“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 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.
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.”
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.
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!