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The carrion crow

David Chapman / 20 September 2021

The carrion crow is a characterful garden visitor with an unfortunate name.

Carrion crow photographed by David Chapman
Carrion crows are completely black, to the tip of their beak. Photo by David Chapman

In the carrion crow we have an enigma. The carrion crow (Coruvs corone) is an extremely intelligent and adaptable bird, it has a heightened sense of awareness, with a keen eye for trouble, and is successful, with strong instincts to rear and protect its young. Indeed the carrion crow has many characteristics which we share and you might think this would earn it our respect, yet most people dislike, or even fear, this bird mostly because of prejudices passed down through the centuries.

Crow etymology

The name of the crow comes from its call which is best described as a ‘craw’. But the word ‘crow’ has found its way into our language in many ways, most of them slightly derogatory or unpleasant. For instance, as I get less young I am increasingly aware of the crow’s feet that are developing around my eyes and I remember at school we used the term crow to describe the dried mucus under the noses of young boys. The word ‘crow’ is often added to the names of other species such as ‘crow garlic’ when they are common or have unpleasant characteristics, and if someone is ‘crowing’ they are speaking in a boastful way.

The crow is also recognised in the term ‘crow-bar’, an association which dates back at least to the 16th century; we know this because Shakespeare, in Romeo and Juliet, wrote: “Go hence; get me an iron crow and bring it straight unto my cell.” The scientific name of the crow family ‘Corvus’ also has its roots in an old black, metal tool, a corvus was a form of grappling hook, found on Roman ships.

It is possible that these tools are associated with the crow simply because they are black and shaped like a crow’s foot or beak but it is likely to be more than that. Crows are adept with their feet and their beaks are the equivalent of their Swiss-army knife. So I think the crow’s adaptability and maybe even tenacity at problem-solving has been recognised in the name of the multi-function, hard-wearing crow-bar.

Crows use their beaks to tackle a wide range of food from nuts and seeds to carrion, hence their full title, the carrion crow. How cruel we are to brand this bird with the ‘carrion’ title and all the associations that go with it. A huge range of other birds eat carrion including kestrel, buzzard, red kite, sea eagle, raven, jay and even great tit, but we don’t choose to call it the carrion tit. I suggest that we branded it a ‘carrion’ crow partly because of our dislike for it.

Carrion crows and superstition

Our aversion to the crow has many causes. There can be no doubt that some people see crows as pests. Chicken farmers and grouse-keepers, for example, dislike crows because they might steal an egg or a chick and this has led to our persecution of them. There is also the colour of the crow, being completely black has long been associated with ill-omens. Saxons thought that to see a crow on your left is a sign of disaster (though I’m not sure why the Saxons didn’t just turn around!). It was also deemed unlucky to see a single crow but seeing two would bring good fortune. Black is also associated with bereavement and many people once believed that if a crow were to land on a house roof it would be a portent of death.

Of course, all this is a load of gibbering nonsense but never let facts get in the way of a good story; Hitchcock didn’t! Alfred Hitchcock did nothing to raise the profile of the crow or the gull when he used both in his horror film, ‘The Birds’, but we must remember that was fiction, carrion crows don’t flock together like that!

Carrion crow, rook or jackdaw?

In fact this is one of the ways we can begin to identify carrion crows from rooks. If you see a flock of crow-sized birds then they are likely to be rooks, if they are slightly smaller than carrion crows then they will be jackdaws. Carrion crows tend to be solitary or occur in small family groups and they are black all over including their beaks and feet, unlike the rooks which have whitish beaks and jackdaws which have greyish heads.

In Ireland and the far north of Scotland carrion crows are replaced by hooded crows (Corvus cornix), a close relative with two-tone black and white plumage (below).

Hooded crow photographed by David Chapman

A hooded crow, a relative of the carrion crow found in Ireland and parts of Scotland.

In spite of years of persecution carrion crows continue to survive and even thrive. This is a tribute to their intelligence, awareness and dedication to the duty of raising young. If a nest attempt fails they will try again and again. They are prepared to nest in a whole range of locations in trees, on cliffs, up pylons, you name it and there could be a crow’s nest on it.

Crow’s nest, there’s another term which we have utilised in our language, but don’t get me onto that subject again, we could be here all day. The fact is that without crows our lives, culture and language would be less rich and diverse so maybe it’s time to hit the reset button in our relationship with crows and cut them some slack.

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