Cheered by Crows

March 10, 2010 @ 5:11 pm | Filed under: , , , ,

“The crow when he sings is nothing short of a clown; he ruffles his feathers, stretches his neck, like a cat with a fish bone in her throat, and with a most tremendous effort delivers a series of hen-like squawks.”

This quote, attributed simply to a “Mr. Mathews” in the Anna Comstock Handbook of Nature Study, elicited a chorus of giggles from my flock this afternoon, when we encountered it during an hour spent informing ourselves about crows. Beanie, the nine-year-old, especially enjoyed it, and I heard her repeating it to herself shortly afterward.

This morning all our plans for the day went up in…not smoke, but mercury. Half the children have fevers and sniffles; some are worse than others. We canceled Shakespeare Club, much to the regret of the teenager and her mother (sob—we were to begin rehearsing scenes from The Scottish Play today), and although the older girls aren’t sick, we thought it best to forego their piano classes as well, lest we pass these unpleasant germs around.

Late in the morning, Rose and I spied a trio of crows quarreling on the phone wires out front. As we watched, it became evident they were fighting for a particularly choice perch on the fixture jutting out from the top of a pole. One bird claimed the spot, and the other two took turns wheeling and diving at him. He wouldn’t budge. They had us in stitches. Rose said it was like Saturday mornings on our sofa, when the children wrestle over the remote control.

We are often amused by the crows who haunt our yard, so we decided to find out more about them. Comstock was, as usual, more than helpful. (But if ever, ever, ever a book begged to be converted to a digital format, it is that unwieldy three-inch-thick behemoth!)

“The crow is probably the most intelligent of all our native birds,” she writes. “It is quick to learn and clever in action, as many a farmer will testify who has tried to keep it out of corn fields with various devices, the harmless character of which the crow soon understood perfectly….”

The kids enjoyed Comstock’s descriptions of tame crows, especially the story of one bird who “was fond of playing marbles with a little boy of the family. The boy would shoot a marble into a hole and then Billy, the crow, would take a marble in his beak and drop it into the hole. The bird seemed to understand the game and was highly indignant if the boy played out of turn and made shots twice in succession.”

Of course now we all want a crow for a pet.

After Anna Comstock, we had to see what the internet could tell us about crows. There was Robert Frost, of course, feeling cheered (as were we!) by the antics of a crow—

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

And Van Gogh’s Wheat Field with Crows.

Comstock had told us that when a flock of crows (excuse me, a murder of them), descend upon a field, one of them always stands sentinel. Rose thinks the crow in the left foreground is probably this bunch’s sentinel.

A tame crow seems to have caught Picasso’s interest, too—

Woman with a Crow, Pablo Picasso.

When you’re talking about crows, Aesop comes to mind. We recalled the fables of the Crow and the Pitcher, and the one about the Fox and the Crow with the bit of cheese.

This site collects variations of the old rhyme about crows—we knew the rhyme (it’s in the Rosemary Wells Mother Goose book that Rilla and Wonderboy make me read almost daily) but I didn’t know it had to do with counting crows!

Nor had I grasped that the band “Counting Crows” took its name from that rhyme.

Also on that site, a collection of crow haiku.

Crow poetry makes me think of the Scottish ballad, “The Twa Corbies”—rather a grisly tale, but gripping! Here’s a YouTube clip of the poem being read (not sung) aloud in Scots. There’s an English translation below the “more info” link. We also listened to this version sung by The Corries—still grisly, but quite lovely.

We put some peanuts on our patio table and were almost immediately rewarded with a comedy routine performed by three curious crows—the same lads from this morning?—who were terribly intrigued by these Delicious-Smelling Objects left Unattended on the Flat Thing—intrigued but too suspicious to do more than cock their heads and eye them warily from the back of a chair. Then up they’d wheel and careen around the yard, swooping low over the table but never Getting Too Close.

Rose is keeping a count on the peanuts to see if the crows get brave when we aren’t looking.

Related links, added later:
Fascinating Live and Dead Things (the day after this post)
Books about crows

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17 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. Melissa Wiley says:

    P.S. I just checked—the peanuts are gone. 🙂

  2. Su says:

    Don’t forget our family favorite, Slow Joe Crow from Fox in Socks. We once had to stop our car to wait for a bunch of crows to get out of the road in front of our house, and my partner said (as they strolled ever-so-casually to the side of the road), “Look, it’s Slow Joe Crow…and his cousin Slow Moe Crow…and his brother Sloe Bo Crow…”

  3. Lindsay says:

    Have you seen Letters to Anyone and Everyone by Toon Tellegen? We are just working our way through, and last night we read the letter from the Crow to the sparrow. All the letters are delightful, but so far, his is my favorite. It begins:

    “Dear Sparrow,

    It’s raining, and do you know what? It will never, ever stop raining. It will keep raining forever. You just name a day, Sparrow, as far away as possible. On that day, it will still be raining.

    And the day after, too.

    I know it.


    It really has little to do with crows in general except that the crow seems rather pessimistic, but the sparrows response to the crow is exceedingly cheerful. But your post made me think of it. We only just discovered Toon Tellegen and have had fun with his stories (and the sweet illustrations by Jessica Ahlberg).

  4. Hannah says:

    Indeed a cheering adventure. Love it when things connect like that. Do you use your iPod Touch to jump online for that sort of thing? I find that if I wander inside or into the other room to look something up on the computer, it sort of breaks the mood, so I usually don’t — but then we miss out on those lovely tangents.

    With you about the usefulness and unwieldiness of the Comstock book!

  5. Carlie says:

    Wonderful. (Did I ever tell you that you’re completely inspiring???) Yes. You are. Am planning on a lovely educational rabbit trail of my in the morning. Will have to come upon something brilliant.

  6. Pam says:

    There’s a picture book about crows that can count. Oh, I’m wondering if Greenleaf used to carry it. I can almost see it on the back of a catalogue. Apparently there is thought that they can count up to seven? was it?

    Just left to search at Amazon:

    Those Calculating Crows by Ali Wakefield

    It doesn’t get a good review and I remember not really enjoying reading it aloud but my boys liked it and it was worth a look in the library.

  7. Amy @ Hope Is the Word says:

    I love it!

  8. Penny in VT says:

    Tasha Tudor had tame crows at different times in her life, too, they are often in her drawings.

    I also agree about the Comstock book – love it and am annoyed by it’s size all at the same time.

    Thanks for sharing, we’ve had loads of crows around here as well lately, it will be fun to play with all of this info tomorrow!

    Hope everyone is better soon and that you can make up your missed Shakespeare Club!

  9. Lori says:

    Melissa, according to this website ( ) a Kindle beta-version is now available!!! And the regular old read online version, too. Enjoy!

  10. Beth says:

    And don’t forget Kaw, Taran’s pet crow in Lloyd Alexander’s *Chronicles of Prydain.* Love those books!

  11. Melissa Wiley says:

    LOVING these suggestions—thank you! Can’t wait to check out the Tellegen.

    And Lori, what a fabulous piece of information. Thank you. Am hoping one of those formats will work on the iPod Touch…oh boy!

    Hannah, I usually grab my laptop for spontaneous rabbit-trailing like that. It sits on the counter between kitchen and living room so is handy when the sudden need to Google strikes.

    Hey, what’s the book (nonfiction) that tells about a boy climbing a tree (on behalf of the author, I think?) to get a baby—raven? crow? Must have been crow. And they raise it? Was it part of Six Little Chickadees, or am I mixing that up.

  12. Fanny Harville says:

    Do you know Maxine Kumin’s story “Mittens in May” about a boy named Peter Day and the baby crow he saves and raises? It’s a sweet book.

  13. Jenny in Ca says:

    We enjoy crows in our neighborhood, we have a few ravens, too. Sometimes if the weather is right in the morning, I see crows up to playful mischief when I am on my walk. One crisp blue morning I saw a young crow diving and twirling…I thought a mockingbird was chasing him, but then realized he was playing with a falling leaf- one he would catch and then drop, chase and catch again. I was enchanted! I read somewhere that crows are actually songbirds- something to do with the construction of their throats. My kids get a kick out of that thought.

  14. MelanieB says:

    I think my original comment must have been eaten. We loved Crow Call by Lois Lowery.