Two crows fly into a tree towards the end of a long dreamy summer’s day. They had been walking their beat through the flowering cocksfoot, lady’s bedstraw, pyramidal orchids and whitlowgrass, hunting there as they have done every day for 15 years I know of. They now perch together as if watching the sunset, and so do I.
In the same place doing the same thing, what can I know of the corvid mind? We know corvid intelligence is equal to that of primates. We know early people were intimately connected to the crow tribes and there are funerary relics from more than 5,000 years ago containing the bones of crows and ravens buried in this land. This belongs to ancient rituals that suggest a mutual trade in death; these were birds of omen long before they were thought of as vermin.
As parties of rooks and jackdaws clatter about the sky, holding on to light, holding off from roosting as long as they can, I remember Thomas Hardy’s line in Weathers: “And rooks in families homeward go. And so do I.” Where is that home we share with corvids? Is it the place we’ve almost loved, half-feared and so persecuted them in for centuries? We know little of the crowscape they inhabit, we remember little of what they once meant; they remain a fifth column, a fourth estate, a third world, a second sight – stone the crows!
This gathering of corvids is a place of birds: a murder of crows, a train of jackdaws, a tiding of magpies, a parliament of rooks, an unkindness of ravens. The collective noun occupies a space, a community. The culture and story of birds inhabits this place; a storytelling of crows? Birds verminous and ominous, persecuted and mythologised. Crow – like that evoked by the poet Ted Hughes – is the great survivor: foolproof, climateproof, futureproof.
In that shadowy way of knowing, a divination called corvidomancy, the future of our own existence in self-inflicted ecological turmoil may depend on reclaiming a corvid place in the human spirit and a human place in crow culture: a commonwealth of dark wonder.