Here in Seattle, the roost of crows is estimated to be in the tens of thousands. Though near some cities, the estimate can be of over a million birds. I never grow tired of it, always in awe. I drove out to the arboretum three times this winter, hoping to see the crows. But darkness came and the crows did not. Finally, a friend told me that the roost had moved. The crows now meet over at the SR 522 / 405 interchange, at UW Bothell.
What’s more ominous: the sound of the traffic, or the sound of crows?
In my next couple of posts, I’m going to investigate as best as I can why the crows meet like this. But no matter what I find what, one can’t help but be moved by the mystery. How can we ever possibly know why—or all of the why?
One thing I like about these striking photos is that they remind me of a scene in my own novel. There’s a scene where the protagonist, I Am (a crow from Biblical times that can speak English), is out walking along the beach after the Great Flood. And here he is, brought to life by Mark’s camera:
One Small Step for a Crow, by Mark Waterbury
If you like Mark’s photography, check out his book The Monster of Perugia, The Framing of Amanda Knox.
A very incomplete list of gods and goddesses associated with crows and ravens includes
- the eponymous Pacific Northwest Native figures Raven and Crow
- the ravens Hugin and Munin, who accompany the Norse god Odin
- the Celtic goddesses the Mórrígan and/or the Badb (sometimes considered separate from Mórrígan)
- and Shani, a Hindu god who travels astride a crow
In Buddhism, the Dharmapala (protector of the Dharma) Mahakala is represented by a crow in one of his physical/earthly forms.
Avalokiteśvara/Chenrezig, who is reincarnated on Earth as the Dalai Lama, is often closely associated with the crow because it is said that when the first Dalai Lama was born, robbers attacked the family home. The parents fled and were unable to get to the infant Lama in time. When they returned the next morning expecting the worst, they found their home untouched, and a pair of crows were caring for the Dalai Lama. It is believed that crows heralded the birth of the First, Seventh, Eighth, Twelfth, and Fourteenth Lamas, the latter being the current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso. Crows are mentioned often in Buddhism, especially Tibetan disciplines.
In Greek mythology, it was believed that when the crows gave bad news to the goddess Athena, she flew into a rage, and cursed their feathers to be black.
In Hinduism, it is believed that people who died will take food and offerings through a variety of crows called “Bali kākka.” Every year people whose parents or relatives died will offer food to crows as well as cows on the Shradha day.
The poet who sent me this list, a friend from my college days, Ellen Girardeau Kempler, had this to add to the complilation: The aspect of this info. that stood out for me was that there are as many positive associations here as negative–usually only find the negative. And BTW, in Ireland (where I attended a poetry workshop last summer) the common crow is the Hooded Crow, which they call the Grey Crow, a beautiful black and charcoal version–black head and granite chest. They sound and act the same (universallyl crowlike).
This video goes well with the following post, because not only do crows use tools to prepare meals, they also use napkins to enhance the dining experience.
The following was told to me by Benny the Rock Dancer, a street artist who lives and performs on the street. He knew I had written a book about crows, so he began to pay special attention to the ones that hung out in his neighborhood.
Because Benny fed the crows, he said the crows visited him regularly. But, he said, the crows had a sense of the week, and visited him only a weekdays. When I visited him on the more crowded weekends, the crows did not stop by, and so we couldn’t watch them together.
One day Benny put a Burrito out for the crows. And the biggest crow, the head bully, would share it with the others, but first he’d take out the best part. He’d take out the meat. Really, he’d savor the best ingredient, eating a little bit of it and then hiding the rest. He’d put the meat beside the sidewalk, in a place where no human would walk on it. Then he’d cover the meat with a bit of a ripped napkin. Really, said Benny. The crow would do this. The crow would cover the meat with a piece of napkin, to protect it when he put the pine needles and other debris on top if it, to further hide it. In this way, his meat wouldn’t get fouled up with dirt and so on. Then he’d let the other crows have at the rest of the burrito, the rice and tortilla and all that.
I was away from home on Christmas Day, in Sitka, Alaska with two co-workers. The town was closed up for the holiday and big, puffy snowflakes were falling. We decided to walk the Totem Pole Trail, a mile-long trail through the woods that follows the shoreline the first half-mile and then curves back to town along the Indian River.
We were halfway along the shoreline when we heard strange sounds from high in the trees: muted bleeps and squawks, like the sound of a computer held underwater.
“I think it’s a raven,” I said in response to my friends’ bewildered glances. I’ve spent a lot of time in Alaska, and I’ve heard the birds’ wide range of vocal possibilities. After I said this, a large bird took flight from the tree.
We walked a bit farther and heard the vocalization again, and another taking of flight. Then again, farther down the trail, as if the bird was coaxing us along. As we neared the turning point of the trail, a cacophony of raven sound rose. The cries were so uproarious that I thought there must be a predator in the area, or something unusual happening, to cause such a disturbance.
Creeping forward through dense saplings, we followed the sound to the river and spied ravens in the trees lining both banks. Probably a dozen. By now the birds were quiet. All faced out at the river.
As we watched, a big bald eagle came swooping up the river corridor. It whooshed down and snatched a small fish from the water. As this happened, the ravens broke out in a maelstrom of sound—caws, acks, sirens, computer squawks, throat clicks, bongos—as if they were the raucous audience at some sort of avian Olympics.
I felt we’d walked into one of The Far Side comics—like the one with the martini-drinking cows who get back on all fours when they see humans approaching. Only the birds hadn’t seen us.
As we exited the forest, a raven (I like to believe it was the one who led us in the woods) shot ahead and landed on top of a totem pole directly in front of us. At the top of the pole was a carved raven head. The real raven turned until its head was in the exact position of the carved head below.
Really, it did this.
Feeling a little dumbstruck, we decided we weren’t ready to return to our hotel. We found the Pioneer Bar open, shot inside, and debriefed on our bizarre experiences over a Christmas beer.
The following is excerpted from Natural History, by Pliny the Elder of Rome, born 23 AD in what is now Northern Italy:
Let our thanks be given to the raven as it is due. During the principate of Tiberius a young raven, from a brood hatched on top of the Temple of Castor and Pollux, flew down to a shoemaker’s shop nearby, where it was welcome to the owner because of religious considerations. It soon learnt how to talk, and every morning flew to the Rastra facing the forum and greeted Tiberius by name, then Germanicus and Drusus Caesar, and, after that, the people of Rome as they passed by; finally it returned to the shop. The raven was remarkable in that it performed this duty for several years.
The tenant of the next shoemaker’s shop killed the bird, either out of rivalry or in a sudden fit of anger because he claimed that some droppings had spotted his shoes. This aroused such an uproar among the general public that the man was driven out of the district and subsequently lynched, while the bird’s funeral was celebrated with great pomp.
Walking down the street one day, I heard a cat. I looked around in the bushes, and all I saw was a crow – low enough in the branches to give the impression of a cat. I soon gave up on my search and continued on my merry way (an activity reserved now for hobbits and insurgents in the forest of Nottingham) when I heard the cat again. I looked around, and again, all I saw was the crow, as I proceeded to heap all sorts of human motivations upon the creature: Trickery, Mirth, Irony, Impersonation. This ‘meow’ was a notion both it and I could understand, and not bad – though a little nasally. Still, there was no cat to be seen. And the crow would not make the sound when I was looking, as its beak transformed itself into a smile. Or did I just make the whole thing up?
That first morning, I awoke to the sound of bongo drums on the street. To add to the strangeness, it was still dark out, and devastatingly cold. What’s more, there seemed to be more than one drummer. In fact, the drummers seemed to be answering one another, in concert – as if holding a conversation involving several bongo players. When it grew light, I went outside to investigate. Because of the cold, I wrapped a wool blanket around my head and walked out into the street.
There I discovered a group of ravens imitating exactly the beat of riffing bongo players. I found the big black birds overpopulating the Fairbanks rooftops, swinging on the electric wires, and on the sidewalks, digging through garbage.
In the local coffee shop, the birds were the main topic of conversation. The residents were collectively convinced something bad was about to befall their town.
C.A. Willis, Seattle