A Murder of Crows

This more poetic term for a flock of crows can be traced back at least to the 15th century, when it was recorded as a “murther of crowes”. Murther is a variant of Middle English murthre ‘murder,’ though the th sound had begun to be replaced with a d around 1300 C.E. There are several theories as to how this particular term came about, but all of them have to do with the supposed behavior of crows.

For instance, crows are scavengers and therefore often seen feeding on rotting bodies of various sorts. Survivors of wars have described how the battlefields were covered in black as crows (and ravens) came down to eat the dead. Another theory hearkens back to old folklore which told of groups of crows essentially holding court over members of their flock that had committed offenses. If they decide against the “defendant” crow, then the rest of the flock swoops down on it and kills it.

The basis in fact is probably that occasionally crows will kill a dying crow who doesn’t belong in their territory or much more commonly feed on carcasses of dead crows. Also, both crows and ravens are associated with battlefields, medieval hospitals, execution sites and cemeteries (because they scavenged on human remains). In England, a tombstone is sometimes called a ravenstone, all derived from this folk tale of the Murder of Crows.

By Peace & Love

Special for our Canadian Readers:

A Murder of Crows is a visually stunning one-hour documentary that recently had a one-year anniversary re-run on CBC (Canada) and will appear again later this month. It is a film that explores a unique pairing of science and cinema as world-renowned scientists, including crow expert Professor John Marzluff, joins forces with an award-winning camera team to explore the secret world of crows. A scientific exploration with a compelling twist, the film is a visually stunning HD documentary that reveals new insights and understanding into this haunting and elusive species.

The average crow knows a tremendous amount about us, from our eating habits to our traffic patterns, but the average human knows relatively little about the intimate life of crows. And there is so much worth knowing. Crows are one of the most common birds on the planet. They have more brain mass per unit than any other bird group except the macaw and as result they often behave more like primates or even humans than they do birds. Crows have a proven ability to reason and problem-solve and have long and dependable memories. They engage in complex social interactions that range from group play and hunting to gang-style killings and funerals.

If you are in Canada, you can watch the entire documentary here. If we find any other resources for those of you outside Canada, we will be sure to send out a Twitter or Facebook update!

John Marzluff: Crows & Ravens Lecture Series

John Marzluff, Professor of Wildlife Science at the University of Washington, began his career researching the social behavior and ecology of jays and ravens. He currently brings this behavioral approach to conservation issues as the leader of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Recovery Team for the critically endangered Mariana Crow, as a Fellow of the American Ornithologist’s Union and as a member of the Washington Biodiversity Council. The author of more than 100 scientific papers, his recent book with Tony Angell, In the Company of Crows and Ravens, blends biology, conservation, and anthropology to suggest that human and crow cultures have co-evolved.

Crows and ravens are some of our most common, but least understood birds. Below we present a series of lectures lead by John Marzluff to learn about crow ecology, natural history, and behavior. Hear amazing examples of tool use by crows, complex communication among ravens, and the conservation needs of the endangered crows of Hawaii and the Mariana Islands.




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In the Company of Crows and Ravens

“Crows and people share similar traits and social strategies. To a surprising extent, to know the crow is to know ourselves.”—from the Preface

From the cave walls at Lascaux to the last painting by Van Gogh, from the works of Shakespeare to those of Mark Twain, there is clear evidence that crows and ravens influence human culture. Yet this influence is not unidirectional, say the authors  of this fascinating book: people profoundly influence crow culture, ecology, and evolution as well.

John Marzluff and Tony Angell examine the often surprising ways that crows and humans interact. The authors contend that those interactions reflect a process of “cultural coevolution.” They offer a challenging new view of the human-crow dynamic—a view that may change our thinking not only about crows but also about ourselves.

Featuring more than 100 original drawings, the book takes a close look at the influences people have had on the lives of crows throughout history and at the significant ways crows have altered human lives. In the Company of Crows and Ravens illuminates the entwined histories of crows and people and concludes with an intriguing discussion of the crow-human relationship and how our attitudes toward crows may affect our cultural trajectory.

This book makes clear the surprising case that crows have a culture, one that we modify a great deal, while they have made their own modifications on ours by behavior that gets them included in our stories and legends. It invites readers to make their own observations and send them to the authors; corvids are so ubiquitous that almost anyone can take them up on the offer. Marzluff is a professor in wildlife science, and Angell is a freelance artist and writer whose handsome drawings make this a particularly good-looking volume. They even hint that interaction with us is making crows smarter: “We suggest they are becoming smarter because learning, memory, and cultural evolution are so strongly favored by an increasingly complex urban lifestyle.”  Take up this book and help keep up our side of the race.

In the Company of Crows and Ravens

llustrator, sculptor and author Tony Angell has won numerous awards, including the prestigious Master Artist Award of Leigh Yawkey Art Museum (2001). Angell’s artwork is found in public and private collections, and he has written several books on birds. He is active in Washington’s Nature Conservancy and was director of Environmental Education for thirty years.

Birds and nature have always fascinated him. As a child he spent his spare time bird watching, plant collecting and hiking. Bird artists Morris Graves and Don Eckelberry inspire him for their expressiveness, and Tlingit, Tsimshian and Haida carving and Japanese Edo screens for their emotion and form. These influences lead to an emphasis on form and line in his work and an emotional quality that brings his portraits alive.

Speaking to Deloris Tarzan in 1999 of his passion for crows and ravens, he said, ‘Their foibles are our own. They squabble within their families and wage battles with those clans that would impinge upon their home ground. Their lives involve a struggle for identity in their social hierarchy.’

Of his work on ‘In the Company of Crows and Ravens’, Angell says: ‘Often, when the writer or artist pauses to look closely at his or her subject, even greater mysteries can appear just as understanding and resolution is arrived at.  So it has been with this collection of drawings that brought me closer to my subject.  Ravens and crows have become a lens through which I have clarified my vision of Nature and my place in it.  At the same time they have further informed me of the natural world and its complexity, they have also left me feeling humble in realizing how much more there is to know. The best way for me to depict my subject is to work from the inside out.  I have lived with and been in close proximity to these subjects and have a “feeling” about them that influences my illustration.  They are not merely forms on a landscape to be precisely delineated, but they are spirited personalities, intelligent and insightful and who knows, perhaps a bit of the supernatural as well.  My challenge in illustration is to convey these somewhat intangible qualities in a manner that compliments and expands our narrative.’