‘The carrion crow is hot and has ostentatious ways. It recognizes air and seasons. It scarcely awaits various outcomes; where it knows there will be sadness, it hurries there. Its flesh is not very useful as medicine.’Hildegard von bingen (1098-1179)
After my daughter was born, I began making regular excursions to the local churchyard to feed the crows. Not just to feed them, but to tame them: to have them come when I called and perch on my outstretched arm. Crows are good students, and this particular murder were soon able to recognise my face, swarming like black bees around a honeypot the instant they spotted me approaching with the pram. Before long, the boldest were sharing our bench, sidling cautiously along the seat to beg for a peanut, or a dog biscuit, or a fragment of my daughter’s rusk.
There is a theory suggesting that crows have already been tamed: that they were once domesticated by our ancient ancestors, made as friendly and loyal as dogs are today. It’s a seductive idea, for which there is at least a little evidence. Archaeologists digging Iron Age sites report that crows are one of the most frequently discovered birds. In the caves at Lascaux, the site of some of mankind’s earliest known daubings, a crow-like figure occupies pole position. And then there’s the evidence presented by the crows themselves: their easy familiarity with humankind, the way they constantly hang around, as if waiting for orders we’ve forgotten how to give.
To my daughter the crows were, at first, simply colour and noise. A croaking mobile she stared at from her pram. As her awareness grew, and she came to understand that these shapes were living creatures, I got the sense that she was looking at them as potential friends – equals even. Seeing those crows through her eyes brought back memories of my own early magical thinking: perhaps befriending a crow is as simple as reaching out your hand; perhaps all you have to do to talk to birds is speak.
That crows are listening to the words we say is beyond doubt. Corvids are masterful mimics, and they’ve been eavesdropping on humanity for aeons. Pliny the Elder has much to say on the subject, noting that crows, ravens, and magpies are all good talkers and that such birds are ‘especially fun when given wine’. Macrobius writes of a raven which delighted the Emperor Augustus by croaking ‘Hail Caesar, the victorius commander!’ And Herodotus recounts the story of a ‘black dove’ – likely a crow of some kind – which ‘spoke with human voice’ to the people of Dodona, informing them that God was in the trees.
A crow-black thread weaves through the tapestry of human history, and there are tantalising glimpses of them serving as helpers and companions. In The Epic of Gilgamesh and the story of Noah, ravens are called upon to find dry land. A highly-trained crow supposedly helped one of the Pharoahs manage his kingdom, bearing messages to any destination its master cared to name. And a Sioux myth tells of a Chief who used a tame crow as a spy, teaching the bird to understand the languages of the surrounding tribes and eavesdrop on their battle plans; a story that resonates with that of the Norse god Odin and his two ravens, Hugin and Munin, who surveyed the world on his behalf.
After many months, and much dog kibble, I realised that the only thing my crows – as I came to think of them – were good for was disposing of scraps. That in itself can be a civic virtue. Ever wondered where all the dead pigeons go? Crows pick the city’s teeth clean. But, beyond that, they refused to perform. Eating from my palm was out of the question. Nevermind accompanying me down the highstreet, a mob of feathered bodyguards that might protect the baby and me. They would escort me as far as the nearest bus stop – but no further. I realised that the crows thought of me as one of their humans: an obedient one at that.
To attempt to train a crow is to risk the crow training you. Seeming neither fully wild, nor truly tame, they live alongside us as wily fellow citizens. Black beaks, beady eyes, sharp brains. They call their rough greetings down from the trees and my daughter and I call back.
Charlie Gilmour is the author of the acclaimed memoir Featherhood (Weidenfeld & Nicolson): a story about repetition across generations and birds that run in the blood; about a terror of repeating the sins of the father and a desire to build a nest of one’s own.
Birds of Firle is a single edition book by Tanya Shadrick being posted sequentially to 100 collaborators around the world, inviting responses to the idea of Grief and Hope as the things with feathers. Each recipient spends a few days with the book, before returning it with a hand-written letter and other small artefacts. The project gives emerging and unpublished writers the opportunity to see their words archived alongside those of established artists and authors.