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Photograph taken at an altitude of Sixty two metres at 16:07pm on an beautiful summer morning on Friday 16th July 2021, off Chessington Avenue in Bexleyheath, Kent.
Here we see a juvenile Carrion crow (Corvus corone), one of three reared a resident pair of adults. This one is the smallest of the three, learning to forage for garden scraps. The juveniles have a more pronounced blueish tinge to their plumage which darkens with maturity, and smaller, more skeletal heads. A passerine bird of the family Corvidae and the genus Raven (Higher classification: Corvus), which is native to western Europe and eastern Asia, they can grow to twenty inches in length with a wingspan of up to thirty nine inches.
Unashamedly I will shout it from the rooftops.
I LOVE CARRION CROW.
There, I’ve said it. Words I use to describe these amazing birds would include stunning, beautiful, bold, magnificent, intelligent and fantastic, loving, tender, victimized…… oh yes, and sometimes they can be brutal (Let’s face it, Mother nature often is).
Recently I had a resident pair of Carrion crows who decided that my garden was theirs, playing a game of cat and mouse with a pair of cheeky Magpies (Pica pica) for dominance and food rights. The male crow actually flew in and ‘winged’ the magpies to make them leave, an incredible sight to witness. It was an honour and a privilege to be able to win their trust and they have given me so much pleasure this year being able to get within a few feet of them, and their three youngsters, to photograph and feed them, and they have reinforced my already deep admiration for a bird that is brimming with beauty, intelligence, confidence and also surrounded by myths, legend and prejudice.
So let’s begin with a look back over history.
LEGEND AND MYTHOLOGY
Crows appear in the Bible where Noah uses one to search for dry land and to check on the recession of the flood. Crows supposedly saved the prophet, Elijah, from famine and are an Inuit deity. Legend has it that England and its monarchy will end when there are no more crows in the Tower of London. And some believe that the crows went to the Tower attracted by the regular corpses following executions with written accounts of their presence at the executions of Anne Boleyn and Jane Gray.
In Welsh mythology, unfortunately Crows are seen as symbolic of evilness and black magic thanks to many references to witches transforming into crows or ravens and escaping. Indian legend tells of Kakabhusandi, a crow who sits on the branches of a wish-fulfilling tree called Kalpataru and a crow in Ramayana where Lord Rama blessed the crow with the power to foresee future events and communicate with the souls.
In Native American first nation legend the crow is sometimes considered to be something of a trickster, though they are also viewed positively by some tribes as messengers between this world and the next where they carry messages from the living to those deceased, and even carry healing medicines between both worlds. There is a belief that crows can foresee the future. The Klamath tribe in Oregon believe that when we die, we fly up to heaven as a crow. The Crow can also signify wisdom to some tribes who believe crows had the power to talk and were therefore considered to be one of the wisest of birds. Tribes with Crow Clans include the Chippewa (whose Crow Clan and its totem are called Aandeg), the Hopi (whose Crow Clan is called Angwusngyam or Ungwish-wungwa), the Menominee, the Caddo, the Tlingit, and the Pueblo tribes of New Mexico.
The crow features in the Nanissáanah (Ghost dance), popularized by Jerome Crow Dog, a Brulé Lakota sub-chief and warrior born at Horse Stealing Creek in Montana Territory in 1833, the crow symbolizing wisdom and the past, when the crow had became a guide and acted as a pathfinder during hunting. The Ghost dance movement was originally created in 1870 by Wodziwob, or Gray Hair, a prophet and medicine man of the Paiute tribe in an area that became known as Nevada. Ghost dancers wore crow and eagle feathers in their clothes and hair, and the fact that the Crow could talk placed it as one of the sages of the animal kingdom. The five day dances seeking trance,prophecy and exhortations would eventually play a major part in the pathway towards the white man’s broken treaties, the infamous battle at Wounded knee and the surrender of Matȟó Wanáȟtaka (Kicking Bear), after officials began to fear the ghost dancers and rituals which seemed to occur prior to battle.
Historically the Vikings are the group who made so many references to the crow, and Ragnarr Loðbrók and his sons used this species in his banner as well as appearances in many flags and coats of arms. Also, it had some kind of association with Odin, one of their main deities. Norse legend tells us that Odin is accompanied by two crows. Hugin, who symbolizes thought, and Munin, who represents a memory. These two crows were sent out each dawn to fly the entire world, returning at breakfast where they informed the Lord of the Nordic gods of everything that went on in their kingdoms. Odin was also referred to as Rafnagud (raven-god). The raven appears in almost every skaldic poem describing warfare.Coins dating back to 940’s minted by Olaf Cuaran depict the Viking war standard, the Raven and Viking war banners (Gonfalon) depicted the bird also.
In Scandinavian legends, crows are a representative of the Goddess of Death, known as Valkyrie (from old Norse ‘Valkyrja’), one of the group of maidens who served the Norse deity Odin, visiting battlefields and sending him the souls of the slain worthy of a place in Valhalla. Odin ( also called Wodan, Woden, or Wotan), preferred that heroes be killed in battle and that the most valiant of souls be taken to Valhöll, the hall of slain warriors. It is the crow that provides the Valkyries with important information on who should go. In Hindu ceremonies that are associated to ancestors, the crow has an important place in Vedic rituals. They are seen as messengers of death in Indian culture too.
In Germanic legend, Crows are seen as psychonomes, meaning the act of guiding spirits to their final destination, and that the feathers of a crow could cure a victim who had been cursed. And yet, a lone black crow could symbolize impending death, whilst a group symbolizes a lucky omen! Vikings also saw good omens in the crow and would leave offerings of meat as a token.
The crow also has sacred and prophetic meaning within the Celtic civilization, where it stood for flesh ripped off due to combat and Morrighan, the warrior goddess, often appears in Celtic mythology as a raven or crow, or else is found to be in the company of the birds. Crow is sacred to Lugdnum, the Celtic god of creation who gave his name to the city of Lug
In Greek mythology according to Appolodorus, Apollo is supposedly responsible for the black feathers of the crow, turning them forever black from their pristine white original plumage as a punishment after they brought news that Κορωνις (Coronis) a princess of the Thessalian kingdom of Phlegyantis, Apollo’s pregnant lover had left him to marry a mortal, Ischys. In one legend, Apollo burned the crows feathers and then burned Coronis to death, in another Coronis herself was turned into a black crow, and another that she was slain by the arrows of Αρτεμις (Artemis – twin to Apollo). Koronis was later set amongst the stars as the constellation Corvus ("the Crow"). Her name means "Curved One" from the Greek word korônis or "Crow" from the word korônê.A similar Muslim legend allegedly tells of Muhammad, founder of Islam and the last prophet sent by God to Earth, who’s secret location was given away by a white crow to his seekers, as he hid in caves. The crow shouted ‘Ghar Ghar’ (Cave, cave) and thus as punishment, Muhammad turned the crow black and cursed it for eternity to utter only one phrase, ‘Ghar, ghar). Native Indian legend where the once rainbow coloured crows became forever black after shedding their colourful plumage over the other animals of the world.
In China the Crow is represented in art as a three legged bird on a solar disk, being a creature that helps the sun in its journey. In Japan there are myths of Crow Tengu who were priests who became vain, and turned into this spirit to serve as messengers until they learn the lesson of humility as well as a great Crow who takes part in Shinto creation stories.
In animal spirit guides there are general perceptions of what sightings of numbers of crows actually mean:
1 Crow Meaning: To carry a message from your near one who died recently.
2 Crows Meaning: Two crows sitting near your home signifies some good news is on your way.
3 Crows Meaning: An upcoming wedding in your family.
4 Crows Meaning: Symbolizes wealth and prosperity.
5 Crows Meaning: Diseases or pain.
6 Crows Meaning: A theft in your house!
7 Crows Meaning: Denotes travel or moving from your house.
8 Crows Meaning: Sorrowful events
Crows are generally seen as the symbolism when alive for doom bringing, misfortune and bad omens, and yet a dead crow symbolises potentially bringing good news and positive change to those who see it. This wonderful bird certainly gets a mixed bag of contradictory mythology and legend over the centuries and in modern days is often seen as a bit of a nuisance, attacking and killing the babies of other birds such as Starlings, Pigeons and House Sparrows as well as plucking the eyes out of lambs in the field, being loud and noisy and violently attacking poor victims in a ‘crow court’….
There is even a classic horror film called ‘THE CROW’ released in 1994 by Miramax Films, directed by Alex Proyas and starring Brandon Lee in his final film appearance as Eric Draven, who is revived by a Crow tapping on his gravestone a year after he and his fiancée are murdered in Detroit by a street gang. The crow becomes his guide as he sets out to avenge the murders. The only son of martial arts expert Bruce Lee, Brandon lee suffered fatal injuries on the set of the film when the crew failed to remove the primer from a cartridge that hit Lee in the abdomen with the same force as a normal bullet. Lee died that day, March 31st 1993 aged 28.
The symbolism of the Crow resurrecting the dead star and accompanying him on his quest for revenge was powerful, and in some part based on the history of the carrion crow itself and the original film grossed more than $94 Million dollars with three subsequent sequels following.
TAKING A CLOSER LOOK
So let’s move away from legend, mythology and stories passed down from our parents and grandparents and look at these amazing birds in isolation.
Carrion crow are passerines in the family Corvidae a group of Oscine passerine birds including Crows, Ravens, Rooks, Jackdaws, Jays, Magpies, Treepies, Choughs and Nutcrackers. Technically they are classed as Corvids, and the largest of passerine birds. Carrion crows are medium to large in size with rictal bristles and a single moult per year (most passerines moult twice). Carrion crow was one of the many species originally described by Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus (Carl Von Linne after his ennoblement) in his 1758 and 1759 editions of ‘SYSTEMA NATURAE’, and it still bears its original name of Corvus corone, derived from the Latin of Corvus, meaning Raven and the Greek κορώνη (korōnē), meaning crow.
Carrion crow are of the Animalia kingdom Phylum: Chordata Class: Aves Order: Passeriformes Family: Corvidae Genus: Corvus and Species: Corvus corone
Corvus corone can reach 45-47cm in length with a 93-104cm wingspan and weigh between 370-650g. They are protected under The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 in the United Kingdom with a Green UK conservation status which means they are of least concern with more than 1,000,000 territories. Breeding occurs in April with fledging of the chicks taking around twenty nine days following an incubation period of around twenty days with 3 to 4 eggs being the average norm.
They are abundant in the UK apart from Northwest Scotland and Ireland where the Hooded crow (Corvus cornix) was considered the same species until 2002. They have a lifespan of around four years, whilst Crow species can live to the age of Twenty years old, and the oldest known American crow in the wild was almost Thirty years old. The oldest documented captive crow died at age Fifty nine. They are smaller and have a shorter lifespan than the Raven, which again is used as a symbol in history to live life to the full and not waste a moment!
They are often mistaken for the Rook (Corvus frugilegus), a similar bird, though in the UK, the Rook is actually technically smaller than the Carrion crow averaging 44-46cm in length, 81-99cm wingspan and weighing up to 340g. Rooks have white beaks compared to the black beaks of Carrion crow, a more steeply raked ratio from head to beak, and longer straighter beaks as well as a different plumage pattern. There are documented cases in the UK of singular and grouped Rooks attacking and killing Carrion crows in their territory. Rooks nest in colonies unlike Carrion crows. Carrion crows have only a few natural enemies including powerful raptors such as the northern goshawk, the peregrine falcon, the Eurasian eagle-owl and the golden eagle which will all readily hunt them.
Regarded as one of the most intelligent birds, indeed creatures on the planet, studies suggest that Corvids cognitive abilities can rival that of primates such as chimpanzees and gorillas and even provide clues to understanding human intelligence. Crows have relatively large brains for their body size, compared to other animals. Their encephalization quotient (EQ) a ratio of brain to body size, adjusted for size because there isn’t a linear relationship is 4.1. That is remarkably close to chimps at 4.2 whilst humans are 8.1. Corvids also have a very high neuronal density, the number of neurons per gram of brain, factoring in the number of cortical neurons, neuron packing density, interneuronal distance and axonal conduction velocity shows that Corvids score high on this measure as well, with humans scoring the highest.
A corvid’s pallium is packed with more neurons than a great ape’s. Corvids have demonstrated the ability to use a combination of mental tools such as imagination, and anticipation of future events. They can craft tools from twigs and branches to hook grubs from deep recesses, they can solve puzzles and intricate methods of gaining access to food set by humans., and have even bent pieces of wire into hooks to obtain food. They have been proven to have a higher cognitive ability level than seven year old humans.
Communications wise, their repertoire of wraw-wraw’s is not fully understood, but the intensity, rhythm, and duration of caws seems to form the basis of a possible language. They also remember the faces of humans who have hindered or hurt them and pass that information on to their offspring.
Aesop’s fable of ‘The Crow and the Pitcher, tells of a thirsty crow which drops stones into a water pitcher to raise the water level and enable it to take a drink. Scientists have conducted tests to see whether crows really are this intelligent. They placed floating treats in a deep tube and observed the crows indeed dropping dense objects carefully selected into the water until the treat floated within reach. They had the intelligence to pick up, weigh and discount objects that would float in the water, they also did not select ones that were too large for the container.
Pet crows develop a unique call for their owners, in effect actually naming them. They also know to sunbathe for a dose of vitamin D, regularly settling on wooden garden fences, opening their mouths and wings and raising their heads to the sun. In groups they warn of danger and communicate vocally. They store a cache of food for later if in abundance and are clever enough to move it if they feel it has been discovered. They leave markers for their cache. They have even learned to place walnuts and similar hard food items under car tyres at traffic lights as a means of cracking them!
Crows regularly gather around a dead fellow corvid, almost like a funeral, and it is thought they somehow learn from each death. They can even remember human faces for decades.Crows group together to attack larger predators and even steal their food, and they have different dialects in different areas, with the ability to mimic the dialect of the alpha males when they enter their territory!
They have a twenty year life span, the oldest on record reaching the age of Fifty nine. Crows can leave gifts for those who feed them such as buttons or bright shiny objects as a thank you, and they even kiss and make up after an argument, having mated for life.
In mythology they are associated with good and bad luck, being the bringers of omens and even witchcraft and are generally reviled for their attacks on baby birds and small mammals. They have an attack method of to stunning smaller birds before consuming them, tearing violently at smaller, less aggressive birds, which is simply down to the fact that they are so highly intelligent, and also the top of the food chain. Their diet includes over a thousand different items: Dead animals (as their name suggests), invertebrates, grain, as well as stealing eggs and chicks from other birds’ nests, worms, insects, fruit, seeds, kitchen scraps. They are highly adaptable when food sources grow scarce. I absolutely love them, they are magnificent, bold, beautiful and incredibly interesting to watch and though at times it is hard to witness attacks made by them, I cannot help but adore them for so many other and more important reasons.
OBSERVATIONS ON THE PAIR IN MY GARDEN
Crows have been in the area for a while, but rarely had strayed into my garden, leaving the Magpies to own the territory. Things changed towards the end of May when a beautiful female Carrion crow appeared and began to take some of the food that I put down for the other birds. Within a few days she began to appear regularly, on occasions stocking up on food, whilst other times placing pieces in the birdbath to soften them. She would stand on the birdbath and eat and drink and come back over the course of the day to eat the softened food.
Shortly afterwards she brought along her mate, a tall and handsome fella, much larger than her who was also very vocal if he felt she was getting a little too close to me. By now I had moved from a seated position from the patio as an observer, to laying on a mat just five feet from the birdbath with my Nikon so that I could photograph the pair as they landed, scavenged and fed. She was now confident enough to let me be very close, and she even tolerated and recognized the clicking of the camera. At first I used silent mode to reduce the noise but this only allowed two shooting frame rates of single frame or continuous low frame which meant I was missing shots. I reverted back to normal continuous high frames and she soon got used to the whirring of the frames as the mirror slapped back and forth.
The big fella would bark orders at her from the safety of the fence or the rear of the garden, whilst she rarely made a sound. That was until one day when in the sweltering heat she kept opening her beak and sunning on the grass, panting slightly in the heat. I placed the circular water sprayer nearby and had it rotating so that the birdbath and grass was bathed in gentle water droplets and she soon came back, landed and seemed to really like the cooling effect on offer. She then climbed onto the birdbath and opened her wings slightly and made some gentle purring, cooing noises….
I swear she was expressing happiness, joy….
On another blisteringly hot day when the sprayer was on, she came down, walked towards it and opened her wings up running into the water spray. Not once, but many times.
A final observation came with the male and female on the rear garden fence. They sat together, locked beaks like a kiss and then the male took his time gently preening her head feathers and the back of her neck as she made tiny happy sounds. They stayed together like that for several minutes, showing a gentle, softer side to their nature and demonstrating the deep bond between them. Into July and the pair started to bring their three youngsters to my garden, the nippers learning to use the birdbath for bathing and dipping food, the parents attentive as ever.
I was privileged to be in close attendance as the last juvenile was brought down by the pair, taught to take food and then on a night in July, to soar and fly with it’s mother in the evening sky as the light faded. She would swoop and twirl, and at regular intervals just touch the juvenile in flight with her wing tip feathers, as if to reassure it that she was close in attendance. What an amazing experience to view.
Corvus Corone…. magnificently misunderstood by some!
Paul Williams June 4th 2021
Nikon D850 Focal length: 600mm Shutter speed: 1/500s Aperture: f/7.1 iso160 Hand held with Tamron VC Vibration control set to ON (Position 1) 14 Bit uncompressed RAW NEF file size L (8256 x 5504 pixels) FX (36 x 24) Focus mode: AF-C AF-Area mode: 3D-tracking AF-C Priority Selection: Release. Nikon Back button focusing enabled 3D Tracking watch area: Normal 55 Tracking points Exposure mode: Manual exposure mode Metering mode: Matrix metering White balance on: Auto1 (4760k) Colour space: RGB Picture control: Neutral (Sharpening +2)
Tamron SP 150-600mm F/5-6.3 Di VC USD G2. Nikon GP-1 GPS module. Lee SW150 MKII filter holder. Lee SW150 95mm screw in adapter ring. Lee SW150 circular polariser glass filter.Lee SW150 Filters field pouch. Hoodman HEYENRG round eyepiece oversized eyecup.Mcoplus professional MB-D850 multi function battery grip 6960.Two Nikon EN-EL15a batteries (Priority to battery in Battery grip). Black Rapid Curve Breathe strap. My Memory 128GB Class 10 SDXC 80MB/s card. Lowepro Flipside 400 AW camera bag.
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