’s position in the Northwest coast culture bears any similarity to that in European culture is in his guise as one of the servants of the medicine lodge tutelary Baxbakualanuchsiwae, the Kwakiutl Cannibal Spirit, whose initiates practise ritual anthropophagy 7 . This is a comparatively recent trend in the culture, and is not widely mentioned.

By comparison, the ravens of European mythology are invariably messengers, or an alternate shape for various deities and spirits, the most widely known being Bran and the Morrigan, and of course Odin.

We are once again confronted by a dichotomy of character when we look at ravens and crows in European culture. Turning first to Odin’s ravens. Huginn and Muninn, we see at once a split between active and passive roles. Huginn is Thought, and Muninn is Memory, and Odin sends these two birds off around the world at daybreak, to bring him the daily news. In Grimnismal, Odin says: “For Huginn I fear lest he return not home, but I am more anxious for Muninn”. This suggests that Odin valued memory more than thought, the passive act rather than the active, but that is an altogether more complex discussion. Interestingly, Odin’s wolves were Geri (no Spice Girl this, however) and Freki, whose names meant ‘The Ravener’ and ‘The Glutton’ respectively. Both of these terms are extremely applicable to ravens – ravener derives from raven – and echo the character of Raven in the tales of the Northwest Coast we have already considered. Wolves and ravens have an old and close relationship in the wild. In countries where both animals live together, a great deal of a raven’s food comes from scavenging carcasses left by wolves, particularly in winter. Both animals would have been a common sight on the battlefield, scavenging on the bodies of the slain. Corvids were also connected with the Valkyries, as in “choughs of the Valkyries” 8 . Whether chough means chough (Latin name pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax), in this case, or is an artistic rendering of raven, it is difficult to say. Valkyries may have been reflections of the “shield-maids” or skjald-meyer of the Huns, and it is worth pointing out that some sources state that the Irish battle Goddesses were not represented by ravens, but by the crow 9 , particularly the hooded crow, or “scald-crow” 10 .

Many of the Celtic goddesses are linked with the raven or crow. In this mythology the goddesses are the aggressive deities, those associated with war and death. Badb, Macha and Nemain are all associated with crows and/or ravens, as is Nantosuelta, a Gaulish water and healing goddess. The wife of the Fomorian sea-god, Tethra, was said to be a crow goddess who also hovered above battlefields, and Scottish myth has the Cailleach Bheure, who often appeared in crow form 11 . The association of the birds with death and war is an obvious reflection of its tendency to eat carrion, plenty of which is to be found in the aftermath of battle. This tendency led, eventually, to the persecution of the raven, as a harbinger of doom and destruction, and also to the common notion in modern European culture that the main attribute of Crow and Raven is their connection with the Otherworld. Upon Cuchulainn’s death, the Morrigan perched on his shoulder in the form of a raven

In “The Hawk of Achill” Cuchulainn’s father, Lugh, is spoken of in association with ravens and crows. Ravens warned Lugh of the Formorians’ approach. Ravens tended Cuchulainn when he was very ill, which is about the only time Cuchulainn appears to have had anything approaching a good relationship with the birds, save for when he was announced by two Druidic ravens on his entrance to Elysium 12 . He was responsible for killing a flock of magical sea ravens, which were large and able to swim in the sea (it is possible, from the description, that the birds were, in fact, cormorants, and not ravens at all. Cormorants also have a certain mythology associated with them). Also associated with ravens is the son of Cerridwen, Afagddu, who was also known as Morvran, or Sea Raven. Cerridwen ‘s intent had been to bestow the gift of Inspiration upon him.

In Cervantes’ “Don Quixote”, the hero says that Arthur was not killed at all, but was turned into a raven. Arthur is also sometimes associated with the cult of Mithras, which was popular with the Roman legions. The cult organisation was based upon seven ranks that a worshipper could pass through, and the first of these was Raven. The raven, reprising his most common role in terms of masculine European mythology, was Ahura-Mazda’s messenger and represented Mercury. Initiates are shown on frescoes and mosaics as holding a cup and the caduceus 13 . Also along these lines, Lugus was a Gaulish god of intelligence, and a mighty warrior. A relief from Senlis shows Lugus with ravens and geese, and the ravens appear to be speaking to him. Both Lugus and Odin are also linked with the Roman Mercury, bringing us to the connection between ravens and the art of the healer.

In nearly all cultures, the raven or crow was originally white. In one of the Greek tales, Coronis, the daughter of Phlegyes was pregnant by Apollo. Apollo left a white crow (or raven) to watch over her, but, just before the birth, Coronis married Ischys. The crow informed Apollo of this, and Apollo was not impressed. He killed Coronis and Ischys, and turned the crow black for being the bearer of bad news. Luckily, Apollo retrieved the unborn child at the funeral, for the child became Aesclepius, the father of medicine.

It is worth mentioning in passing Raven and Crow’s appearances in other cultures, if only briefly.

Dwarves that live on the slopes of Kilimanjaro 13 are supposed to lay out bits of meat in banana-groves when sacrificing to their ancestors, and these bits of meat roll down the slopes and turn into white-necked ravens. In Japanese mythology, the Karasu tengu, or minor tengu, is a supernatural being with the head and wings of a black crow. They serve Daitengu, which are fallen yamabuse (monks), tall men with big noses and red faces who can create tornadoes using fans of bird feathers they carry in their sandals. Raven appears as one of the forms of the god Ninsubur in Semitic tales, and the raven, crow and rook all appear in the flood tale of Siberian myth, not one of them returning to the ark, as they were far too busy eating carcasses of drowned animals. For this they were cursed, as the dove was blessed for bringing back a twig, although it seems obvious that there had to be land somewhere if there were carcasses lying around. The Russian Lapps tell tales of the Seide, which are invisible spirits that have the power, like the dead, of appearing in the form of birds. They relate how a Seide often flew up out of a chasm in the mountains in the shape of a raven 14 .

It seems obvious, taking all these things into consideration, that the reputation of crow and raven for being dark messengers of doom, and concerned solely with death and destruction and the more black side of nature is ill-deserved. They do serve as couriers, it is true – an old Scots metaphor for death is talk of someone as having gone “awa’ up the Crow Road” – but Raven has his wily beak into nearly everything, from the birth of medicine to the game of chess. The only thing you can be sure of with this character is that he is to be found at the extremities. In Haida mythology, it is even one of Raven’s guises who determines the length of life of a new-born child. The constancy of Raven is his quest to fulfil an appetite – whether this be food, news, the sight of the slain on the battlefield, spirits of the dead for the Underworld, healing or prophecies of the future. The appetite is sometimes Raven’s, sometimes that of the deity he signifies, but the appetite is always there. He is a creature of need, of want, of greed and gluttony, and can also demonstrate a possessive and jealous nature, but from that need and want, from the satisfaction of that appetite, great acts of creativity arise. Those acts of creativity, his greatest acts of magic, are not usually under his control, are not generally by his design, but arise through his attempts to satisfy the hunger he has. The animal seeking to sate his hunger on the dead, linking him with the Otherworld, is one and the same as that which tries to fill his belly with the farmer’s crops, linking him with the 12-bore shotgun.

Raven can do almost anything, and will, but only if he gains by it. His smaller cousin, Crow, is a much more merciful and fair character. His concern is with justice, albeit oft times extreme justice, and he tempers Raven’s greed in the European myths. Raven, in particular, is a creature of paradox, and to take him at face value is to ignore his devious nature.

One last point. The collective nouns for crows and ravens are murder and unkindness respectively. You have been warned.

[box]Author: Samantha Fleming is an environmental scientist working in regulatory enforcement for the public sector, although she has, in her time, been such diverse things as archaeologist, warden for a prehistoric stone circle in Oxfordshire, editorial assistant for a publishing company, patent abstractor, administrator for the Territorial Army, and freelance web designer.[/box]