“What the Crow Does: A Lyric Essay” by Justin Lawrence Daugherty


Chinese mythology tells a story of the crow in the birthing of the world. Ten sun crows roosted in ten different suns orbiting the Earth, where they perched on red mulberry trees, with mouths opening up at the ends of their branches. Each day, one sun crow would drag a carriage across the sky, driven by Xihe, the mother of the suns. The crow would return and another would depart. The crows would descend from the heavens and eat two types of grass they particularly liked and would be gone from Xihe for long periods. She became jealous and blinded the crows so they could not fly to the earth, digging their claws into the rich dirt, eating the grasses. Blinded, the crows became confused and all ten flew out from the mulberry tree on the same day, dragging their suns behind them, burning the world to ash. Xihe dispensed the archer, Houyi, and he shot down all but one of the sun crows.


The crow, long before humans walked the earth, surveyed the world, observing and evolving to fit perfectly in their ecological niche.

We have spent a lot of time, recently, trying to know the crow. The crow, in many ways, is like us, insofar as we have conferred humanness onto its skills and intelligence, imposed a certain likeness to us that we find both admirable and detestable.

Some species of crow top (human-created) avian IQ tests. The hooded crow, of Israel, may take to a lamp post or the end of a dock, a piece of bread in its mouth, and begin to shred the morsel with its talons, dropping bits into the water. As small fish come to the surface, the hooded crow will snatch them out of the water. The crow is intuitive, inventive, like us. It persists.

The crow fashions tools. Scientists studying the Caledonian crow found that a captive female, confronted with the task of retrieving a small bucket of food from a vertical pipe, will bend a piece of wire into a hook and remove the bucket. The crow learns and adapts. It finds a way.

The crow identifies human faces that appear harmful to it and warns members of its group. Researchers, led by wildlife biologist John Marzluff, went out onto the University of Washington campus, wearing caveman masks, and captured crows and released them. When those scientists emerged again, wearing the caveman masks, seven birds scolded them as they walked along the same paths as before. Then, thirty percent of the crows recognized and scolded them. Then, nearly all adult crows recognized the danger around them and sounded their cawing alarms to each other when confronted with the presence of these caveman faces, a desperate attempt at preserving lives. A threat emerges and the crow perceives, remembers, and warns other crows. It sees us for what we are, what we leave in our wake. Who better than the crow, a synanthrope, an animal that has evolved to coexist with us, an animal saddled with the reputation as Death’s messenger, to scold and remind us of the dangers we wield?

The crow will engage another crow, midair, in a kind of joust to establish hierarchy. The crow takes and stores food away for the winter season. The crow will make knives of wood and will drop a nut in a street and wait for a passing car to crush the shell so that it may be eaten. The crow uses us, our Toyotas and Hondas and Fords, our Michelin and Goodyear tires, our tired feet pressing gas pedals, our distracted minds driving between work and home and work. In the world of the crow, human toil does not matter. All our sweat, iPhones, salaries, soccer practices, pictures of our children playing in sandboxes, kisses stolen from lovers, broken fingernails, broken tibias and ulnas, lip gloss and mascara and male anti-balding products, time spent waiting in DMV lines, time spent turning grey hair black or brown or blonde, time spent hiding wrinkles and burning away fat and keeping the heart beating, beating. We, like dangling bread crumbs and hook-bent wire, are tools. All our lives, for the crow, amount to one crushed nut on the pavement.

An authorized crow hunt in Albany, New York, aimed to reduce the 25,000 to 50,000 American crows roosting in the city trees, calling and talking to each other, thousands speaking all at once, leaving their waste behind, taking up space, encroaching on the land, like us. “Sometimes we don’t like the animals that have the same qualities as us. We don’t like crows because crows are opportunistic and so are humans, though. Crows are invasive. Crows will do all sorts of things that humans do that we are not particularly proud of doing,” Louis Lefebvre, biologist, says.

Why do we spend so much time studying the crow, trying to learn its behaviors, map its intelligence? Why do we observe, categorize, compartmentalize, explain and experiment with the world around us? So much is unknowable, so much outside our understanding.

The crow does not need to understand any more than it simply exists.


The Chinese tell the story of the crow in the birthing of the world, the Greeks tell of the crow as the harbinger of death. It is said that Apollo left the crow, once white, to watch over Coronis, his lover. The crow witnessed Coronis in bed with Ischys and flew to inform Apollo. Upon hearing the news, Apollo distrusted the crow and turned all crows black. When Apollo found the story to be true, he sent Artemis to kill his lover (while some versions have Apollo doing the deed himself) and made the crow sacred, an animal that would forever be marked with the task of announcing death.


The crow is inventive, adaptive and, in the stories we tell, prophetic, but there is one thing the crow does not do: it does not join a murder and fly about, this way and that, stressed, heart pumping harder than it should until finally, all at once, the entire murder dies midair, a sudden collective killing of an engine, falling to earth like some terrible rain, hundreds of oil-black bodies littering highways, backyards underneath clothing lines, the roofs of imploding barns.

In January 2011, officials in Stockholm reported 50 to 100 jackdaws lying in the snow-blanketed streets, broken and crooked legs pointing upward like winter-bare tree branches, beaks cracked and agape, feathers strewn about the road. “This is unusual,” one Swedish ornithologist said. The same thing happened to other bird species, in greater numbers, in the United States earlier that week.

Seven hundred turtledoves dropped from the sky in Faenza, Italy. Turtledoves crushed in the streets by cars. Turtledoves in flowerbeds, in the beds of trucks, hanging from trees and rooftop gutters, clogging the sewers in the streets. Turtledoves in water glasses and on dinner plates at a streetside diner patio. Turtledoves, like garnishes, in antipasto salads. A stray turtledove eyeball next to a green olive at the bottom of a martini glass. The New York Post claimed it was Hitchcockian. Officials put forth the theory that the birds’ bodies were found near a distillery and chemical plant, the mass of birds having been poisoned, at once and together, culminating in an exodus from the sky, downward to the ground. Barry Lopez has said that “we blame ourselves, with a lack of humility, for every animal’s demise,” a guilt-ridden attempt to explain the unexplainable through our own misdeeds.

Scientists cited New Year’s Eve fireworks as the culprit for the mass death of thousands of blackbirds in Beebe, Arkansas. Then, 125 miles away, over 100,000 drum fish washed up in the Arkansas River. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s Keith Stephens claimed that a collective disease was to blame. “We don’t believe it’s environmental,” he said, “because it would have killed a lot of other fish.” What is common to the drum fish and the blackbird that makes them susceptible to mass deaths, whether we are to blame or not? And, why not the crow?

The crow has evolved to live with humans, to survive us, to learn from our mistakes and press onward. The blackbird has not learned to cope with fireworks and explosions. The turtledove, unlike the crow, does not know to avoid the distillery plant. The crow is not like the drumfish.

An abnormally cold December sea was blamed when over 40,000 devil crabs washed onto the shore on the Kent coast in England. 60,000 ducks died in the Baltic Sea in 1976 after landing on an oil slick. Perch fell from the sky over Australia in 2010, stolen into the air by a storm and strewn far away, over land, far from open water. A deluge of frogs in northwestern Serbia in 2005. Fish in Brazil and Florida. Grackles, redwing blackbirds, starlings and robins in Kentucky. This is normal, scientists said. This happens all of the time. As though the normalcy of this event is enough for us to not be startled when it happens.

Paula Mooney, of Examiner.com, disagreed. “This strange occurrence can’t help but lead this Christian writer to remember the beginning of that 1988 movie ‘The Seventh Sign,’ wherein signs of the apocalypse-as outlined in the Book of Revelation-seem to be coming true,” she said. How curious is it that the deaths of so many animals, by the hundreds or thousands falling from the heavens or washing up on beaches, signal some impending Apocalypse, when it has been the crow, for hundreds of years, that has come to represent the harbinger of doom?

This jump to the Apocalypse is typical in these instances, this rush to call unexplained phenomena signs of some impending destruction. The ultra-religious – and even those with only mild, “I go to church on Sundays and that’s enough to save me” tendencies – looked for reasons in these instances to believe the end was nigh. On the other end, scientists scrambled frantically to compile theories for the deaths – storm stress, collision with a semi, confusion caused by stentorian noise, poor eyesight – and to explain, in logical, concrete terms, how this could happen. One side begs for reunion with the creator, the other attempts to explain it away.

Hogue Prophecy, a blog dedicated to the prophecies of Nostradamus, said: “The Antichrist will be the infernal prince again for the third and last time. so many evils shall be committed by the means of Satan, the infernal Prince, that almost the entire world shall be found undone and desolate. Before these events happen, many rare birds will cry in the air, ‘Now! Now!’ and sometime later will vanish.”


The origin of the phrase, “eating crow,” is uncertain, though it seems to have something to do with the distastefulness of eating a scavenger, a picker of carrion. Festering bodies with open bullet wounds and severed limbs on some battlefield, any battlefield. The crow, sleek and black, watches from the trees, waits for the bodies of the still-alive to signal their terminal breaths. At the right moment, the crow lifts from the trees into the air and lands lightly on the ground, delicately surveying the dead. It prods and carefully picks at bits of flesh, tearing and rending sinews and muscle. We think of the crow as the pronouncer of death, the omen of doom, but the crow does not know of the role we have thrust upon it, nor does it care. The crow simply survives. The crow steadies upon the chest of a soldier and gazes into a lifeless eye. Soon the wolf will come for remains. The crow picks at the eye, the flesh of it soft, fragile, in its beak, and pulls at the eye, stretching and breaking the tissue and muscle attached to the eye, finally removing it from the socket, blinding the dead in his journey through the afterlife.


What if, though it seems human arrogance to believe, the all-at-once mass deaths, the Rapture-like exit from this place, signals some sort of end, when plagues of locusts will fill the skies and humans blink into an eclipsing sun as the world crumbles around them? Surely, some religious folk (of whom I do not count myself) see this end in sight while scientists attempt to find causes and answers for the dead, for us. To either side, this means something, this mass death event, a symbol of some greater meaning we have yet to realize. The crow, however, will surely adapt with the end, with whichever of our manifestations of the Apocalypse occurs, and will find a way to carry on, fashioning tools out of bone, feasting, the eyes of the dead in their possession.


The Bible tells a different story of the blackening of the crow’s feathers. Following the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, the crow, at one time a bird with vibrant, multicolored feathers, takes to eating carrion and is paid for its sin with black feathers, the color and majesty stripped away. Some believe that, in the end, the crow will return to Paradise. The crow will once again display feathers of green and red and blue and yellow, singing harmoniously with its brothers and sisters in praise of God.

But the crow does not require redemption. The crow does not care about these things. As with the traits, the things that make the crow like us, is it that we find a need for redemption in the crow as a mirror of that need in ourselves? Barry Lopez, taking Joseph Campbell further, said that we create our gods and animals. What if, in one more step, our animals create us? The story of the crow as the tale of humankind.

In the end, the crow will join its brethren and they will rise into the sky, ever closer to the light of the sun, telling each other the story of the world.

More nonfiction at Used Furniture.


  1. Absolutely love this.

%d bloggers like this: