Corvid Birds

Common Raven

I am sure many of you know some of this family but when you look into it there may be some real surprises in there. So let’s start with the facts and the basic scientific information before we move on to the more weird and wonderful world of folklore and superstition.

So the Order we are looking at is the Passeriformes, this order contains the family Corvidae along with some other quite amazing birds such as the “Superb Bird Of Paradise”, “Magnificent Riflebird” and the “Fork-Tailed Drongo” to name but three. You may be more familiar with the Corvidae members that include “Crows, Jays, Magpie, Chough, Nutcracker, Jackdaw and Raven”. Even with these more common names you may still be unaware of the vast variety contained within this family. You may have the idea that these are mainly a dark coloured bird or maybe with a flash of white such as in the common Magpie Pica pica, but there is a vast colourful range of plumage to these birds, the Green Magpie Cissa chinensis and the Blue Jay Cyanocitta cristata being two of the more spectacular of these. But even the Raven Corvus corax that would seem to be jet black, when the light hits the feathers and we look closely we can see hues of iridescent blues and greens.

Green Magpie
Green Magpie – photographer Jason Thompson

They are mainly medium to large in size; however the Dwarf Jay Aphelocoma nana weighs in at just an average 41g and 8” height compared to the largest of the family the Common Raven at 1,400g and 26” height. They have strong feet and bills, rictal bristles at the base of their beaks and tend to only have a single moult each year (most passerines moult twice). Corvids are found worldwide except for the tip of South America and the polar ice caps.

Corvids display remarkable intelligence for animals of their size and are among the most intelligent birds so far studied. Members of the family have demonstrated self-awareness in mirror tests and tool-making ability, skills which until recently were thought to be possessed only by humans and a few other higher mammals. Their total brain-to-body mass ratio is equal to that of non-human great apes, and only slightly lower than that of humans. Their intelligence is boosted by the long growing period of the young. By remaining with the parents, the young have more opportunities to learn necessary skills.

When compared to dogs and cats in an experiment testing the ability to seek out food according to three-dimensional clues, corvids out-performed the mammals. A study of how often birds invented new ways to acquire food in the wild found corvids to be the most innovative birds. A review suggests that their cognitive abilities are on par with those of great apes. Despite structural differences, the brains of corvids and great apes both evolved the ability to make geometrical measurements.

Magpies have been observed taking part in grieving rituals, which have been likened to human funerals, including laying grass wreaths. Another specific example of corvid cleverness filmed for a David Attenborough show where a carrion crow was documented to crack nuts by placing them on a crosswalk, letting the passing cars crack the shell, waiting for the light to turn red, and then safely retrieving the contents.

Corvids will also hide their food, sometimes after this has been stolen from other creatures after they have watched them hide it first, such as squirrels burying nuts only to have them stolen by Jays. The ability to hide food requires highly accurate spatial memories. Corvids have been recorded to recall their food’s hiding place up to nine months later. There has also been evidence that the California Scrub Jay Aphelocoma californica , which store perishable foods, not only remember where they stored their food, but for how long. This has been compared to episodic memory, previously thought unique to humans.

California Scrub Jay
California Scrub Jay – photographer V J Anderson

New Caledonian crows Corvus moneduloides make angling tools of twigs and leaves trimmed into hooks, then use the hooks to pull insect larvae from tree holes. Tools are engineered according to task and apparently also to learned preference. Other corvids that have been observed using tools include the American crow, Blue jay and Green jay. Researchers have discovered that New Caledonian crows don’t just use single objects as tools; they can also construct novel compound tools through assemblage of otherwise non-functional elements. Again, great apes are the only other animals known to use tools in such a fashion. Pretty smart eh?

Their vocal range is also extremely varied. I don’t know if you have ever taken the time to just sit and listen to Crows, Ravens or Jays but they have an amazing vocal range. Most of the time we just hear the harsh squawk but they have a very melodious tune to them if you get the chance to hear it. Jays will whistle and “pop” to each other.  Whilst on the canoe trip down the Yukon River we stopped at a camp site and there were Ravens Corvus corax in the trees, just sitting and listening to them “talk” to each other was amazing. Also in my opinion, one of the best sounds in the wilderness is that loud “Cronk” the Raven makes as it flies over. I have heard this in Sweden on canoe trips and snow shoe trips, in the Yukon and sometimes in the hills here in the UK and the echo of the call just fills me with joy and I see it as a good omen.

To me they are an amazing family of birds and I have a special place in my heart for the Raven, I just love them and I would love to have one as a pet, I would call him Eric, Eric d-Raven, if you know, you know. But they are not always seen as a good omen, in fact in some cultures they are seen (mainly Crows, Magpies & Ravens) as a bad omen and associated with death. Probably due to the many wars and battles that left bodies on the field where the crows and ravens would come and feed on the corpses. Other cultures such as some Native American Indians saw the Raven as a great spirit involved in the creation of earth, man and even putting the sun in the sky. As such the Raven featured strongly in myth and legend and was included on totem poles and spiritual garments. The Germanic and Scandinavian cultures revered the Raven and saw it as a strong, clever being with god like status. Even in more modern works of literature and film the Raven is still a powerful, mystical symbol that is able to either carry off a man’s soul and send him mad such as Edgar Allan Poe’s “Raven”, or in the film “The Crow”, is able to bring a man back from the dead so he can avenge his unjust death. Even here in the UK we still have a flock of at least 6 Ravens in the Tower of London, that are surrounded with so much superstition.

Ravens at Tower of London
Ravens at The Tower of London – photographer Ingo Zwank

I am sure you all know the rhyme too that refers to the Magpie Pica pica:

  • 1 for sorrow
  • 2 for joy
  • 3 for a girl
  • 4 for a boy
  • 5 for silver
  • 6 for gold
  • 7 for a secret never to be told
  • 8 for a wish
  • 9 for a kiss
  • 10 for a bird, you must not miss.

Although it tends to be shortened these days and stop at just seven, the earlier version of this rhyme went:

  • One for sorrow
  • Two for mirth
  • Three for a funeral
  • Four for birth
  • Five for heaven
  • Six for hell
  • Seven for the devil, his own self.

There are many variations on this rhyme but all seem to lean towards the bad omen aspect and let’s not forget what the collective term for a group of magpies is “a Murder of Magpies”. And anyone who tends to take things that don’t belong to them we call them a Magpie.

So the Corvid family do seem to get a bit of a bad reputation, which I don’t feel, is truly justified. They are an amazing family of birds and well worth your time to study and find out more about them, be that through exploring the folklore of cultures or the creatures themselves. But please when you know more about them, please don’t “Crow” about it.

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