Showing posts with label Murder of Crows. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Murder of Crows. Show all posts

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

A Murder of Crows

“A Murder of Crows” was a 1999 thriller film which you’ve probably never heard of. The movie reviews were so bad that oblivion was its natural state rather than something which it faded into.

“A Murder of Crows” is also the name of several rock bands, one from Michigan, another from Washington State, and yet another from San Francisco. All seem to have the same prominence as the movie.

What is curious to me is why a term for a large number of crows shows up in popular culture. Does the phrase have play in a darker sub-culture that I know nothing about? Perhaps.

What is certain is that most cultures and folklore have, at best, a very ambivalent attitude toward crows.

The phrase, “a murder of crows,” refers to a large number of crows. The term seems to derive from the persistent folk tale that crows form tribunals to judge and punish the bad behavior of a member of the flock. If the verdict goes against the defendant, that bird is killed (murdered) by the flock. The basis in fact may be that occasionally crows will kill a dying crow who doesn’t belong in their territory - or, much more commonly, that they will feed on carcasses of dead crows. Also, both crows and ravens are associated with battlefields, medieval hospitals, execution sites and cemeteries, all places where crows scavenged on human remains. These are not the most endearing characteristics.

The lore and myths of Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest attributed more endearing and benevolent characteristics to crows, but they were generally an exception. Crow was often a trickster in Native American folklore, similar to Coyote. However, Crow’s tricks tended to be more malicious, probably because they were considered a pest to crops which the tribes needed to survive.

Most folklore and most appearances of “crow” in our language and culture are negative, or at best, neutral.

I grew up in Detroit at that ancient time when the Detroit Lions played the only Thanksgiving Day professional football game. My Dad and I attended the Noon kickoff, then went to my Grandfather’s home for the family turkey dinner. I remember one year when the headline on the next day’s sports page proclaimed that the Lions ate crow for Thanksgiving. I was sure that crow did not taste as good as turkey. Given that the Lions had been totally embarrassed by their opponent, it was not difficult to figure out that “to eat crow” was not a good thing.

Crows get a bad rap. Loud vain bragging is sometimes referred to as “crowing,” a reference to the sounds that crows often make. But why have crows become that kind of adjective? Why not jays - or gulls? I guess “jaying” or “gulling” doesn’t sound quite right.

Then there are those lines and wrinkles, usually on the face, often by the eyes - they could be sandpiper feet, or robin feet, or neutrally, birds’ feet. But no, they are associated with aging, a flaw in a culture of youthful beauty, and so they are “crows feet.”

There are some familiar terms in our language contributed by this common black bird which are not negative. A crowbar is used to pry up an object, much as a crow uses its beak with adeptness. The crow’s nest is the look out point atop the tallest mast of old sailing ships; notice the large dark masses high up in winter’s leafless trees. “As the crow flies” describes the straight line flight of crows.

From Georgia there comes the folk tale about the farmer and his wife who decided to sleep late one Sunday morning, the way the rich folk do. “The crows were gathered in a large oak tree, having a big morning meeting. They noticed that there was nobody stirring around the house, and that the corn was ripe in the field. So they adjourned their meeting mighty quick and flew over to the field to eat some corn. ‘Caw-n, caw-n,’ they cackled excitedly.”

The rooster continually cock-a-doodle-dooed, warning that “the crows are in the corn!” To no avail. The farmer and his wife slept on. “The old turkey came strolling into the yard and watched the proceedings. Finally he said to the rooster: ‘The corns all et up, all et up, all et up.’ When the farmer and his wife finally rolled out of bed, they found that the corn was all gone.”

Thus, in Georgia they say “the crows are in the corn” when it is time to get up.

In the Epic of Gilgamesh (the origin of Noah and the flood in Genesis), the hero releases a dove and a raven to find land. The dove flies in circles and returns, but when the raven is sent forth it does not return, leading the hero to conclude that it has found dry land. This suggests that the intelligence  of these large black birds was apparent even in ancient times.

One summer day on a hill in Newfane, I heard a murderous racket from a murder of crows  somewhere in the tree tops high overhead. The crows were angrily mobbing an owl, diving and harassing and screaming at the roosting nocturnal raptor. The Great Horned Owl, the Barred Owl, and some of the larger hawks, are among the crow’s few natural enemies. Driving the interstates, it is not uncommon to see crows driving off a Red-tailed Hawk or carrying on over the forest canopy. On that summer day, the hellish racket which accompanied their actions were an audio  etymology for a “murder of crows.”

On a completely different note, recently I once concluded a day of coastal birding by stopping for a quick scan of resting gulls.  Among the flock of mixed adult and juvenile Ring-billed and Herring Gulls, I found a single adult Iceland Gull. Gulls can be very difficult to break into their respective species, but I picked out the Iceland Gull with confidence. It stayed still so that my wife could carefully compare and contrast it with its cousins. I reminded her that she had never been with me on previous occasions when I had seen this gull; it was a life bird for her. At the very end of a day of birding, we had something to crow about!

Good birding!

Monday, January 28, 2013

Birds by the Numbers

My wife’s elderly aunt clips newspaper articles about birds and sends them to me, sooner or later. One arrived with a little note attached: “This fell out of my dictionary.” So I don’t know when or where it is from. But it opened an interesting subject - how do we refer to numbers of birds?

 “A Gaggle of Geese” describes the goose tendency
 to “talk” constantly with one another when in flight.
The newspaper clipping began with: “many of us know that it’s truly bad form when among birders to blurt out, ‘Oh, look at that big bunch of crows!’ ‘It’s a murder of crows!’ a prism of bonafide birders will promptly advise you with blood in their eyes. And so, with an unkindness of ravens or a parliament of owls or a pitying of turtle-doves. There’s a way to speak of groups of things and you’d better get them right.”

I read this and I thought - Well, okay, maybe I’m not the bonafide birder I thought I was, because most of these terms were only vaguely familiar to me.

However, there are other phrases for numbers of birds with which I have long been familiar: a kettle of hawks, a gaggle of geese, a raft of ducks.

Where these familiar phrases (familiar to me) came from was not difficult to figure out. “A kettle of hawks” describes hawks rising on warm thermals, much as bubbles might rise to the surface in a boiling kettle of water. “Gaggle” is what a bunch of geese sound like. A large number of ducks riding the ocean waves look like a rudderless raft rising and falling. A “raft” can also refer to a large collection of something, such as a large collection of ducks.

"A Murder of Crows"
But where does the term “a murder of crows” come from? Apparently the term derives from the persistent folk tale that crows form tribunals to judge and punish the bad behavior of a member of the flock. If the verdict goes against the defendant, that bird is killed (murdered) by the flock. The basis in fact may be that occasionally crows will kill a dying crow who doesn’t belong in their territory - or much more commonly, that they will feed on carcasses of dead crows. Also, both crows and ravens are associated with battlefields, medieval hospitals, execution sites and cemeteries, all places where crows scavenged on human remains. These associations with places of death may also account for “the unkindness of ravens.” The latter phrase may also relate to the image of the raven used by Danish Vikings on their flags - “unkindness” being a characteristic of these marauding bands.

Parliament is a gathering for talk and discussion. I remember one summer evening on Sunset Lake listening to a “parliament” of Barred Owls conversing back and forth. And the voice of the dove is often mournful (Mourning Dove) and plaintive - hence “a pitying of turtle-doves.”

My curiosity peaked, I did some further research. There are a few terms that can be applied to many different groups of birds: colony, company, flock, parliament, party. There are other group terms that  are standard and likely recognizable to many people, even non-birders: a bevy of quail, a bouquet of pheasants, a covey of partridges (or grouse or quail), a skein of geese.

There are terms which use to be used, but are hardly ever heard anymore: a congregation of plovers, a dole of doves, a paddling of ducks. My source suggested that “a host of sparrows” falls into this category, but I find myself using “host” for sparrows and many other species. That same source also cites “a fall of woodcock” as an obsolete term. Come Spring, I will begin a revival of “a fall of woodcock,” for that is an apt description of how the woodcock’s display flight concludes - after circling and twittering overhead, he suddenly drops, or falls, out of the night sky as he returns to his dance floor.

Many of these terms are listed in James Lipton's An Exaltation of Larks (1991), which is based on old sources. The terms evolved during the Middle Ages when the sophisticated art of hunting demanded an equally sophisticated vocabulary. In addition to a passion for sport, the nobles also delighted in the play of words.  There were manuscript lists of group names in the 15th century, and these lists appeared in some of the first books printed in England.

 “A Kettle of Hawks” - Broad-winged Hawks
 circle on rising thermals over Putney Mountain.
The best source for investigating the histories of English words is the Oxford English Dictionary. Unfortunately, even the OED is not always reliable. The word "kettle" (as both a noun and a verb) has been used by hawk watchers for many generations, and it has often appeared in print; the OED editors obviously are not birders, since they do not make any reference to “a kettle of hawks.”

“A Stew of Oystercatchers” may have been coined
 by birders peering too long through their binoculars
In my search for terms to express bird numbers, I came across many which appear to be modern coinages. The nature of some of these coinages leads me to conclude that some birders have been spending too much time peering through their binoculars. Consider: a herd of cowbirds, a stew of oystercatchers, a pint of bitterns, an avalanche of Snow Geese, a jar of nuthatches, a suite of nutcrackers, an earful of waxwings, a grain of sanderlings, a gallup of redpolls, and a college of cardinals. Those are just a few.

So, what do we make of all of this? Not much. If you want to refer to those geese you saw as a bunch, rather than a gaggle, that’s okay. If you like pointing toward those hawks that are “flying in a big circle” rather than kettling, who am I to complain? But as far as I’m concerned those hundred big black birds rising out of their rousting pines are going to be “a murder of crows,” because at the very least, they can make a murderous noise when they want.

"A Raft of Ducks"
And let me know when you see the first Red-winged Blackbird - even if it’s just one. Because that will mean Spring is coming and I can finally get out of these four walls. I’m going a little crazy. I need a harold of robins!

Good birding!

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