The Truth about Bird-brains, Crows and Fantasy

I was delighted to see this video recently on the Huffington Post about a girl who, after feeding the crows in her yard for years, has started receiving gifts from them in return.  Elisha Magus (now out in paperback) features crows on the cover, and in the pages–crows who are devoted to the woman who loves them.

Cover of Elisha Magus, by amazing artist, Cliff Nielsen

Cover of Elisha Magus, by amazing artist, Cliff Nielsen

My own interest with corvidae (the avian family that includes crows and ravens) might be traced to a panel I served on with a few other authors about the role of ravens in fantasy.  To prepare for the panel, I studied up on these great, dark birds, so often associated with doom and despair (thanks, Poe!).   If you do a quick search on Youtube, you can find all kinds of videos featuring crows and ravens doing clever things, things that birds were not, until recently, regarded as clever enough to do.  At least, according to Christian Europeans.

Norse mythology includes the two ravens who keep company with Odin, [Hugin (thought) and Munin(memory)] while Northwest coast natives, and many other Native Americans, tell stories about Raven as a trickster–a role you can’t get without being clever.  Crows have been caught on camera helping themselves to an ice fisherman’s catch–by watching for the flag to go up, then pulling up the line with their beak, holding down the slack with a claw, and pulling up more until the fish is theirs.  They also learned how to operate a vending machine for corn by dropping shiny things in the slot.  In the right environment, a person could do pretty well by partnering with the corvidae, in spite of their tricks–and authors like Charles de Lint have a lot of fun with them.

Recent studies suggest that crows are about as bright as your average seven-year-old.  They use tools, have complex social behavior, and learn by watching one another.  We could do worse than to be bird-brains like this.

But it’s also true that they are carrion birds, hence their association with death and dying, and other references in fantasy, like calling Gandalf “storm-crow” because he often shows up when there’s going to be trouble, and, of course, Feast for Crows, by George R. R. Martin draws upon the image of the battlefield decked with corpses, and picked at by scavengers.  In my own work, Rye, the crow-magus tells Elisha that the birds like him–because where he goes, they are sure to eat well.

It is this rich combination of intelligence and resonance that makes crows and ravens such fascinating creatures to write about, and to interact with.  When I took my falconry workshop, I was told to watch out for crows because they will mob a raptor, and the falconer spoke of having to cancel a demonstration when too many crows showed up and the hawk refused to fly.  This behavior also makes them handy for the wildlife watcher. I was lead to a pair of great horned owls by a very noisy and insistent crow.  (the owls didn’t look too happy either).

When I see their silhouette in the sky, or hear that distinctive cry, I have a new measure of respect for these birds, carrying a world of stories upon their wings.



About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
This entry was posted in Elisha Magus, essays, fantasy, mythology, witchcraft and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Truth about Bird-brains, Crows and Fantasy

  1. Michelle says:

    If black isn’t your color, the corvid family also includes magpies & jays….blue, green, gray & white, though the black image goes better with the death association.

  2. Pingback: Book Launch day, Elisha Rex! | E. C. Ambrose

  3. Pingback: Alien Intelligence, Close to Home | E. C. Ambrose

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