Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Caw! Caw! Thinking about Crows

Crows are on my mind today. The tricky thieves have been feasting on our dogs' food bowl, so we moved it to a new place to discourage them. It didn't take long for these black bandits to discover it, though, and now when I head out to the workshop I am very likely to be greeted by a fluttering of black wings and raucous protest. So I thought I'd share some crow thought and lore with you today.

A small crow was sittin' in an oak
Watchin' a tailor cuttin' out a coat. 
Hey hey-oh! said the small little crow.

Thus begins one of my favorite folk songs; I call it "The Crow Song," but it is also known as "The Carrion Crow," (with variations in the wording) and as a British nursery rhyme. It is one of numerous examples of how the old songs changed during their journey to the Appalachian mountains. Crows have long been associated with death, among other superstitions; perhaps calling a group of crows a "murder" has its roots in that superstition?

Seeing a "black crow" is considered bad luck, but that leaves me wondering what other kind of crow could possibly be seen, since all the crows I am familiar with are black! Are they all bad luck? Hardly seems fair to the crow. My husband calls mourning doves "rain crows" and believes that hearing one means rain is on the way. He says that his family and neighbors in southern West Virginia always called them rain crows and I had to prove to him with photos and books that his rain crows were actually doves.

The crow is often confused with the raven and the the folklore associated with each is also intermingled. The crow, in some cultures, was seen as a messenger from the gods and believed to be the bringer of messages of prophecy and either good or bad omens.

Some other superstitions attached to crows:
  • a dead crow in the road is a sign of good luck (but not, apparently, for the crow). This probably comes from the practice of hanging a dead crow in the garden to frighten off other crows. As one old-timer told me, "The only good crow is a dead crow."
  • Seeing two crows flying together is considered good luck in some places, but bad luck in others. I guess it all depends on where you live.
  • a crow on the roof means Death is on the way to the house.
  • Missoula cemetery website offers this advice: "One crow = Bad luck. Two crows = Good luck. Three crows = Health. Four crows =Sickness. Five crows = Death. Lots of other interesting graveyard folklore in this document.

My husband's father once had a crow as a pet. We know now, of course, that it isn't wise and is in fact illegal generally to keep wild creatures as pets, but back in the 1950's no one thought much about it. Chuck (Larry's dad) had a variety of wild animal pets from time to time: raccoons, groundhogs, squirrels, a fox--so when he found a baby crow he naturally brought it home. The family raised the crow on a doll bottle at first, then gradually moved on to other foods as the crow, now named Jimmy, grew. They had him for 7 years until an unfortunate argument between Jimmy and the hogs lead to Jimmy's demise. Larry has many tales about his crow, and some of them have become a story I sometimes tell.

Crows feature in the folklore and stories from countries around the world. Wikipedia says that "In Chinese mythology, the world originally had ten suns either spiritually embodied as ten crows and/or carried by ten crows: when all ten decided to rise at once the effect was devastating to crops, so the gods sent their greatest archer Houyi, who shot down nine crows and spared only one. This mythology comes from a text in Shanhaijing, among other sources.[49]

Aesop certainly knew a thing or two about crows; the story of the crow and the pitcher is a good example:

A Crow, half-dead with thirst, came upon a Pitcher which had once been full of water; but when the Crow put its beak into the mouth of the Pitcher he found that only very little water was left in it, and that he could not reach far enough down to get at it. He tried, and he tried, but at last had to give up in despair. Then a thought came to him, and he took a pebble and dropped it into the Pitcher. Then he took another pebble and dropped it into the Pitcher. Then he took another pebble and dropped that into the Pitcher. Then he took another pebble and dropped that into the Pitcher. Then he took another pebble and dropped that into the Pitcher. Then he took another pebble and dropped that into the Pitcher. At last, at last, he saw the water mount up near him, and after casting in a few more pebbles he was able to quench his thirst and save his life.

This reminds me of Mark Twain's story about the blue jay trying to fill a cabin by dropping acorns down the chimney. The result was a bit better for the crow trying to fill his pitcher, a more reasonable goal.

My Dad used to say this about planting corn: "one for the rain, one for the drought, one for the crow and one for me." This is close to a saying collected by the Missouri Folklore Society: "One for the rook, one for the crow, one to rot, and one to grow."

Other crow stories and songs:
The Fox and the Crow, from Aesop: Wikipedia gives information and links to many versions of this fable, including musical ones.

The Native American tale Rainbow Crow is retold by S.E. Schlosser here. You can find many legends of the Native American Crow peopleon this site.

Story-Lovers has a plethora of links, books and more, all about crows.

Crows continue to intrigue scientists too. Find out about some current research and findings at the Cornell website.

I'll wrap up this post with another favorite ballad called The Twa Corbies. It's also known as The Two Crows. Some years back a storyteller whose name I cannot recall taught it to me as Biddy McGee McGaw which is very close to this version, also from the Appalachian mountain region:

"The Three Black Crows." 
Obtained from Miss Mary Franklin, Cross­nore, Avery County, North Carolina, August n, 1930. (From the Traditional Music website
1. There were three crows sat on a tree,
   Old Billy McGaw McGee!
There were three crows sat on a tree,
Old Billy McGaw McGee!
There were three crows sat on a tree,
And they were black as crows could be,
And they all flapped their wings and cried,
"Caw! Caw! Caw!"
And they all flapped their wings and cried,
"Caw! Caw! Caw!"
2. "What shall we have for bread to eat?"
    Old Billy McGaw McGee!
"On yonders hill there lies a horse."
Old Billy McGaw McGee!
"We'll perch ourselves on his backbone,
And pick his eyes out one by one;"
And they all clapped their wings and cried,
"Caw! Caw! Caw!"
And they all clapped their wings and cried,
"Caw! Caw! Caw!"

Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.


Quinn said...

I don't know if there are other crows that aren't solid black but I remember seeing Hooded Crows in Ireland.

Granny Sue said...

I didn't see those, Quinn! Next trip I'll be on the lookout. I saw magpies, though :) in England.

Quinn said...

I used to see magpies all the time when I lived on a farm in CO...first time I saw one, it was like seeing a unicorn - I felt like a fairy tale had come to life :)

Granny Sue said...

I did not know there were magpies in the US--I thought they were European! Learning something new today.

hart said...

Such a sweet little song. I rescued a young crow once from the cat and took it to a bird rehab place after trying to get the parents to feed it, for days after the parents would screech at me when I went in the yard, recognizing me even with different clothes on.

Granny Sue said...

Jane, it's a wonder they didn't dive-bomb you and pull your hair! Larry's crow used to do that. Nice of you to save it. I really like crows. They're so interesting with the ways they look at you, and how they behave in general.

Susan Anderson said...

What a great crow post!

Our crows can get pretty territorial, and I have been dive-bombed by one a couple of times. Once the crow pulled out a bunch of my hair! It was kinda crazy.


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