Truth & Myth: Crows & Ravens in The Game of Thrones

The sagas of Westeros, known as A Song of Ice and Fire and adapted into the wildly reknowned Game of Thrones TV series, makes frequent use of Crows and Ravens as omens, messengers and atmosphere. The foundation of the stories, plots and characters also draw heavily from real-world mythologies.  How much of this is fantasy and how much is rooted in truth? Here we examine the many facets of the Westerosi corvid and how it relates to the real-world counterpart – or doesn’t.

 Warning: this post contains mild spoilers if you have not read the books!


1Ravens vs Crows

The stories refer to Ravens mainly in the context of messengers, however later on they appear to Sam and Gilly beyond the wall in a massive flock perched in a weirwood tree.  The show also used “Ravens” in their promotional teasers, however the show often interchanges crows for ravens. So how can you tell the difference? Ravens are the largest corvids, and also the largest “songbirds.”  Twice the weight of a common crow at about 3 pounds (1.5kg), they grow to be an average of two feet (60cm) tall and have a wing-span of nearly 3-3.5 feet (1m) . They also have a diamond shape tail rather than the rounded square tail shape of the crow, and shaggy “beard” of feathers just below their heavier, hookier bill.



2The Three Eyed Crow

Ravens factor into almost every known ancient mythos. The Chinese, Egyptian, Greek, Semitic and Siberian legends depict the raven as a messenger of storms or bad weather. In African, Asian and European legends, the raven is an omen of death. In middle-European lore, ravens were often used as exponents of evil (for example in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Macbeth and Othello). In contrast, Norse mythology puts ravens in a place of power and worship, often associated with the god Odin.

Speaking of Odin, many theories and parallels have been drawn between Norse Mythology and the characters, plots and legends in A Song of Ice and Fire.  One such theory compares the Three Eyed Crow, which Bran seeks throughout his story, and Loki, the Norse god.  From what we know of the Three Eyed Crow thus far in the book series, we can assume Brynden Rivers , also known as “Bloodraven” or the” Night’s King”, is the Three Eyed Crow.

So how does he compare to Loki? Dorian the Historian explains on his blog that:

He is an extremely old Targaryen bastard living under the roots of a weirwood tree far beyond the Wall. (Loki lives amongst the trees)

He had been banished and condemned to the Night’s Watch for what was probably the death of Aerion Targaryen. (Loki was blamed for the death of Baldr, a great Viking leader)

He can warg (Loki can shapechange into animals and into the mist)

Baldr’s death(In the book represented by Aerion Targaryen in the World’s history, then repeated again as Joffrey’s death) is seen as the first in the chain of events which will ultimately lead to the destruction of the gods at Ragnarök. Baldr will be reborn in the new world, according to Völuspá. Sound familiar? This is very similar to the prophecy of Azor Azhai, who show watchers think is Stannis Baratheon. So as you can see, the Three Eyed Crow is quite an important symbol and character in both the book and adaptation.

But let’s move on to the warging bit…



3Raven Warging

Warging, by definition, is mind control or mind-melding another living thing. Most mythologies involving Ravens also involve shapeshifting, which is conceptually similar. Native American legend tells of Raven shapeshifting into a man, a pine needle and even a wolf.  Japanese mythology has spirits taking Raven form, or women shapeshifting into Ravens. Norse mythology is rife with shapeshifting lore, including Loki as previously mentioned.  While this is a talent hard possessed by real-world human beings, who is to say it isn’t actually possible?

Both Bran and Jon Snow are connected with crows and ravens using their warging ability. We can also assume that Bloodraven makes frequent use of Ravens as his eyes, both in the scene with Sam and Gilly, and as Mormont’s Raven.



4Mormont’s Raven

Lord Commander Mormont’s Raven(later becoming Jon’s Raven) stars opposite the Three Eyed Crow as the only other prominent corvid-character in the series. He is abnormally large, extremely old and commands a varied vocabulary.

Ravens live a very long time – from 40 to 80 years, so it is not unusual for Mormont’s raven to have been around as long as Maester Aemon.

Ravens are capable of the most complex vocalizations in the bird kingdom. They make many different kinds of calls varying from a low, gurgling croak to harsh grating sounds and shrill alarm calls. As the show plainly demonstrates, Ravens can be taught a variety of words and phrases, and have even been taught complex forms of communication through reward systems training similar to the methods made famous by Einstein the Parrot. Scientists have placed their vocalizations into as many as 33 different categories based on sound and context!




Crows and Ravens do love corn, so this is an apt request from the Ravens of this story. The Raven diet is quite variable though, including fruit, nuts, seeds, fish, carrion, trash and an occasional french fry. Ravens are not birds of prey – you don’t need to worry about your dogs or cats roaming the yard unattended, just their food bowls, as Ravens are adept thieves.  Ravens will dig through snow, plastic bags, bins or compost to find their dinner, and may also follow wolf packs,  hunters or fishermen for a meal. Ravens are known to steal the food of many birds and mammals, even from dogs.


Michael S Quinton

Michael S Quinton

6Crows & Carrion

As the Game of Thrones is played out, the world is rife with war, plague and death, and thus crows are seen everywhere preying on the spoils. They are seen eating flesh, pecking out eyes and numerous other deeds usually reserved for vultures. This is not far from realistic – although only some kinds of Crow and Raven are known to eat carrion as a matter of course, mainly depending on their environment and options.

In this day and age, we know that crows and ravens often use their amazingly high IQ to manipulate other species where meals are concerned.  They have been observed calling to dogs, wolves or other predators to attract them to a corpse the Raven cannot scavenge or open on their own. This advanced intelligence also allows them to share social and territorial spaces with these kinds of predators without becoming prey themselves.  Ravens and crows have been observed working together to distract a person or animal away from a potential meal so the other can snatch it away.

Historically, crows have been depicted scavenging or circling the dead through many artforms, and have been used in Norse and Tibetan ritual to consume corpses in honor of the dead as vessels for rebirth.


Marino Thorlacius

Marino Thorlacius

7Dark Wings, Dark Words

This common idiom in our story refers to Ravens as omens of something bad.  This comparison is used throughout history and mythology as well. Ravens and Crows are famous symbols for death, tragedy and misfortune, which is likely the driving force behind author George R.R Martin’s use of them in the books to foreshadow and set the scene.



8Raven Messengers

The most prominent role Ravens play in the series is as messengers of their sage-type masters, the Maesters of each keep or castle, and by Sam and Master Aemon on the Wall. This serves both functionally, to get information from one location to another, and figuratively as omens or bearers of often bad news.

While Ravens are super-intelligent, they were likely not used as messengers at any point in history, contrary to the romantic notion put forth in the series. Instead, carrier pigeons were used for their unique navigation and magnetic sensitivity. As ravens are not migratory, they would not make the best homers, although they range for very long distances.

However, Ravens have been noted as useful spy tools, purported as trained eavesdroppers capable of repeating back snippets of conversation overheard by the enemy, or retreiving items.


white raven

9White Ravens

Among the vast arsenal of messnger Ravens employed throughout Westeros, the Maesters of the Citadel use a special white raven to distinguish messages coming from the Citadel from other messages.  Not to be mistaken for an albino bird, white ravens are quite real, and are the result of Leucism, a genetic disorder whereby the pigmentation cells are unevenly distributed, hence resulting in patches of feathers looking paler, bleached looking or show white. White ravens are the result of the mating of two common ravens with the same genetic defect. The same pair could produce many generations of white ravens, since common black ravens are monogamous and long-lived.

White Ravens have also been revered in mythology, including the story of Noah’s Ark (later translated into a Dove, which was more of a romanized romantic symbol). The significance of white ravens being used by Maesters of the Citadel could be to symbolically differentiate the messages they carry as being peacful or good, or it could simply be a means for noting importance.



10Ravens & Wolves

Dire wolves and common wolves are almost as common as Ravens in A Song of Ice and Fire, with both Nymeria and Ghost in close companion ship with Crows and Ravens throughout their wanderings.

This partnership is common in the real world, too, as both Ravens and Wolves share common habitats. Aside from ravens enterprising on wolves as competent providers of food, Ravens are also extremely playful, earning them the legendary nickname of “trickster.” One of their favorite games is tail-pulling, which has been observed as perpetrated on larger birds of prey, wolves, big cats and even people. In one account, ravens were seen perching on the roof of a local supermarket, waiting for unsuspecting humans to walk by before pushing a clump of snow over the edge to fall on their heads.

North of the Wall, it is easy to imagine Raven playing with Ghost in much the same way.

In what other ways do you notice crows and ravens used in A Song of Ice and Fire, and what significance, if any, do you think they portray?

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Raven the Egg Thief

Beth Surdut

This month’s Zenchilada expands beyond yummy mexican fusion gastronomy and heads into the mystical mind of Beth Surdut. The Santa Fe Raven Artista and Storyteller Extraordinaire, is featured on page 58.

She tells an engaging story of friendship and observation, a whimsical study of Raven behavior in her desert home.

“The Egg Thief swoops in at least once a day to check on the chicken egg situation. Today, even in the winds so brisk the house was howling, he took one egg of the two I placed on the rock fountain and brought it over to his mate, who was hopping impatiently in the budding desert. These birds have yet to connect me with the eggs, but have figured out where I place the treats and that sometimes I do it more than once a day. Patience.”

To read more, head over to the Zenchilada and click the 3rd dot on the bottom.

You can keep up with Beth and her egg experiments on her blog.


A Murder of Crows

Watch the full episode. See more Nature.

PBS is set to premiere their new corvid special A Murder of Crows next Sunday, October 24. Featuring crow experts from around the world,  the show aims to present us with captivating new footage of crows as we have never seen them before! Topics include face recognition, tool use, complex language, and society.

For those of you who do not get PBS shows on a local or cable channel, it should be available to watch online the week following the premiere.

Unusual Crow Sanctuary Flying High

Most people don’t mind having a cat or dog around the house, or even a rabbit.

But a Wolverhampton, UK  couple have gone a step further by sharing their life with dozens of squawking crows – some of which have even appeared on TV.

Mark and Lisa Edge run a sanctuary at their Wednesfield home for unwanted or injured crows, ravens, magpies and rooks and have 37 birds in their care.

The below video gives an intimate glimpse of the sanctuary, and features Jester the Jackdaw and Roxy the Raven, both superstars.

“I used to be so scared of birds,” Lisa said. “I didn’t like them flying near me or coming anywhere near me.

“A few years ago, we found a crow on the ground and brought it home. We looked after it for a few months and it just spiralled out of that really.

“We were then getting people contact us to ask if we would take their unwanted birds from them.”

The couple, who have two sons, Michael, aged 21, and Thomas, 15, keep the birds in aviaries in their back garden, although some will creep into the house on occasions.

Lisa, aged 48, said: “Sometimes Mark will sit on the chair and eat his tea with one of the birds.

“The birds are so tame, friendly and intelligent.”

Lisa, a lollipop lady, said some of the birds had a calcium deficiency in their wings, while others had been attacked by cats.

The couple keep them an average of three to four months before releasing them back into the wild.

She added some of the birds had even made it onto the small screen, with parts on the likes of TV dramas Midsomer Murders and Frost. “Roxy the raven was in Midsomer Murders and Frost,” she said.

The birds eat chicken and cat biscuits, although some like special treats such as scrambled eggs or ice lollies.

Source: Nicky Butler for UK’s Express&Srar

Crows: Nature’s Scamps?

Love them or hate them, crows are some of the smartest and most adaptable birds around, and they’re a lot like us.

Photo by Tomi Tapio

People seem to be of two minds about crows. Some of us admire these big black birds for their intelligence, inquisitiveness, playfulness and other sterling qualities. Others despise crows for their raucous calls, messing with garbage and nasty habit of carrying off other birds’ eggs or nestlings.

In their defense, crows are good parents, have stable family relationships and gather with others of their kind, often in cities. They’re very adaptable and able to thrive in just about any habitat, so they can live happily anywhere in the continental United States.

Who else does this sound like? Yes, people and crows do have a lot in common, maybe more than many of us want to believe.

Crows used to be rural birds, but were relentlessly slaughtered in efforts to control their predation on grain crops.

Around the 1950s crows figured out that life is easier in urban areas. After all, cities prohibit the shooting of birds, and there’s a continually replenished supply of food on streets, at shopping centers and in dumpsters. Many cities also provide an urban forest, perfect for nesting and roosting at night.

Crows know how to have fun

I’m very fond of crows and have learned that it’s worthwhile to keep an eye on them — they’re always up to something. There’s no denying that crows are smart: Bird researchers John Marzluff and Tony Angell even assert that “mentally, crows and ravens are more like flying monkeys than they are like other birds.”

Their big, active brains allow them to quickly solve the problems of survival each day, leaving plenty of time for what some biologists call gratuitous behavior — anything that’s not related to breeding or surviving.

Basically, crows have time to have fun. (For a treat, read David Quammen’s essay, “Has Success Spoiled the Crow?” in “Natural Acts, A Sidelong View of Science and Nature.”)

For fun, they’re known to drop sticks in the air and then swoop down to catch them before they hit ground, over and over.

Crows have been reported purposefully sliding down snow-covered rooftops. I once saw a group of crows tumbling down a short, snowy hill on a winter day, running back to the top time and again to have another slide.

And check the skies on breezy days in spring and fall to see crows exuberantly soaring and swooping in the wind. Yes, crows know how to have a good time.

By late summer, this year’s young crows are roaming the neighborhood, learning the omnivore ropes from their parents and often an older sibling from an earlier nest who’s spending a year or two as a helper.

Photo by M@@ny

Clean-up crew

Crows perform a service as nature’s clean-up crew, scooping up road kill from our streets. However, much of their diet is fresher fare, including earthworms, fruits, nuts, seeds, grains, small animals and insects.

Although they’re known to have a large vocabulary of sounds, crows don’t sing to attract a mate or define a territory as other songbirds do (yes, crows are classed as songbirds). They communicate with each other via a variety of calls and seem to end each day with a loud gossip session before roosting for the night.

Crows from coast to coast have been hit hard by West Nile virus, with the Midwest population devastated by this disease.

I’m hoping for the day when these handsome birds are again a more common sight, strutting through our parks, cawing from the trees and just generally causing mischief.


Val Cunningham, a St. Paul nature writer, bird surveyor and field trip leader, can be reached at

Read more at Star & Tribune


Shade the Raven Takes Off

Emily Cory is training her pet raven, Shade, to find lost hikers or tourists in the Arizona backcountry. Shade is already an expert at hide-and-seek and has an uncanny ability to understand verbal commands.

A couple months ago we featured a wonderful children’s book by Diane Phelps  – Shade the Raven. The story is based on Emily Cory’s companion, a white necked raven she hand raised and has been training as a search and rescue bird.

NPR did a wonderful story on Emily’s plight to find funding and support within the scientific and conservation community for her research. She is a true example of how we can apply our passion for a subject to a future that benefits science, but also our communities.

As Daniel Kraker writes,”She worked with raptors and owls at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. But she was fascinated by the one common raven there.

“She’d play horrible tricks on the volunteers, she’d get in so much trouble. She never forgot a thing, never missed a thing [and] that really got my attention,” Cory says.

Cory began to realize just how smart this raven seemed to be. At the same time, she thought about her childhood in Sedona, where she used to watch helicopters from her house searching for lost hikers.

“I started thinking, ‘Well how come nobody’s put these two together?’ Because clearly birds are easy to train — falconers have been training them for thousands of years. And ravens are super intelligent,” she says.

Hide-And-Seek Training

So she bought a raven and named it Shade. Her goal was to eventually use the bird to help rescue tourists lost in the Grand Canyon or in the rough Arizona desert. Shade quickly learned to play difficult games of hide-and-seek with one of her favorite objects — a wooden blue star.

“And soon she was finding that blue star no matter where I hid it,” Cory says. “She was looking in places I didn’t even think of hiding it, that really were very good hiding spots.”

To demonstrate, Cory hides a tube of Chapstick under a pillow. But Shade is distracted by my microphone. The bird cocks her head to the side to get a better look.

“I know, it’s too scary. She thinks that we’re up to something,” Cory says.

A St. Bernard With Wings

Cory’s plan was to bring Shade outside and teach her to spot people in the backcountry. Then, Cory would work with her to fly back and forth between the hiker and the trainer with a GPS tracker attached to her foot.

Cory was also writing her master’s thesis on the project. Despite the progress she was making training Shade, her plan hit a snag because no one would support her research.

“I actually got laughed out of a couple of professor offices,” Cory recalls. “They would say, ‘That’s nice, but let me introduce you to reality — you cannot train ravens.’ “

Understanding Verbal Commands

But the training revealed something else: Shade could seemingly understand verbal commands.

“Sometimes she responds correctly even when my back is to her,” Cory says. “For example, she loves Chapstick. She always steals Chapstick.”

The second Cory says the word “Chapstick,” Shade flies away, flips over the pillow and retrieves the tube of Chapstick.

“See, she heard me say ‘Chapstick’ and she picks up a Chapstick,” Cory says.

Back To School With A Mission

Earlier in August, Cory finally started a Ph.D. program at the University of Arizona in animal behavior science.

She’s going to start by studying ravens and language.

But ultimately, she’s hoping to find a way to put the bird to practical use — searching for lost hikers in the backcountry.”

If you would like to help Emily and Shade, you can contact her through NPR here

Jungle Crows: Decent Neighbors

By haythornthwaite.c

Crows in Japan have long had a bad reputation, perhaps moreso than anywhere else. They are prevalent, noisy, and very commonplace but does that mean they should be regarded as vermin?  Colin Tyner, Japanese resident, does not think so. He writes,

“The other day, I was looking out of my window and I spotted a large crow’s nest just outside. Not only was I struck by its size — it was huge, easily a couple of meters wide — I was amazed how something that large and inhabited by such big birds could have escaped my attention.

Jungle crows, the most common of the three types of crows living Japan, have a poor reputation. Along with the cedar pollen bloom, crow-human conflict is one of the more unpleasant signs that spring is here. This friction occurs in places where the lives of the two species intersect, which is usually early in the morning on our way to work or when taking out the trash. Otherwise, we rarely see them.

Adult birds take care of their nests and their young during most of the daylight hours. They have better things to do than pester us, unless we come too close to their young. The other reason is that they are asleep when people are coming home from work. There are probably good reasons why people in Japan think of a crow cawing in the evening as a sign that something odd is going to happen. For a crow, this is also not of the norm. Crows may be early risers, but they are not night owls.

Really, crows are decent neighbors. Their early morning hours are similar to senior citizens and they are generally quieter. It is also worth mentioning that for all the stories that I hear about people being woken up in the morning by noxious crows, the dogs living in my neighborhood are much noisier, and much more disruptive and frightening. How many children in Japan have to go to the hospital each year because of crow attacks?

Adult crows realize that constant cawing will hurt their chances of getting a meal and increase their chances of being eaten by a predator. I wish that my neighbors’ dogs had this kind of sense and the fear of being eaten. Maybe me brandishing a knife and fork, and licking my lips would do the trick?

I like to think of crows as barometers of the shared animal habitats that we call neighborhoods. They give human beings a reasonably good read on our quality of life and how well we dispose of our garbage. Jungle crows are accustomed to living in the mountains, feeding on seeds, insects and small animals — dead or alive.

By Lenora Genovese

However, they also work well in an urban environment. From the perspective of the jungle crow, the city and the forest have similar feels, and vantage points, and they not fussy about the aesthetic differences between the so-called natural environment of forests and the built environment of the city. A dead mouse from the top of a tree and a dead mouse from the top of a building is a dead mouse to be seen, and then eaten.

I would imagine that looking in a crow’s stomach would tell us a lot about how we live and the kinds of food we consume. Japanese waistlines are not the only things that have increased with a steady diet of junk food. So has the number of juvenile crows, which can be measured by their constant cawing.

Jungle Crow Family

Urban crow populations in Japan grew in concert with the increase of consumer garbage in the 1970s. More food in the open meant that crows could rear more chicks. Heaps of garbage from a crow’s-eye view must look pretty tasty. Certainly, the garbage heap in front of our house must look like a 5-star hotel from a crow’s perspective.

Forget about pigs, cows and horses. Crows are our companion species in an industrialized world. Before the transformation of Japanese society from an agrarian to an industrialized, urbanized archipelago, crows’ insides were probably filled with grains. Now? It is more likely they are filled with instant ramen and other processed foods.

Are we what the crows eat?”

[box]About the Author: Colin Tyner lives in Japan and is completing his Ph.D. in history.

This article originally appeared in The Japan Times Weekly: April 24, 2010[/box]

The Spirit Ravens of Qualicum Beach

We’ve all heard of the black raven, but rare sightings of a white version of the bird now have birding enthusiasts flocking to the island in hopes of spotting one.

Qualicum Beach, a beach and town on Vancouver Island British Columbia, has been home to rare white ravens for the past few years. This year, at least one new white raven has hatched, prompting birders to flock to the seaside paradise.

When most of us think of a raven, black immediately comes to mind. White ravens are the result of the mating of two common ravens with the same genetic defect. The same pair could produce many generations of white ravens, since common black ravens are monogamous and long-lived. See our previous post on why crows aren’t black.

Vancouver Island’s Qualicum Beach seems to be a special place, with white Ravens showing up every year for the past ten years as reported the Vancouver Sun. This year there is only one new white raven that has been seen, but that hasn’t stopped birders.

Mike Yip, a 66-year-old retired school teacher, heard reports of a sighting in the Qualicum Beach area. Armed with nothing more deadly than a Nikon D300 and his own curiosity, he went in pursuit of an elusive quarry. Mr. Yip was born in Duncan to a sawmill worker. He graduated with a science degree from the University of British Columbia in the centennial year. To his surprise, he wound up spending his working life in a classroom, teaching math and English at elementary, middle, secondary and alternative schools. The final quarter century of his career was spent in Parksville.He put aside his chalk in 2001, planning to spend his days on the golf course. But a chance encounter two years later changed his life.

“I came across a strange duck that I’d never seen before,” he said. “I spent two hours watching that duck trying to figure out what it was. I went home and got my old camera. From then on I just wanted to find every bird around and get as good a picture as I could.”

He has now seen five white ravens at Qualicum in the past three years.

White ravens are very special to the Haida. One British Columbia village which had a white raven resident memorialized the bird after it died, preserving it and displaying it at the Port Clements museum. Learn more about this lore here.

The Qualicum Beach area is home to over 200 species of birds through the summer season. White Raven sightings generate a great deal of excitement, as described in a 2002 article from the Fairbanks Daily News. Three fledglings,  all white Ravens, were rescued recently in the United Kingdom and are said to be faring well, the Daily Mail reported Monday.

Empathy is For the Birds Too

Many birds are highly social and very intelligent, two traits that might be prerequisites for empathy. Although very little is known about empathy in birds, (read our previous article here) there is some tantalizing evidence that it exists. New research has documented what many bird watchers have known for decades; ravens apparently console their friends after an aggressive conflict with a flockmate.  To flesh out this topic, a team of researchers at the University of Vienna, Orlaith Fraser, a postdoc, and her co-author, Thomas Bugnyar, a teaching fellow, decided to investigate further. They chose to study the Common Raven.

Of the findings, Dr Fraser writers,”The findings of this study represent an important step towards understanding how ravens manage their social relationships and balance the costs of group-living. Furthermore, they suggest that ravens may be responsive to the emotional needs of others.”

To read the entire exciting study, head over to my favorite grrlscientist blog

Crow Problem in the Kremlin

I do not know much about the ecology in Moscow personally, so this is an interesting dilemma. It stands in stark juxstoposition to cities like London and New York which also have a lot of crows, ravens, pidgeons, and warblers which nest on buildings and so on and which are not exterminated in this way.  What would the queen say about a legion of hawks unleashed on the Tower of London, for example?

At which point should we consider crows to be a nuisance, and is introducing another bird, such as the hawks (trained or not), really a solution?

My guess is they will find it to not work very well, as crows and ravens tend to be adept at fighting off birds of prey. Perhaps they should deploy toy planes?