Bird of Pomp and Vocabulary

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.

The Animal Art of Imitation

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?

Ravens in 40 Degrees Below

I laid over in Fairbanks on business one winter not too long ago, and the temperature plunged to 40 degrees below zero.  The cold had hovered there for over a week.

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


I was told by a crow expert that crows can’t grieve, but I disagree.

My son would take the schoolbus home & be let off at the top of the hill near our house. I’d usually end up waiting 5-10 min up there, pacing back & forth until he arrived. One day, I noticed a dead crow in the road. Mindful of West Nile Virus, I walked up to the crow to see if I could tell if it died violently or by illness. However when I got about 4′ away, a murder of crows (how exciting to actually use that in a sentence) flew around me, screaming & dive-bombing my head. I retreated to a safe distance. Each day for 3 days, the body lay there & neither I nor any passersby could get close to it. Then the crow body disappeared after a weekend. However even after the body was gone, if I got too close to where it had lain, they would still squak & scream, mourning, I am convinced, a member of their family.

A Ballard Matron

Ravens as Ancient Tools

Posted 2/11/10

Land Ho!

(The material of the following post predates the 1300 century, when the dry compass came into use in European sea navigation.  Here the writer uses the word ‘Crow’ for the more modern, Raven.)

Amgrin Jonas tells us, that when FLOK, a famous ­­Norwegian Navigator, was going to set out from Shetland for Iceland, then call Gardarsholm, he took on board some Crows, because the Mariner’s Compass was not yet in Use.  When he thought he had made a considerable progress, he threw up one of his Crows, which, seeing Land astern, flew to it; whence FLOK, concluding that he was nearer to Shetland (perhaps rather Faroe) then any other Land, kept on his Course for some time, and then sent out another Crow, which, seeing no Land at all, returned to the Vessel.  At last, having run the greatest part of his Way, a third Crow was sent out, which, seeing Land a-head, immediately flew for it; and FLOK, following his Guide, fell in with the East and of the Island.  Such was the simple mode of steering their Course, practiced by these bold Navigators of the stormy Northern Ocean.

The ancient Natives of Taprobané (Ceylon) used the same expedient when skimming along the tranquil surface of the Indian Ocean.

―‘Rural Sports.’  Volumes III. by Thomas Davison, Whitfriars, 1812.