Ravens and crows were often mythologized by Europeans
Stereotypes. It happens all the time in our society. It even happens with birds. How else can you explain the association of crows and ravens with the evil spirits of Halloween? Both of these birds belong to the Family Corvidae – my favorite, because of their innate intelligence and social interactions.
Like the fairy tales of the Big Bad Wolf, so these glossy black birds have come down through the centuries with stories and beliefs that emphasize one behavior that we humans find revolting and ignores all others. During the Middle Ages and the scourge of the Black Plague, these predators and scavengers found easy pickings among the countless dead who lay exposed in streets or fields; the same was true for the warriors and soldiers killed in endless wars. People saw the wolves, crows and raven feeding on the dead and were (not surprisingly) horrified.
A young crow begs from an adult
Having that association, the birds became a part of cultural beliefs in evil and death. Europe and the British Isles are rife with stories about the magic al and devious qualities found in crows and ravens. Germans believed ravens not only found the souls of the dead, but carry the souls of the damned. In Sweden, ravens croaking were thought to be the voices of murdered people who were improperly buried. The Irish had lots of crows in their mythology, both before and after Christianity arrived. Crows are associated with Morrigan, their goddess of war and death. They also believed that when crows flocked in trees they were really souls from Purgatory. In the Middle Ages, Russians believed that witches took the shape of crows, while others believed that they used the symbol of a crow’s foot to cast death spells. Finding a dead crow was a sign of good fortune.
In North America, before the Europeans arrived with their tales of the bad birds, the Indigenous people had their own stories with much different themes. In the Northwest, the Coastal Indians considered Raven to be a creator spirit, a trickster, hero or villain all at the same time. Most importantly he was considered the creator of the world or played a significant part in its creation. In many Indian Nations clans took the name of Raven or Crow.
Maybe we can blame Edgar Allen Poe for causing Ravens (and by association crows) to be symbols of our holiday that celebrates the macabre. In his chilling poem, The Raven, the bird only repeats the word, “Nevermore”, but the poem is filled with words, like; bleak, ghost, sorrow, fantastic terrors, darkness, ghastly grim and ancient Raven, disaster, horror and haunted. The narrator is on his way to madness, while the stoic raven just sits and stares malevolently.
Another, older poem called Counting Crows (or Magpies) describes the fortune telling beliefs of the number of crows one sees as in:
One for sorrow, two for mirth,
Three for a wedding, four for a birth,
Five for silver, six for gold,
Seven for a secret not to be told.
Eight for heaven, nine for hell,
And ten for the devil’s own self.
Since they have been associated with wisdom, secret knowledge, magic and trickery, it seems inevitable that these two Corvid species would become additional symbols of this annual Holiday of mystery and mayhem.
Northwest Coastal Indians revered the Raven
Leaving all the mythology behind, we find that ravens and crows truly demonstrate forms of intelligence that we humans like to think only we possess. If you measure their total brain-to-body mass ratio it comes out equal to that of great apes and cetaceans, and only slightly lower than that of humans.
Raven bills are much larger than crows and have feathers halfway down.
Many of us who live in cities are only familiar with crows as sources of noise when they gather for their nightly roost. Out in the countryside, they do the same thing, but we may be spared the noise since they have more trees to choose from and fewer people living in close proximity.
At our home we find crows most evident in the spring when a pair that nests nearby, begins to teach their young where to find fast and easy food in our yard and at our birdfeeders. They especially like to hit the suet feeders for the energy providing fat. The black sunflower seeds provide a good protein source. But crows and ravens are both omnivores and will eat just about anything you throw out into the yard. Both birds are very wary and sensitive to any movement around them. We have to move carefully and slowly by our windows if we want to use our binoculars to study them more closely.
Try to keep an open mind about these fascinating, intelligent birds of yore and lore. You may find yourself gaining new insights and appreciation.